A little over three weeks ago I received a phone call ‘out of the blue’ from Paul O’Connor, of the Pat Finucane Centre, inviting me to conduct an interview – “a conversation” in fact – with the celebrated American civil rights leader, the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Paul’s tone was mixed - part-pleading, part-apologetic: the event would be free to the public and there would be no fee for ‘hosting’ the interview.
He needn’t have worried. I would have crawled over hot coals for a chance to get up close to the man. For half a century Jesse Jackson had been close to or involved in some of the key events in modern history. He became one of the iconic figures of the struggle for civil rights; he had two attempts at winning the US presidency, helping to change American politics in the process; he was in Memphis with Dr Martin Luther King the day the Nobel Peace Laureate was murdered. Jesse Jackson is history and I wasn’t going to miss the chance to talk to such a central figure.
On a personal level I had already been an admirer of Jackson’s oratorical flair. He has used his preaching talents to electrify Democratic conventions, prompting one of his most trenchant opponents - the late President Richard Nixon - to concede grudgingly that Jackson was “the only poet in American politics today”.
The Southern Baptist minister’s impassioned rhetoric was undoubtedly an asset to a party desperate to appeal to America’s vast TV audience, and the networks knew that the Reverend – in full flow – was big ‘box office’. The distinguished news anchorman, Dan Rather, welcomed viewers to CBS’s 1984 convention coverage with a remarkable build-up: “We don’t often say this, but it’s time to get the children in, time to get the grandmother in. The anticipation here, at least in this hall, is that Jesse Jackson’s address – whatever you think of him, rightly or wrongly, whether you like him or not like him – may be one for the history books.” As usual, the preacher didn’t disappoint.
Nor did he disappoint the hundreds – children and grandmothers among them - who turned up at Derry’s Guildhall five days ago with that same sense of anticipation. The main hall upstairs was airier than the sweaty, southern churches Jackson is used to filling; but - three thousand miles from home - he proved he could still draw a crowd, and he showed us he could still work a room.
He didn’t have a pulpit, of course, but neither did he need one. Tall, strikingly handsome, powerfully-built, much younger looking than his 69 years, the preacher-politician settled easily into one of the two cosy, leather armchairs arranged on the stage and held forth. In a soft, southern drawl, which forced you to listen hard, he recalled his earliest days, in Greenville, South Carolina, where he was born to a poor, teenage single-mother and made to go to a ‘coloured’ school on the other side of town. He shared with us the ugliness of racial discrimination, and how it stirred him into activism (this was a time when black people were made to sit at the back of buses and forbidden to drink from the same water fountains as whites).
A biblical thread ran through his remarks as he discoursed on everything from civil rights protests 50 years earlier in Selma, Alabama, to the immediate fear of war in Libya; from the current struggle for workers’ rights in Wisconsin to the need for peaceful co-existence here.
Given his leftist credentials, the bankers who profited while the global economy went into melt-down took a predictable ‘hit’; less foreseeable was the Reverend Jackson’s insistence that it was in the mutual interest of business leaders and workers that they, too, co-existed peacefully, treating each other with dignity and respect.
As we stare down the barrel of another series of polls here, the Reverend Jackson left us with one clear message – the importance of your vote. The oratory which attracted TV viewers in their millions was used, too, to galvanize millions of blacks, Hispanics and poor whites, encouraging them to register to vote for the first time in their lives. His persuasiveness didn’t quite propel Jackson into the White House – the prize he coveted - but it made him a politician of global stature and laid the foundations for Barack Obama’s accession to the Presidency two years ago.
The importance of voting was a lesson Jesse Jackson learned the hard way, two generations ago; it was a lesson learned too by many of the local civil rights campaigners – veterans from the late sixties – who gathered in the Guildhall. It’s a lesson worth repeating to those too young to remember, or those too apathetic to care.
As Jesse Jackson eventually struggled out of the Guildhall, through the throng of enthusiastic well-wishers looking to shake his hand, have a photo taken with him or give him gifts, he maintained his cool and oozed charm. He’d made a huge impression on the diverse audience who’d heard him and it was uplifting to meet a political hero who lived up to expectations.
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