The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. is a veteran of the civil rights movement, a Baptist minister, and a politician who ran for president in 1984 and 1988. He spoke with Bill Keller of The Marshall Project. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Do you remember when you first saw the video of Rodney King being beaten?
I remember it rather vividly. I remember I was asked for a response, and my response was that Rodney King was the victim, but George Holliday, the white man who filmed the beating from his balcony, was the hero. Given the racial polarization and stereotypes, he could have said: “All those police out there and lights blinking, I’m not going to get involved in that.” He could have said, “What’s that black guy doing in our neighborhood?” But something about his own character and upbringing said to him, beyond color and culture, “this is not right.” Had he not filmed it we would not know anything about Rodney King.
After he was beaten and it was on film, there was a certain assumption that those who beat him would be punished. When they were set free, there was this explosion. And the other thing I remember is that when Reginald Denny, a white truck driver, came into the ghetto during the riots and was attacked, four black men who did not know each other saw the situation – it was live on television – and left their homes and saved him from the crowd. They rushed him to the hospital where a black affirmative action doctor – I met him later – saved Denny’s life.
So, there was a lot of character in that calamity.
Videos of black men suffering at the hands of police have become tragically familiar recently. Does that mean police haven’t made progress in the last quarter century?
It’s becoming more visible. This is a legacy. Let’s not forget that from 1880 to 1950, 4,500 African-Americans were lynched. And no one was ever charged with a crime. Rodney King is in the lineage of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Trayvon Martin — that lineage of violation. What’s different today is, the camera has brought it to light.
The fact that everybody has a camera now and some police are wearing body cameras — do you think that will lead to meaningful changes in the way police behave?
I don’t now, because the camera captured Rodney King and the police walked free. The cameras captured the Walter Scott killing in South Carolina and both police on the scene lied about it. The camera captured much of the situation in Baltimore, the arrest of Freddie Gray. The police are protected by the unions, which build into their contracts discipline codes that shield the police. Chicago has paid over $600 million in settlements of police misconduct suits, but Laquan McDonald was still shot 16 times.
The reason it’s hard to answer the question is, it’s hard to measure what happened in the past that was never reported. But even in times of increased sensitivity — post civil rights time, post public accommodation, post right to vote, post Martin Luther King — even in this season when people are supposed to be more enlightened, there is significant, substantial evidence of police misconduct.
So what’s the solution?
Well, one solution is that those who violate the law must not be allowed to live above it. For example, when somebody’s shot by police they do a drug test on the victim but no drug test on the police — by contract. They should take drug tests. Number two, all tapes should be released. The argument that is made by Chicago Mayor [Rahm] Emanuel is that they must hold the tape because it could be inflammatory. They’re still holding tapes. Third, the section of police contracts that shields them from the law must be taken out of the contracts. And fourth, those police that have records of fairness should be rewarded and those without should be dismissed.
You referred earlier to the Black Lives Matter movement. Do you see that as a successor to the civil rights movement of your generation?
Every time something happens that incites a broad-based reaction — it may be the anti-lynching era, it may be the sit-ins, it may be black power, it may be Black Lives Matter — it’s not an organization as much as a movement, a general predisposition. And I think when you look at Rodney King, and that was awful, you look at Trayvon Martin, and that’s sad, and you look at Ferguson, and at some point the question becomes, do black lives matter? You’re beaten or killed and it’s on tape, and the killer walks free? The logic of Black Lives Matter grew out of a number of very concrete situations. It’s not just something that was conceived in an advertising room. The diminishing of black life is so pervasive, that’s what gives the whole matter legs.
Do the young activists you meet these days have historical memory?
Some of them have historical memory and some do not. But at some point movements freeze into institutional concreteness. If black lives really matter, there’s an issue we must take on: when whites kill blacks, we erupt. When blacks kill whites we jail them. When blacks kill blacks we tend to shrug our shoulders. We must take a moral stand that’s uncompromising about life and death.
Rodney King’s most famous line was, “Can we all get along?” Are we any closer to granting his wish?
We go to and fro. One moment we’ll have this Barack Obama moment when it seems that the stars are aligned and we form a real coalition and elect an African-American to the White House. But the same day he was being inaugurated, the Republicans met and said, “Our mission is to discredit his administration.” The confederate states remain red, remain resistant, reject action on health care, undermine the Voting Rights Act. So the backlash has been comparable to the forward movement.