In his 73 years on this earth, James S. Jackson has established many goals. Right there at the top?
“Remove the word ‘can’t’ from my vocabulary,” he said.
A self-described community activist, Jackson says “I’ve always been an outspoken free spirit individual.”
Another trait: “I’ve always wanted to find out the whys.”
Searching out the “whys” has gotten him into a lot of trouble through the years, including being arrested 19 times, but never convicted, during the 1960s civil rights efforts that took place in St. Augustine. However, his passion for equality goes far beyond his home city.
“I don’t look locally. I look at it nationally,” he explained, adding he endeavors to “be politically correct in everything I do.”
The “unique thing about me,” Jackson pointed out during a recent chat is “that I never had a black instructor” in school until he entered high school.
His early years were spent at St. Benedict the Moor Catholic School, where he was taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph. Attending church and serving as an altar boy, he worshiped side by side with blacks and whites. But other churches in town, he noticed, were composed of either black or white congregations.
One of the first “whys” Jackson questioned involved 14-year-old Emmett Till, an African-American from Chicago, who, while visiting family in Mississippi, was brutally murdered for supposedly flirting with a white woman. That was in the 1950s.
By age 19, Jackson had entered the civil rights struggle in St. Augustine, and “early in my career,” he was abducted by the Klu Klux Klan — “myself and three others.” Brutally beaten, “we were nearly lynched,” he recounts and, although it was a harrowing experience, Jackson says he never lost his sense of humor. “I went through my initiation,” he points out with a sly smile, “but I never received my membership card. That’s what I’m upset about!”
Another point about the early 1960s, Jackson suggests, if it had not been for St. Augustine and its national and international coverage on a daily basis, President Lyndon B. Johnson would not have signed the Civil Rights Bill.
THERE ARE CHANGES
Since the 1960s, there have been changes, says Jackson — some good and some not so good. Relationships with law enforcement is one of the good things, he says. In the 1960s, one of the biggest antagonists was law enforcement, but “today they are there to protect me, and I really feel so grateful.”
As an example, he points to occasions when he stands at busy intersections with signs. On one such occasion, a law enforcement officer came up to him “and I thought he was going to harass me.” Instead, he brought Jackson water, “so I could stay hydrated.”
Among Jackson’s recent protests was an occasion last year when he stood at the corner of King Street and U.S. 1 holding up a sign reading “Black Lives Do Matter.” That was in reference to a young man who had been killed in an altercation with police in Minnesota. Since that event last year, Jackson said he’s changed the sign to “All Lives Matter.”
“He’s kind of like a catalyst to me,” observed James Allen, a young friend. Jackson has shared with Allen “information of civil rights and various things that have happened.
“He’s a wealth of information, not only with me, [but with everyone],” Allen said.
“I have known James Jackson for many years,” St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar wrote in an email. “He is very involved in our community and was a strong voice during the civil rights issues of the 1960s. James has always been involved in helping the youth in our county follow the best path and is always willing to stand up and be counted when the community needs him.”
On the minus side today, Jackson is of the opinion that black men in his country have regressed rather than progressed. The dropout rate in high school has increased, and the incarceration rate for blacks is on the increase. Black men in this country, he suggests, are the largest employer — if the number of black men in jail wasn’t so high, the United States wouldn’t need all the prisons and the personnel to staff the prisons.
GROWING UP IN ST. AUGUSTINE
During his school-age days, Jackson says he attempted to quit high school, but his mother, Ora Belle Jackson, and grandmother Nellie Barnes wouldn’t hear of it. Nor would Otis Mason, who served as superintendent of St. Johns County Schools. Jackson ended up graduating from Walter E. Harris High School in Hastings, earning, along with another classmate, the highest scores in the county for black schools. He then studied at Florida Memorial College in St. Augustine for a year and a half.
“He was a good guy,” Mason said. “He’s done well at whatever he chose to do.
Retired from ATT after 27 years, being hired when it was Southern Bell, Jackson was the company’s first outside black technician. Again, looking at the humorous side of his life, Jackson recounts a home he visited early in his career. The son of the homeowner, Jackson recalls, told his father: “‘Daddy, there’s a nigger out here.’
“‘No son,” Jackson heard the father reply. “‘That’s not a nigger. That’s the telephone repairman.’ And that made my day.”
Today, with “all the play toys,” including a boat and motorcycles, when he has time to enjoy them; Jackson zips around town in a bright red BMW convertible, continuing to fight for what he feels is right. His legacy, he hopes, is that he will be remembered as “an individual that fought for the downtrodden and was always willing to extend my hand to my fellow man — be he white, black, polka dot or green.”
Look around and see what needs to be done and do it, he says — do it not for financial gain or fame, but do it to enhance mankind. All one needs is a thank you. That carries “you a long way.”
His latest cause, he concludes, is rights restoration. There are 1.6 million who cannot vote because they are convicted felons. They served their time and that may have been 20, 30 and more years ago, and they still cannot vote, Jackson said, thus they “are still facing a lifetime sentence.”
His philosophy, Jackson concludes, is: “You live for today, hope for tomorrow and reminisce about yesterday. Don’t do something for the recognition.” Do it for the results, he says. “And that’s me!”