The Rev. Jesse Jackson talks about growing up in a segregated Greenville and the significance of the Civil Rights movement.
The year 1968 has gone down in American history as one of the most tumultuous and consequential of the 20th century, with the Civil Rights Movement reaching a violent climax amid a season of discontent on multiple fronts.
The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on April 4, and the riots that broke out in numerous cities across the country in the days that followed, were central to the epic story of that year. A few weeks earlier in South Carolina, state troopers had killed three and wounded 27, mostly college students, in a melee that came to be known as the Orangeburg Massacre.
To mark the 50th anniversary of that pivotal time, The Greenville News embarked on an oral history project, chronicling the roles that several key civil rights activists from Greenville played.
We offer their memories as a lasting testament to the courage and fortitude of a generation that led America out of segregation and toward racial equality – a struggle that continues even today.
No Greenville native’s name looms larger in the history of the Civil Rights Movement than that of the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Although he left his hometown soon after graduating from Sterling High School, he returned to lead a protest that led to the desegregation of Greenville’s previously all-white library.
He went on to catch the eye of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who made him a member of his inner circle. He was there at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis when King was cut down by an assassin’s bullet.
Jackson went on to become one of the leaders in the movement after that, culminating in two runs for the Democratic nomination for the presidency.
Beyond the struggle for equal rights for African Americans, Jackson became an international figure whose renowned negotiating skills came into play in numerous hotspots around the world.
But it all started here in Greenville, on Haynie Street, where Jackson first became aware of the inequality between the races and decided that he must do something about it.
Here are some excerpts from our interview with him.
When did you first realize that blacks were being treated unfairly in relation to whites?
“The first consciousness I had of racial segregation as a child was (when I started school).
“I was excited because we would walk down University Ridge and up Cleveland Street, there was a school in front of us. That school was a red brick schoolhouse. It had tulips and roses and a merry-go-round and sliding board. I looked forward to going to that school. But the morning I stepped out of our house, and my mama holding my hand, I put my foot in that direction, I had to turn toward Southern Street School. ‘You can’t go to that one (on Cleveland Street) because that’s for the white people.
“There was no grass in the yard, no tulips, no roses, no swings, no merry-go-rounds, no sliding boards. We had to go double shifts because it was overcrowded.
“So that was my first acquaintance with it, my mother trying to explain to me in some measure.”
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When did you know you wanted to do something about that?
“When I was in high school we began to somewhat rebel against the limits.
“I came home from college in 1959 and Jackie Robinson had just spoken at the state NAACP meeting at Springfield (Baptist Church).
“That Christmas I came home … from Illinois. I was so excited to be home to be with my friends again.
“I went to the McBee Avenue (black) Library. I needed some books; the librarian said they would get them for me from the white library.
“They said would they get books for me in six days; I had to leave in seven days.
“I cried. I went in the back and I cried.
“That summer… a number of us met at Springfield and we went to the (whites-only) library. We were arrested. We were booked down here on Broad Street.
“I lost fear of jails and death that day, like I broke out of the box, and I never went back.”
How did you meet Dr. Martin Luther King?
“I was on national TV trying to get in a restaurant in Greensboro. Dr. King saw it on TV.
“I went to Atlanta to speak at Morehouse; he was there.
“I saw him. I just froze. And he said, ‘Hello, Jesse.’ It shook me. It shook me up. He recognized my name, my face. Because he was wondering what was happening in Greensboro.
“The next year, I went to grad school at the University of Chicago, Chicago Theological Seminary.
“And that first Sunday in March, with the meeting on the bridge (in Selma, Alabama,) he called for students to come and meet him. I left school and took three carloads of classmates and went down there. And I met with him and started working for him in ’65 and worked with him until he was killed in ’68.”
What was it like marching with King in Alabama?
“There was a certain adrenaline flow. We finally had the courage to fight back standing up. We put dignity in jail. We took the fear out of jail. That was a big deal…sing in jail as Paul and Silas did.
“The trauma of friends being killed and some being otherwise injured began to hit you in a very personal way.
“We became soldiers of a domestic war. And we pulled barriers down. We were winning, we were building confidence.
“Ironically, the movement went North. We taught them in New York and Chicago and L.A. how to fight. They were relatively free, but our confidence from struggling here gave us a quality of leadership skills that was different than even those up North, who I think had a false sense of freedom at that time.”
What do you remember about the day when MLK was assassinated?
“He was being attacked. He felt depressed. He said, ‘Sometimes I feel like I should just quit. Maybe I’ve done as much as I can do in 13 years. Won Montgomery, won Birmingham, we won Selma.’ Some started trying to talk him out of it.
“He said, ‘Let me finish. Don’t say peace, peace when there is no peace.’ Everybody was real quiet. ‘Maybe I should fast to the point of death because our movement is inviolate now. We don’t have the unity that we need.
“’Our tactics are different but our motives are the same. You can come to my bedside. We can hold hands. Maybe we can revive’.
“Then he said, ‘We’re going to Memphis and turn a minus into a plus. We’re going to Memphis…then to Washington, tie up traffic, maybe go to jail en masse; force the Congress to go from the war on Vietnam to the war on poverty. Stop killing and start healing at home.’ He’s thinking, talking it out.
“The day before we got there… he said, ‘I have a headache; I don’t have it.’
“He said, Ralph (Abernathy) go with him (Jackson, to speak at a church).’
“We said, ‘You’ve got to come, let them see your face.’
“Ralph said, I’ll speak. You just come to the rally.’
“He had a headache still.
“And he spoke the mountaintop speech that night. He was preaching out of his own pain and frustration.”
(At the motel the next day King had just asked the musicians to play favorite song that day, “Precious Lord.”)
“Pow! the bullet hit him right here. It blew his heart out.
“Dr. Abernathy said, ‘Back up this is my friend, my friend. Martin, you can’t leave us, you can’t leave us, you can’t leave us now.’ But he was already dead.
“My room was next to his room. I went and called Mrs. King. And said, ‘Mrs. King.’ She was in the bedroom. She said, ‘Yes, Jesse.’ I said doc has been shot, I think in the shoulder, but you should come over as quick as you can.
“I couldn’t say what I saw. I just couldn’t get it out. I guess maybe in 5 or 10 minutes she got a call from the wire service saying he was dead. That was the beginning of a whole new dimension of our struggle. From the balcony in Memphis to the balcony of the White House 40 years later, 40 years in the wilderness. We came out of the wilderness in the White House (at President Obama’s election.”)
How do you want people to remember you?
“I cared. I never stopped caring.
“I care deeply for people. I care deeply for racial reconciliation. I think people who learned to survive apart must now learn to live together.
“I care deeply about fighting poverty, helping those whose backs are against the wall.
“And whether you’re a coal miner or a cotton picker, we’re all God’s children. That’s when religion kicks in.
“So I want to be remembered as a soldier in that struggle to make America better and the world more secure.”
What do you think about the current state of civil rights in America?
“We’re under attack. We’ve never known a president to be as blatant, as bold in racial pejorative language before. We’ve never known that before, in playing to the fears and ignorance of people.
“Even though we face a chilly wind of real meanness, as a body of American people, white and black and brown, we are going forward.
“It’s about how you treat poor and defenseless people. That’s what the fight’s about. We’ll win that fight as well.”
What needs to happen?
“Leadership is a big factor. There was a time when people were ashamed of being openly racist. Some of that spirit has been revived again.
“Most poor people are not black. They’re white, they’re female and they’re young. Whether you’re white black or brown, hunger hurts. Whether you’re in mountainous Appalachia or rural South Carolina, if you’re working and not getting paid because you’re doing day labor, can’t get a decent job, you need help.
“We’ve not come to grips with that; we’re a post-slavery society.
“To know where we’ve come from will make us better as a people, I think, all of us.
“Banks loan money to people they know and trust and like. If they don’t like you, they don’t lend to you. Whites can get on ideas what blacks cannot get on collateral. Banking rules and segregation in lending practices is a big factor in growth.”
How is your health?
“Much better. Parkinson’s is an incurable brain disorder that affects movement.
“If I maintain my medical regimen and my physical regimen and my prayer and faith regimen, I’ll be alright. I’ll keep working. So I feel pretty good.”
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