Ninety minutes into his appearance at Zoellner Arts Center’s Baker Hall Monday night, the Rev. Jesse Jackson was asked a simple, straightforward question that elicited both his funniest and most poignant responses of the evening.
During the audience question and answer session, Opeyemi Akinbamidele, a senior journalism major, asked Jackson: “What is your greatest achievement and why?”
Jackson, who recently celebrated his 70th birthday, slumped theatrically in his chair on stage and deadpanned, “Surviving!”—drawing guffaws and enthusiastic applause.
But a hush quickly fell over the packed performing arts center, as Jackson recounted an incident from his childhood in Greenville, S.C., that influenced the course of his life. It is a journey that took him from an African American teenager jailed for attempting to use the local whites-only public library, to an aide to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to a leading civil rights activist in his own right, to two groundbreaking campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination, to receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the nation’s highest civilian honor.
It all started with his parents, Jackson said. He recalled one Sunday after church, when his father—a World War II vet with a third-grade education who worked three jobs for a janitorial company—took young Jesse and his brother to a bank that he cleaned to show them how to use the buffing machine to clean the floor. Before starting, he proudly told his sons that he had earned the ring of keys on his belt by proving his honesty and work ethic to his employer.
As his dad started buffing the floor, the owner of the janitorial company came in, accompanied by two friends. “You could tell he was a little tipsy,” Jackson recalled. “He said, ‘Hey Charlie, come here’—in that tone. And daddy kept buffing. I must have been 7. Showing off for his friends, (the owner) said, ‘Charlie, come here.’ Daddy kept buffing.
“Then he said, ‘Charlie, I’m going to come over there and kick you.’ … Daddy stopped, and … took all those keys off, walked over to him, and said, ‘I cannot stop you from kicking me. You know my wife is sick. You know I have three jobs working for you. I can’t stop you from kicking me. But you can’t take the leg back that you do the kicking with. So rather than get in trouble, you take these keys, I’m leaving here.’
“That’s where I learned my politics from—a sense of non-negotiable dignity,” Jackson said. “Some things are worth sacrificing for ... Dignity must not be short-changed for the shortcut.”
‘Turn up the heat!’
His appearance at Zoellner, billed as “A Conversation with Rev. Jesse Jackson,” capped a whirlwind day at Lehigh University for the civil rights leader and founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. He met with Lehigh athletics coaches and student-athletes in the morning, had lunch with a group of students in the University Center, visited Tanji Gilliam’s Graphic Good classroom in the afternoon, met with the local media in Maginnes Hall, and greeted a group of about 45 fifth-graders from Donegan Elementary School’s leadership organization—all before his sold-out, public talk.
The main event, “A Conversation with Rev. Jesse Jackson,” took place on a living room set on stage in Baker Hall, with Jackson in an overstuffed chair and James Peterson, director of Africana Studies, and the Rev. Grace Ji-Sun Kim of Moravian College and Seminary seated beside him, taking turns asking questions.
Noting the Pennsylvania setting, Jackson harkened back to the battle of Gettysburg, saying the battle continues today between those who believe in state’s rights and those who, in Lincoln’s words, strive to create “a more perfect union.”
From voting rights to women’s rights, Jackson said, there are efforts “to reverse all we have gained in the last 50 years.”
When the recent controversy over contraception came up, Jackson replied: “To me, it’s not just contraception. It’s interception of a woman’s right to make a choice … Neither sex has the right to dominate the other. This is an issue about women’s dignity, and security and safety. … Women, assert your will.”
When Jackson was asked by Rev. Kim about Lehigh celebrating the 40th anniversary of admitting the first undergraduate women, Jackson drew raucous laughter and applause when he responded: “Lehigh University is 40 years old. The university started when women were allowed to participate. It was a limited college before 40 years ago.”
He went on to compare it to Major League Baseball, saying it only truly became “major league” when Jackie Robinson opened the door to African American players in 1947.
‘We’re living in the best America that’s ever existed’
When he was asked what causes students could embrace today, Jackson listed several, from opposing sending Americans to fight unnecessary wars to demanding that the rich pay their fair share in taxes. He also called on students to mobilize for lower tuition, student loan debt forgiveness and increased Pell Grants. “I see the throttling of educational access as a real threat to our future,” Jackson said.
Whatever cause they choose, Jackson encouraged students to register to vote and be active. “You cannot be a thermometer recording the temperature. You must be a thermostat and control the temperature. And I say, turn up the heat.”
Despite the battles still to be fought, Jackson said: “We’re living in the best America that’s ever existed.”
The nation is more multicultural, multiracial and multilingual, he said. “There are a lot of challenges here. But this is the best it’s ever been.”
That message resonated with Kadeem Samuel ’12, who attended the talk. “It was mesmerizing, poetic,” Samuel said. “When he said it’s the best America ever was, but it can always be improved, that energized me as a leader to do what I can.”
Yesenia Armendariz ’12, who was part of the student group that had lunch with Jackson earlier in the day, said she appreciated the way Jackson discussed the fact that two-thirds of the Western Hemisphere speaks Spanish, and how many different races, cultures and religions make up the region.
His talk, Armendariz said, helped shed light on “why multiculturalism is important.”
Both said the chance to hear directly from prominent leaders such as Jackson enhances their education. “It’s a free lesson on life,” Samuel said. “When do you ever get a free lesson on life? You always have to pay for it.”
Armendariz added: “It’s a great opportunity.”
Photos by Theo Anderson