Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 20, 1997

Finding A "Place
In The Sun"

Aaron Levin
Contributing Writer
"America at its best is a big-tent America," said Rev. Jesse Jackson at Shriver Hall last Thursday night. "But there is a tension between those under the tent and the poor and downtrodden trapped in the shadows outside."

Speaking as part of the Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium on religion and politics, Jackson called again for an infusion of moral and religious principle into political life, saying, "The American dream is driven by a body of moral ideas. I cannot separate spirit from public policy."

He also urged his largely student audience to make the most of their education and "bring the light back into the shadows."

Now involved part time in government as the Clinton administration's envoy to Africa, Jackson shrugged off questions about his own political future: "I could adjust easily to living in the White House--it's public housing and I grew up in public housing."

Jackson said America's big tent demanded equal protection under the law for all those living under its spread. That equal protection has had to be actively won since the time under the original U.S. Constitution, he said, when blacks were counted as only three-fifths of a human being, and women did not have the vote. An inclusive society, he said, would also embrace equal opportunity, an equal playing field and equal access--especially to education. Most important, he said--recalling the religious basis of his political beliefs--was a concern for "the least of these," the dispossessed.

"Religion at its best is not entertaining, it's liberating," he said. "Religion at its best is rooted in how it treats its poor."

Yet the poor themselves must take stock of their own place, he said. It would be too easy for them to say: "I was born here in the shadows. I want to be in the tent, but it's too risky. I may not have the best education or housing or training or access to capital or choice land, but the shadows are familiar; I'll be more comfortable here."

He recalled that in the segregated South of the 1950s, black children were told by their elders that the back of the bus got there just as quickly as the front. These rationalizations, he said, were designed to protect the young from rejection for a time, but could not bring about the changes in public policy needed to alter the lives of African Americans.

"Moses' march from Egypt to Canaan was a public policy march," he said. "Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday was a public policy march. Martin Luther King's march on Washington in 1963 was a public policy march."

While not criticizing Louis Farrakhan directly, Jackson contrasted his own emphasis on action in the public arena with Farrakhan's more private call for "atonement."

Jackson pointed out the fervor of religious experience in the shadows and its connection with public policy. "African Americans had faith under slavery, faith under Jim Crow, faith on the back of the bus. The oppressed need the capacity to turn pain into power, the faith to hold on until the morning comes.

"But when people live with shadowed educations, shadowed dreams and shadowed expectations, they hang their harps on the willows," he said quoting the Bible. "When people stop voting, when people stop dreaming, they've lost their religion."

Jackson scorned efforts, particularly in California and Texas, to resegregate higher education. "Universities always promoted diversity--among white males," he said. "They looked for diversity in course offerings, in the geographic origins of their students, in talents like athletics or the arts. Great universities are great only if they teach the globe. Most of the world is brown, black, female, poor, young and doesn't speak English. Don't teach African American history to satisfy blacks. Do it to enlighten everybody." He urged students to learn more than one language and pointed out the contradictions of those who call for globalism in markets and narrow nationalism in social policy. "You can't be for NAFTA and GATT one day and 'English Only' the next."

He pleaded with black students to take advantage of their opportunity for education at schools like Johns Hopkins. "We must leave the shadows and take our place in the sun. Moses got the best of Pharaoh's training and used it to liberate his people. Martin Luther King used the skills of reason and rhetoric he learned studying for a Ph.D. to move the nation. Don't miss out on what the school has to offer, but don't swallow everything whole. Be ready to challenge what you hear."

Asked whether students can bring about change, Jackson replied that the sit-ins were a student movement, and Martin Luther King was a graduate student when Rosa Parks sat down. Contrasting the activism of Birmingham and the self-involvement of Woodstock, he said: "When the Kennedys and King were killed, and young people couldn't stop the Vietnam War, they said, 'Hey, let's get high' and wallowed in sex and drugs."

Returning to the Eisenhower Symposium's theme, Jackson said that the religious right's involvement in politics showed "where a cultural virus overwhelmed religion.

"There was a religious tradition in the white church in this country which created a pseudo-moral comfort zone for slavery. King's letter from the Birmingham jail was addressed to the white church. Jesus said you can tell a tree not by the bark it wears but by the fruit it bears. If religion doesn't defend the poor and needy, that is a measure of its character."

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