This is the second in a two-part series of Michael Bendetson’s interview with Reverend Jesse Jackson. The first installment, which ran in yesterday’s paper, focused on Jackson’s work in the civil rights movement, his presidential campaigns and the election of President Barack Obama. Today’s installation will focus on Jackson’s views on key political issues such as abortion and relations between the United States and Israel.
Michael Bendetson: Despite the fact that America has elected its first black president, the racial divide is still fairly prevalent. African-Americans continue to fall behind the white population in statistics concerning income, higher education and life expectancy. In your opinion, what must be done by both the black community and the government to dissolve this divide?
Jesse Jackson: Well first, there is structural inequality that must be targeted in preparation to close the [racial] gap. The War on Poverty began to close that gap, and Johnson’s Great Society in general began to close that gap. Dr. [Martin Luther] King delighted in Johnson’s victory over [1964 presidential candidate former Senator Barry] Goldwater. He delighted in Johnson’s domestic policies. However when the budget shifted from the War on Poverty at home to the war in Vietnam, he said, [“The bombs in Vietnam explode at home.”] He felt that America had abandoned its cities and as a result those cities suffered immensely. That is why, today for example, we [the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition] are focusing on urging the president and the Congress to pass an economic stimulus package to help those in need, such as college students.
MB: Over the years you have remained quite consistent in your positions on key issues. However, on the question of abortion, you have altered your original stance. In the late 1970s, you stated, “There are those who argue that the right to privacy is of [a] higher order than the right to life … that was the premise of slavery.” But by the end of the 1980s, you claimed that abortion was the “fight for the right to self-determination.” Why the shift in policy position?
JJ: Maturity. I had gained a greater appreciation of hearing the concerns of women, doctors and so many others. Ultimately, it is the right of self-determination. Most women choose to have their babies, especially when the medical conditions are right and the parent has the economic opportunity to have the child. We know that when economic opportunities exist, the rate of abortions goes down. In tough economic times, desperate people do desperate things, and the abortion rate goes up. I did not so much change as I did grow. People always grow and mature. I would like to think that today, more and more women are making the choice for life, but it is ultimately their choice.
MB: Throughout your political career, you have been a major advocate for voter mobilization. During your 1984 campaign, you delivered the now-famous “David and Goliath” speech. The speech clearly articulated the importance of participating in the political process. Despite the significance of the 2008 election, just over 60 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. What else needs to be done to increase voter turnout?
JJ: It is crucial to have inspiring leaders who deliver on their promises. Cynicism has run deep because many people think their vote does not matter, or [they] do vote and nothing happens. This time, the fact that they won will in the future inspire more people to vote. One of the major factors this year in the increase in turnout was in many areas you had on-site same-day registration [during early elections] and voters had the option to vote over a period of 30 days [before the election occurred]. The three most important factors that increased voter turnout in this past election and will continue to do so in the elections are same-day registration, many days to vote and inspiring candidates.
MB: Rev. Jackson, you have long been a critic of both Israeli policy and the American policy of unwavering support for Israel. Considering Israel is a very loyal democratic ally to the United States in a region that is fairly anti-Western, what are your objections to the current relationship between the two countries?
JJ: Let me begin by saying that in 1984 and in 1988, I advocated for a two-state solution, but then I was attacked. That has now become the mainstream position. There should be a two-state solution where they [Israelis and Palestinians] coexist and not co-annihilate. [Former Secretary of State] Kissinger had a no-talk policy. No talk led to no contact and thus no diplomacy. You cannot have a diplomatic offensive without talking. Over time, that policy has indeed changed. That is a major step in the right direction. I think that under the present circumstances, only the U.S. can play the role of the broker. The U.S. must be the honest broker between the Israelis and the Palestinians. America needs to be to both of them what neither could be to the other: a trusted brokering partner. It is in their interest and our interest for America to play that role. [President Bill] Clinton moved us in that direction; [President George W.] Bush stepped away until, for the most part, the last year [of his presidency], which was not in our interest or their interests. I think Hamas should be challenged to consider really embracing Gandhi and Dr. King’s philosophy of advocating nonviolence as a way to achieve self-determination, end occupation, achieve unity within their country and gain allies within Israel. I think this idea of an eye for an eye, a rocket for a bomb, will never bring about peace for either side.
MB: In your opinion, what are the main problems and issues that President Obama should aim to tackle in his first hundred days in the White House?
JJ: I think his lure on issues like stopping torture encloses a strong base and becomes a symbol for his presidency beginning in the right direction. Unlike Bush and [former Secretary of the Treasury Henry] Paulson, I hope that President Obama fights for the [economic] stimulus that helps all Americans, especially the poor and middle-class. Major attention should also be given to the future of student loans. These loans grow and stabilize the educated population. The bottom line is students should have lower interest rates and more grants. It does not stand to give banks millions of dollars at an interest rate of 1 percent when banks charge students an interest rate of 6 percent. Why should the banks be scalping students? In addition to students paying less, they should get the same federal rate as the banks. We should go out of our way to get our students through college.
Michael Bendetson is a freshman who has not yet declared a major.