Then-shadow Sen. Jesse Jackson, D-D.C., in 1995. (Photo by Maureen Keating/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Reverend Jesse Jackson has been marching for social justice for decades. In the 1960s, he fought Jim Crow in his home state of South Carolina before working alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was with King when he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968. After King’s assassination, Jackson formed Operation PUSH in his adopted hometown of Chicago to secure positions for Black people in previously exclusionary businesses and trade unions, helped to mediate millions of dollars in government contracts and product placement for Black entrepreneurs, and negotiated groundbreaking deals for diversity training and recruitment with major corporations, including General Motors and Burger King. He was a ubiquitous figure in American life, hosting Saturday Night Live and appearing on Sesame Street and 60 Minutes.

Jackson ran twice for the presidency, registered millions of new voters, and staked out pioneering positions on gay rights, health care, and education. He also successfully negotiated the release of hostages and political prisoners in Syria, Iraq, Serbia, Cuba, and other countries. A recipient of the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the French government awarded him with their highest honor of merit, the Legion of Honor. 

At 81, while fighting against Parkinson’s Disease, he remains sharp and determined. I spoke with him last month in the Chicago office of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the human rights, political advocacy, and philanthropic organization over which he presides.

DM: You have experience with hostage and political prisoner release negotiations. What is your response to Britney Griner’s return home and the domestic reaction to it?

JJ: Nonviolence is victorious. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement transformed America without firing one bullet. Nonviolence has succeeded in bringing her home, but her story has important offshoots. The demand and celebration for her release shows an embrace of her as a Black woman athlete, an embrace of her marriage, her lesbianism, and it shows an embrace of new thinking about cannabis and criminal justice. Sometimes the rock in the water isn’t the real point. It is the ripples. The ripples here show America turning into a better country. We also have to celebrate her conduct. She’s not bitter. She wants to help demand the release of Paul Whelan. It is a glorious story.

DM: You’ve met with despots and autocrats in Syria, Iraq, Cuba, and Serbia, and had success in convincing them to release prisoners. What would you say to Putin if you could meet with him?

JJ: I would tell him that war crimes and invasions will not work for him or his country in the modern world. Violence loses in the long run. Russia was once a land of hope for Black Americans. When we were being lynched in the U.S., W.E.B. DuBois went to Russia and saw it as a land of hope. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia became a symbol of the potential of democracy in a changing world. I would remind him of that history and point out how now Russia is a land of fear. Hope is more powerful than fear. Putin is worthy of condemnation, of course, but if I met with him, I would try to play to his ego – persuade him to issue a temporary ceasefire for Christmas. [Note: Putin issued one, but it seemed not to have been honored.] He’d be cheered, and during that period, momentum could build to stop the war, stop the killing. 

DM: How do you assess Biden’s presidency?

JJ: He has the right policies on the right issues, the absolute right position on women’s rights and abortion. The problem is that abortion is not put in the context of women’s struggles. We won in the South during the Civil Rights Movement because we turned our persecution into a national moral issue. The right wing has tried to turn abortion into a moral issue because it is the only moral issue they have. They’re against health care, gun control, humane immigration policy, the expansion of rights and liberties. So, they try with abortion. But the same people trying to make abortion into a moral rallying cry are against the women’s struggle. They are against equal pay. They are against health care for poor women, even neonatal care. And they place the entire responsibility of the pregnancy on women. I don’t hear them recommending men get vasectomies. I realize that I’m a little off your question, but my point is that Biden is right on the issues, and he’s doing well on those issues, but he could take the fight more directly to the right wing.

DM: What role do you think Vice President Kamala Harris could play? What do you make of how she is used or misused by the White House?

JJ: She’s an extraordinary woman. To have a Black and Asian woman as vice president is a big deal. She is underused, though. When [Florida Governor Ron] DeSantis dropped migrants off at her home, she should have met with them—put a humane face to contrast DeSantis’ lack of humanity. She could have gone to Martha’s Vineyard to meet with the migrants there.

DM: What is your analysis of where the right-wing threat to democracy stands?

JJ: It is a real threat. They not only want to undermine the democratic process and voting rights, but they want everyone armed. You can’t have democracy function under the threat of violence. Living under the threat of mass murder sabotages democratic potential. We need to have a full-court press involving students across the country for safer and saner gun laws. I’ve said that whenever a student graduates high school, he or she should walk across the stage with a diploma in one hand and voter registration in another. In the short term, the Biden administration and the January 6 Committee are doing the right thing by exposing [Donald] Trump and his underlings—showing the American people the nature of their crimes. I believe [Merrick] Garland will indict Trump and that he is smart to go about it in a quiet and deliberate way. A hot-shot Attorney General holding press conferences every week would play into the right-wing media’s hands.

DM: On the subject of democracy, you led and participated in movements for the full activation of American democracy with organizations. Before founding Operation PUSH, which became the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, you worked alongside Martin Luther King in SCLC. You worked with CORE. You worked with the NAACP. Do you believe that the U.S. needs more traditional and conventional organizations and more enlistment among voters in those organizations?

JJ: Yes, particularly at the local level in Congressional districts. We need more people to raise issues from the bottom up in Congressional districts, register voters, and change the face of those districts. Look at Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight in Georgia, Black Voters Matter in Georgia, and PUSH in Georgia. We have an office in Atlanta. All of these organizations are a big reason why [Joe] Biden, [Raphael] Warnock, and [Jon] Ossoff have won in that state. Organized efforts can do the same in other states. There are hundreds of thousands of Blacks who are not registered to vote in Texas, hundreds of thousands of Latinos. Arkansas is between 15 and 20 percent Black but doesn’t have one Black member of Congress. With persistence and discipline, there are opportunities to replicate what happened in Georgia. In states like Alabama, North Carolina, and South Carolina, Democrats would win more Congressional seats if not for gerrymandering. The Democratic Party and the Biden administration should put this issue more up front. The Department of Justice should file more lawsuits to demand fair representation. 

DM: What are your thoughts on Senator Warnock?

JJ: He is a rightful heir to Dr. King’s movement and message. He was the minister of Dr. King’s church. He understands movement politics. He is compassionate. He has a doctorate, and his opponent couldn’t form sentences. [Herschel] Walker was there to humiliate Blacks. The Republicans would have had a much better chance of winning if they had put up a respectable candidate, but they were blinded by their rage and hatred. They chose to humiliate us.

DM: In addition to voting rights and registration, what else should become the focus of PUSH and similar groups?

JJ: Gun violence and student debt. These are the issues on young people’s minds. What PUSH plans to do next year is launching a full-scale campaign against weapons of war on American streets. The assault rifles are so dangerous that, as we saw in Uvalde, the police are even afraid to go against them. Young people don’t want to live like this. They also don’t want the albatross of student debt around their necks. We plan to organize marches on college campuses to demand student debt forgiveness and lower tuition. This also makes voter registration important, though. If young people registered in large numbers, it would change the character of politics. Politicians would have to speak to their issues. 

DM: How do you combat the cynicism that is often prevalent among young people? Many believe that voting doesn’t make much of a difference.

JJ: I remind them that only voters can serve on juries. If they want to change criminal justice, they have to register. I remind them that the civil rights revolution—for Blacks, women, the disabled, gays—came through nonviolence, democratic participation, and voting. We take much of our progress for granted. When I was with Dr. King, we confronted a hostile government in almost every city we visited. In 2020, during the Black Lives Matter protests, there was a Black woman mayor in Atlanta, a Black woman mayor in Washington, D.C., a Black woman mayor in Chicago, and a Jewish progressive in Minneapolis. Dr. King had to fight against unfriendly media. Now, there are people like Don Lemon, Ari Melber, and Rachel Maddow on television. Academia looked down on the movement. Now, Harvard has a Black woman president. There are scholars at every major university who study the movement. We changed the country, and we can continue. 

David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of several books, including I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters and a forthcoming examination of the politics of exurbia and suburbia. He has also written for The New Republic, The Progressive, and many other publications. He lives in Indiana.