By Brent Dorian Carpenter
DETROIT – U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-Ill.) shares many attributes with his father, civil rights icon and two-time presidential candidate Jesse Jackson: the famous name, the fiery oratory and a commitment to public service. With the addition eight weeks ago of baby Jesse III, the family political dynasty may be set for a third generation. The five-term congressman from Illinois’ 2nd District sat down with BTL following his keynote address to the annual HRC Dinner in Detroit for a conversation about his choice for the Democratic presidential nomination, racism in the penal system, and the Constitutional connection between the historic civil rights struggle for African Americans and the current battle for equal rights for lesbians and gays.
BTL: Why is Howard Dean your candidate of choice?
JJJr: Well, number one, of all the candidates, he has the best infrastructure in place to beat George Bush, our number one priority. Number two; this question of Iraq, for which Governor Dean is much clearer on than any other Democratic candidate. By the time the general elections come around next year, a thousand Americans are going to be dead, and it’s important to have someone looking the president in his face when he tells him he was wrong in the three nationally televised presidential debates. I think that’s going to clearly identify for the electorate where the American people are versus where they are not.
The governor has reached out to African Americans, and his campaign is an inclusive campaign that is looking at states in the Union that Democrats have written off, particularly the Southern states. And if African Americans and working-class whites come together in the South, and they come together in the North, we can wrestle southern states away from the Republicans, which is key to having the electoral numbers necessary to take control of the White House. And clearly you can see the damage that George Bush can do, so stopping that damage is important.
BTL: Reverend Al Sharpton has said that any black leader that does not endorse him is a sellout. What do you have to say about that?
JJJr: Isn’t that ridiculous? That thirty-eight members of the Congressional Black Caucus, none of them support Rev. Al Sharpton, so they’re all “sellouts.” That no African American mayor of a major city, the mayor of Atlanta, the mayor of Denver, the mayor of Philadelphia, none of them have endorsed Rev. Sharpton, so because they haven’t, they’re sellouts. The reality is that African Americans have supported Bill Clinton, Al Gore, they support other people, so why is it when Rev. Sharpton is running, they’re sellouts, or “Uncle Toms”?
BTL: What role do you think he has in shaping the political landscape?
JJJr: He’s making an important contribution to the debates, and he’s raising some critical points that would not be raised if he were not in the race. But make no mistake about it, there is a difference between what Al Sharpton is doing in 2003 and what Jesse Jackson did in ’84 and ’88. Rev. Jackson raised $22 million dollars and he had offices in 30 states. He had slates of delegates all across the country. Rev. Sharpton’s name is not going to be on all the ballots. He’s not getting the signatures to get on the ballots. So you can’t raise the expectations of people to vote for you and then when they show up on election day, your name is not on the ballot. It’s not just about showing up at the debates, it’s about also putting the infrastructure together to win.
BTL: Former Gov. Ryan of your state, Illinois, imposed a moratorium on executions. Given the disproportionate number of black inmates on death row, what does his stance say about the state of our penal system?
JJJr: That it’s racially discriminatory. And Governor Dean has also made it clear he wants to launch a commission on the study of the death penalty because it’s racially discriminatory and administered in a way that executes more African Americans than any other group, and I support that. He’s for the Sentencing Commission’s recommendations, and I gather the governor [Dean] would probably support a federal moratorium if pushed on the question. Every candidate who’s running for president as a Democrat is in favor of the death penalty, including Carol Mosely-Braun, and she used to be a U.S. Attorney. The only one who’s not running on a death penalty platform is Al Sharpton. I respect that, but he’s not likely to be the President of the United States.
BTL: There is a disproportionate amount of homophobia in the black community, which has to do with the history of slavery and the present-day need for black men to project an image of absolute masculinity. Many blacks wish to disassociate the connection between gay rights and the civil rights movement that your father championed with Dr. King.
JJJr: Your analysis is true that homophobia runs rampant in the African American community, no doubt about that. What’s not true is that there is a large distinction between what gays and lesbians are doing in terms of civil rights and what African Americans have done. The real central point is that both of those movements grew out of the 14th Amendment [of the U.S. Constitution that guarantees equal protection]. There can be no civil rights movement of the ’60s without the 14th Amendment. There can be no gay and lesbian human rights movement today without the 14th Amendment. So what is it that made the 14th Amendment possible? Ending slavery. So the 14th Amendment grows out of the African American experience. And women have used the 14th Amendment, blacks have used the 14th Amendment…and all of us continue to use the 14th Amendment as the basis for expanding new rights. But the reality is that new rights only come from changing the Constitution itself. So we need a 28th Amendment. We know the right wing wants to have a “man and a woman” [Defense of Marriage] amendment on marriage, but what amendment is the HRC fighting for? There is no amendment agenda, except for the agenda I lay out in my book, “A More Perfect Union: Advancing New American Rights,” where I argue for eight new amendments; the right to vote, the right to education, the right to health care, the right to a clean environment, the right to a job, equality for women, and two others…
BTL: Your father ran twice for president, and carried the electoral delegates from, if I remember, 13 states in 1988.
JJJr: The Reverend had 1300 delegates and about seven-and-a-half million votes.
BTL: Talk about the Jackson legacy in American politics.
JJJr: It’s a legacy of service. My father is not a man of wealth or a man of great means. He’s just a man of a good name. And he’s given me a great name. I knew that I was going to be in some form of service. I did not know it was going to take the form of elective office, but I’ve tried to uphold that legacy and that name. So much so that I gave my eight-week old son the same name. I’m broke too, so that’s all I could give him. Work with it, son, work with it! (laughs)