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Walk with Martin, pray with Michael

In Calcutta on a three-day visit, REVEREND Jesse Jackson, one of America’s greatest civil rights leaders who was a close aide of Martin Luther King Jr and ran for US President twice, took time out for a chat with Metro. Excerpts

You’ve been to India twice before. Why was it important for you to visit Calcutta this time?

Dr King’s (Martin Luther King) last work was a poor people’s campaign. I worked with him on the drive to wipe out poverty and protect the poor. To wipe out illiteracy. To be in a project with him was an honour. I feel such indebtedness to India, in one sense, because Mahatma Gandhi began in Durban, South Africa, and then the non-violence drive.... We gained much strength from the Indian liberation movement.

Today, the number one driving force in the high- tech world is India. India has such an abundance of brilliant minds — professors, entrepreneurs, doctors — in the US and around the world. In many ways the minds of Indians are their most natural resource. In Delhi I have been for the Gandhi lecture and the Nehru lecture.

I wanted to come to Calcutta to walk where Mother Teresa walked, to visit her gravesite and to focus on global poverty, which is breathing global fear. One weapon to counter the weapon of mass destruction is to eliminate poverty, fear, hatred and violence. It’s (Calcutta) a vast urban area and I’m aware that the Indian economy is one of the fastest growing in the world. There are political sensitivities and I know poverty transcends the barriers that stop people. I wanted to meet people here and fortify their faith, their commitment to address these issues. On my visit here I wanted to focus on schools and child education. Strong minds help the bodies bridge change.

You ran for President twice, broke grounds as an African-American and fared very strong although you did not win. How do you look back on it?

We won the battle to pull down the walls that separate people. We survived the part where we were divided into religious groups, ethnic groups. We were untouchables. But now that the walls are down, we have to learn to live together. Learning to live together is a bigger challenge than the surviving part but it’s more rewarding. When we work together we create greatness. Our productivity has increased, our limits have increased, the odds are more diversified. There’s greater co-operation than competition and more unity. That doesn’t mean everybody’s bought into the dream but those who did will find that the winning is about going from being untouchable by race for 54 years to the White House 54 years later. So one does call that progress.

Do you remember your first meeting with Martin Luther King?

I met him in 1964, in Atlanta. He had come to give a speech at his school. This was after he picked up his Nobel Peace Prize, he was at the airport and we met. I was astonished that he recognised me because I had been to jail in Greensboro, North Carolina. So he spoke to me. My college president was one of his mentors so we struck up a conversation. I left and went back to school and tried to stay away from wars so I could study. When Selma (The Selma to Montgomery marches, also known as Bloody Sunday) happened, it was so dramatic. He called for all of us to come to Alabama with him and I responded to his call. I was in Chicago and he was in Atlanta. We kept doing things together till I started working officially for him in 1965 in South Alabama. I joined the staff coming out of Selma and then in Chicago.

We talked about a lot of things. How meaningful Gandhi was to him. How Gandhi helped to liberate India from British occupation, not just as a tactic but a way of life. He was deeply into Gandhi spiritually, not just tactically. We talked about putting more money into human development and not so much into nuclear weapons.

I worked with him until he was killed, in 1968. I was walking with him, talking to him when he was killed. We were on our way to dinner. He came out on the balcony of the motel. He was walking and he was shot. It was very traumatising, very hurtful but we were determined not to let one bullet kill a whole movement. So we had to use his death as a stimulus to go forward.

You knew Michael Jackson since he was a little boy…. Your fondest memories of him?

Well, Mayor Hatcher had just won. It was 1968. A lot of stars at this big event and there were these kids (Jackson Five) who were performing. People accepted them but they were not terribly enthralled. People tend to underestimate children and what their potentials are but Mayor Hatcher kept them involved and they had a little reputation around the city. It wasn’t hard to remember them at that time. Two years later we were having a big expo in Chicago with all the top artistes Nancy Wilson, Quincy Jones performing. The programme was pretty set. A friend of mine who used to work with Dr King came by and said “There are some kids performing across the street. They say they want to perform at the expo”. So I said, “We don’t have anymore room. The programme is full”, and he says, “The kids want to meet you. At least say hello and take a picture”. They were waiting in a station wagon car like this van attached to a cart with drums and guitars. I saw them and couldn’t say no. Now, how to include them? We were having these big shows every night, Thursday, Friday, Saturday but we didn’t have anyone on Saturday afternoon. So, Motown put them on their stage and once they (Jackson Five) performed they just stole the show. They just took it, you know.

I knew Michael from then and then he became a solo artiste. I knew his family. Amazingly, they were a family of about 12 people that lived in a four-room house. It was so small that they had to eat by rotation. But again, you never know where gifts of an artiste lie. He (MJ) was a world leader in that group, I had no idea. Every child matters. After he got to Motown and they heard him, his first song ABC was an instant hit. He had all of these dance moves and a very high- pitched voice. You could see that he had extraordinary talents. Of course, I spent a lot of time with him in the last two years of his life. At that time he had his trial on. I was standing with him and fighting for him.

He died so suddenly. I cried and cried, it hurt me so bad to see him leave. Such an impact on the world stage, from the four-room house on Jackson Street.

You also became his spiritual adviser and he would pray with you…

Early one morning he came by the neighbourhood, stopped by my house. No big entourage and suddenly word got out and people from four blocks were running down the street! (Laughs) There were throngs of people. He stopped by our office and I took him by the church. A friend of mine used to pray with him and his family from the time. He was religious, his mother was Jehovah’s Witness but he had an appreciation of God. He was a good person. He had a lot of pressures on him but he was a good person.

You were the only one he spoke to in a rare interview when he was being tried in 2005. Anything that you’d like to say about the Michael people misunderstood and you knew so closely…

He was so fully human, almost like a child. Practising, really practising. When he got to Motown he was performing while other kids were playing. He was so generous with his support to causes. He had a generous spirit. He did a song like Black and White which was his way of celebrating races coming together and that is a philosophy till today for a lot of people. But he lived a full life. We all feel that it ended much too suddenly but he was going through a lot of emotional challenges and he was praying to cope with a lot of that pain.

Has his family coped? Do you stay in touch with his children?

Sometimes. They’re in school now. I see his parents sometimes. They were in many fights and they’re tired.

You founded People United to Serve Humanity in 1971 to combat racism and prejudice…

In 1984, I ran for President only because of the coalition with a multi-cultural group Rainbow and sometimes we’d have native Americans protesting for sovereignty, labourers protesting for workers rights or women for theirs. We ran the Rainbow/Push coalition on the broad-based note for young people to vote and we actually changed the country because in 1965 Blacks couldn’t vote in the South, White women couldn’t serve on juries. All that changed. So when Barack Obama won, it’s not that America changed so much except that new people were included to be able to participate. The new vote has changed the direction of the country.

My priority right now is to revive the war on poverty. Education makes great contributions. Second focus is human rights. I brought Americans home from prison in Syria, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Zambia and Liberia. Trying to get Kenneth Bae out of North Korea right now. It’s a global struggle because we globalise capital and technology but not workers rights, women’s rights, children’s security and education.

What kind of issues is the Black community still grappling with?

The impact of continued racism is number one infant mortality where babies die, short life expectancy and unemployment. There are still patterns of denial and therefore patterns of struggle. We’re free but not equal. Today’s struggle is beyond freedom. Freedom is equality. Indians are free from British colonialism but not free from poverty or illiteracy. Therefore we have to find equality.

I feel such indebtedness to India: jesse jackson

I worked with him (Martin Luther King Jr) until he was killed, in 1968. I was walking with him, talking to him when he was killed. We were on our way to dinner. He came out on the balcony of the motel.

He was walking and he was shot. It was very traumatising, very hurtful but we were determined not to let one bullet kill a whole movement. So we had to use his death as a stimulus to go forward.

With Martin Luther King and (below) with Michael Jackson

He (Michael Jackson) was so fully human, almost like a child.... I spent a lot of time with him in the last two years of his life. At that time he had his trial on. I was standing with him and fighting for him. He died so suddenly. I cried and cried, it hurt me so bad to see him leave. Such an impact on the world stage, from the four-room house on
Jackson Street.

Reverend Jesse Jackson took a tour of Netaji Bhavan on Tuesday, guided by Subhash Chandra Bose’s niece Krishna Bose and grand nephew Sugata Bose. “I am heartened by this visit. To see the spirit of democracy still alive, as Mr Bose saw it and Gandhi saw it. We will achieve that goal. This country is so blessed,” said Jackson, who took a look at the car in which Netaji had fled as well as rare photographs and signed on the visitor’s book

Jackson spent some time at Mother House and said a prayer at her tomb with Sister Prema and Sister Christie by his side. “This is a sacred place not just because she lived and died here. It’s sacred because she suffered her way into permanence. Following the mandates of Jesus she lived among the poor, served the poor and died fighting for the poor. For her it was a life of suffering, sacrifice and commitment. Visiting her tomb was like visiting Gandhi’s tomb in Delhi, Dr King’s tomb in Atlanta and Mandela’s in South Africa. She’s among the greats. Mother Teresa gave her life in service, sacrifice and risk and that is the legacy we must honour,” he said.

Pictures by Pabitra Das