Jesse Jackson: the Mother Jones Interview

A populist on Wall Street? The former candidate addresses the apparent contradictions of his latest project.

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It’s 8 o’clock on a saturday morning in early january on the South Side of Chicago, and Jesse Jackson is working the phones at the headquarters for the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. He finishes lining up the country’s top financiers and political leaders, including President Clinton, for a gathering next week in New York; confers with lawyers about the case of six students expelled after a brawl in Decatur, Illinois; prepares for more interviews about his new book, a self-help financial management guide entitled It’s About the Money!

At nine, Jackson heads for a meeting room upstairs, where he addresses more than 100 local business owners who are hammering out their position on the breaking scandal in Chicago’s municipal contracting system. At 10, he presides over an open mass meeting of 300 in the auditorium. In the hall filled with polished wooden pews, lit through majestic stained-glass windows, and studded with Corinthian columns, Jackson unleashes his distinctive blend of religious fervor and self-help bromides, ending in a brow-mopping series of invocations.

“Life has its dimensions in the mysterious,” he shouts. “You need faith! If you don’t know what tomorrow holds, you need to know who holds tomorrow! Don’t turn on each other, turn to each other!” He backs away from the podium, mopping his brow. “Believe!”

In competitive runs for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988, Jackson harnessed his unique brand of Pentecostal populism to become the first African American taken seriously as a contender for the presidency. He won seven million votes in 1988 as a progressive alternative to the nominee who bested him, Michael Dukakis. Since then, Jackson has stayed active — sometimes in ways that have troubled former supporters.

Much of Jackson’s energy these days turns on his Wall Street Project, launched three years ago to “open up access to capital for women and minorities.” The effort has also opened up access for the project itself, which counts Bell Atlantic, GTE, and the New York Stock Exchange as its biggest corporate sponsors. Among other efforts, the project joined with the Security Industry Association to distribute the Stock Market Game, a board game that teaches kids about investing, to public schools across the country.

The approach has caused whiplash among followers who consider Jackson their anti-corporate tribune. Some progressives also accuse him of being largely absent from the debate over Clinton’s dismantling of welfare.

Jackson narrows his eyes, as he does when he’s asked a question he doesn’t like, his forehead rippling with disbelief. “I was right there, marching outside of the White House on the day the welfare bill passed,” he says, leaning forward, his eyes flashing. “Pressure from the outside, influence on the inside. That’s always been the strategy.”

During the presidential campaign of 1988, you said you were “enhancing black and progressive politics.” Why did you decide not to continue your efforts to enhance those politics through a candidacy?

At the time, I was thinking: What was the coalition that could stop the Reagan-Bush legacy? Even at the low moments, I’m glad that we defeated the Reagan-Bush lineage. Eight years later, we have gone from debt to surplus, more people are working, we have unprecedented economic growth, and while the wealth is not as evenly spread as it ought to be, more people have benefited.

Was it a difficult decision to stay out of the race in ’92, ’96, and again in 2000?

No, because I remain active. I didn’t sit idly by, rolling my thumbs. We kept registering voters, we kept winning campaigns. There were coattails. In many ways Clinton inherited much of what we had done.

More than that, we raised the issue in 1984 of the U.S. connection to South Africa being a moral disgrace. Neither party would touch Mandela or South Africa then. Now he’s a global hero. We said that the Kissinger Middle East policy was wrong. We said we ought to have a let’s-talk policy, not a no-talk policy. And so, when they had the ceremony in the Rose Garden, that was the fulfillment of much of our mission.

In an essay you wrote for Mother Jones in 1988, you argued that the Democratic Party would have to “expand, making room for the disaffected and disenfranchised.” Why didn’t that happen?

Some of the folks who were disenfranchised at that time are now running the government. Minyon Moore, a secretary at PUSH, she’s now political director at the White House. Ron Brown, convention manager, became secretary of commerce. Alexis Herman, floor director at the convention, had a small consulting firm. She’s now secretary of labor. Donna Brazile, who’s managing Gore’s campaign, was a field organizer in my campaign. A whole generation of people came up in those efforts.

But what about the “poor and near poor” who were the focus of your campaigns?

The struggle continues, because for all the growth, it’s been too vertical. We must share the growth, share the wealth, and share the prosperity. It can be very hot at the top and very cold at the bottom.

Has any candidate addressed the issues that matter to the seven million people who voted for you in 1988?

Hmm. Not necessarily.

Where will they go, then, in the 2000 campaign?

Many of them are now showing a great disinterest because they are being taken for granted. Gore and Bradley are sparring, but so far they have not hit a spark. For 1,500 Americans dying each day of cancer — they have not heard good news yet. Two million Americans in the jail-industrial complex, those who go to unwired schools … they have not heard good news.

How would you counsel your supporters from 1984 and 1988 as they weigh their political choices in 2000?

First thing, they must remain active and hopeful, not inactive and cynical. There is no power in cynicism. There is no forward thrust in cynicism. They shouldn’t just look at the candidates at the top. There’s a whole range of positions open — local alderpeople, local school boards, judges, mayors, the entire Congress this year, as well as the presidential contest.

What about Al Gore and Bill Bradley?

Both are very decent guys, very smart. Both of them are trying to put one eye on the progressives and one eye on the general election. Even while they tiptoe through those tulips, the pressure for change must keep coming from the bottom up. It’s our job to make sure they don’t succumb to temptations and fail to address the concerns of those who are working hard without job security, without health care. These issues cannot be reduced to just black and white. Most poor people are white, female, or brown.

Let’s say to Gore and Bradley, “We’ll support whoever has the best plan for affordable housing for every American, the best plan to wire every American school, the best plan to commit the resources to find the cure to cancer, the best plan to address the balance of the needs of our schools, the best plan for healing the races.” The basic human rights agenda should remain the point of the debate.

In the 1980 campaign, you talked a lot about economic violence and warned of what you called “the corporate barracuda.” You don’t use that kind of language any more. Has work in the Wall Street Project made you less wary of corporate power?

No. What I’ve sought to do is direct some of their energy and emphasis toward expanding economic opportunity. We are trying to create a new synergy between the corporate leadership and underdeveloped areas.

What has been accomplished so far?

Oh, boy. Changing the climate, piercing the veil, opening up access to capital. For example, last year AT&T determined that in an $8 billion offering, a minority would get the deal and one did. That begins to open up opportunities. Then Pepsico did something similar. Then GTE sold telephone lines through an African American businessman for the first time.

We also saved the Community Reinvestment Act from Senator Phil Gramm. Under the act, banks must reinvest in the community. Ten major banks put up a trillion dollars for the next few years for CRA.

The administration’s New Market Initiative, which guarantees loans for areas underserved by banks — that came out of our Wall Street Project. There’s not enough money in it. And we’ve got to fight to get more. But what you do with the president is you use him to put light in dark places, light where it should go.

Critics and some supporters call the Wall Street Project “trickle-down economics.”

When you create more small businesses, you create small entrepreneurship. Out of that comes self-determination and employment. Some of our allies think that there’s gonna be some rainfall of government largesse dropped on us in one swell social swoop, lift us out of our situation. But I don’t think so.

Take Chicago, the inner city. More blacks work for each other than for any big industry. You add the employees of the barber shops and the beauty shops and the churches and the restaurants and the food franchises and the car dealerships — these jobs count, and they’re building a quality of employment and ownership that lends itself to strengthening people or empowering people. That works bottom up.

In a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, George Packer wrote that the Wall Street Project is really rooted in a difference that emerged between you and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. “While King was moving toward democratic socialism,” he writes, “Jackson was moving toward black capitalism.”

Well, Operation Breadbasket demanded, “Don’t buy where you can’t work.” Demanded that businesses patronized by blacks or Hispanics should also make loans available for lawyers and ad agencies and employment and vendors and construction. That was Dr. King’s program. There was a private-sector role and a public-sector role.

One former associate of yours says that the toughest problems you’ve addressed in the past — of crime, drugs, and unemployability — can’t be changed by this approach.

Look, urban America has been redlined. Government has not offered tax incentives for investment, as it has in a dozen foreign markets. Banks have redlined it. Industries have moved out, they’ve redlined it. Clearly, to break up the redlining process, there must be incentives to green-line with hedges against risk. When you place a car dealership or a drugstore or a movie house in these areas, you raise the tax base for the school — that enhances the quality of life. We’ve been so preoccupied with getting the government to behave in a fair and democratic way, we were not able to focus on the private sector where most of the jobs are, where most of the wealth and opportunities are.

How do the challenges of your current project compare to your efforts in politics?

It’s interesting. On the political front, of course it’s a zero-sum game. If it’s all white males holding positions, you bring 10 women in, then it’s, “Women are coming!” Get 10 blacks and it’s, “Blacks are coming!” “Hispanics are coming!” Zero-sum game. The seatmates might change, but the chairs don’t move. In the economy, the number of chairs can actually increase.

On the political front, you have lost allies in the last decade because of a belief that you threw away political capital on your sometimes turbulent relationship with the Clintons.

Examine the facts. I think having access to African-policy discussions has been a significant thing. In 1996 we fought their welfare proposal because there was no transportation, childcare, or job training. We fought the crime bill because we knew the critical element was building more jails. We’ve applied inside and outside pressure.

What’s the story behind the book you wrote with your son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., It’s About the Money?

Inner-city people spend $5 billion a year. Yet it’s kind of a debt culture — credit card debt in a Lotto culture. If you come from that culture, you must move from earning, spending, and splurging to earning, saving, investing, and leveraging.

Many kids come out of college, they have a credit card and a diploma. They don’t know how to buy a house or a car or health insurance or life insurance. They do not know basic microeconomics.

Some people will be astonished to see a former progressive presidential contender publishing a how-to guide on accumulating wealth. Isn’t there a contradiction between your role as a religious and social-movement leader and this call for the individual accumulation of wealth?

Dr. King would say we can be materialistic minded without being mindlessly materialistic. God did not send the children of Israel into the desert without supplies. There’s nothing holy and righteous about being without resources to survive. Frederick Douglass raised the question by saying, “We are free, but free to starve, free to be ignorant.”

I fail to understand why we should have any reluctance to have a resource base as one of the fruits of our freedom struggle. It costs to send children to college. It costs to have health insurance. It costs to have a house of your choice. It costs to travel.

Is this kind of approach likely to help poor people as well as middle-class entrepreneurs? Even your co-author and son, Rep. Jackson, has criticized the results of the Wall Street Project. “It looks like we’re helping too few people,” he’s said.

Every one you help counts. I see women, Hispanics, and blacks who are qualified to manage money without the opportunity. I see qualified women and people of color who cannot get money to invest in underserved areas.

What’s the next step?

On Wall Street in New York, South Street in Chicago, Silicon Valley in California, all these dynamic economic forces must be put into the mix of our vision of public policy. We’ll use a combination of consumer leverage, government regulation, and enlightenment. We’ve bought stock in corporations. On a disciplined basis, we’ve been taking the lead. We’ll ask questions about who are members of our board, who are our customers and employees, who are our bankers, who manages our money, and where is our money invested? Are they redlining?

My pitch to corporate America is: “You either are going to green-line redlined America and grow and profit. Or you’re going to pay not to grow. What do you choose?” They will choose to grow.


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Straight to the point: Donations have been concerningly slow for our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, over the next few weeks so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

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