Rev. Jesse Jackson, a major figure of the Civil Rights Movement and Baptist minister who ran for president in 1984 and 1988, sat down with The Daily Texan this morning to discuss the civil rights issues he feels students in the United States are most affected by today. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
DT: What do you think are the most important civil rights issues the United States is facing today?
Jackson: We’ve gone from horizontal segregation by race to vertical disparity by race and class ... [as demonstrated by] the radical rise in student loan cost. In the ‘50s, when the Russians sent Sputnik up, we thought they might have an advantage on us in science. We passed the National Defense [Education] Act and paid for kids to go to school. In five years, we caught the Russians and surpassed them because we lowered ourselves to scientific development. ...We should, in fact, have a plan now for student loan debt forgiveness, and reach out to that talent pool. That is one of the challenges of our time — radically reducing student loan debt. The other, of course, is that we need an amendment to the Constitution for the fundamental right to vote. We have a fundamental right to bear arms. Only states right to vote. So we have 50 states separate and unequal election processes. Beneath the fundamental right to vote, we need the constitutional right to vote, and, right now, we do not have that.
DT: On the subject of higher education, which you have talked a lot about before in the past, to what extent do you think the cost of higher education is a civil rights issue?
Jackson: Money should not determine who gets higher education. It should be based upon will and skill, and not based upon money. Many students [who] would be good teachers, or doctors, or lawyers, or scientists or researchers cannot afford to go to school. We cannot afford to discard great minds. We can afford to educate our children, and we must. And, right now, we’re making education costs prohibitive. Jails for profit and schools for profit do not reign true, but a bright future.
DT: Do you think there’s a racial element to that issue?
Jackson: Well, the evidence is fairly obvious that, of two million-plus Americans in prison, half are African-American. A survey [that] came out on the topic of education last week showed that black students at the kindergarten level are suspended more than white students. Blacks hit with more time for the same crime. Three Strikes and You’re Out was aimed at young black youth. ... So the evidence is there’s a strong racial component that blacks are targeted and steered.
DT: You mentioned a debt forgiveness program earlier, do you feel that’s the best way to solve the issue of the costs of higher education?
Jackson: It’s a major step in the right direction. Too many students are graduating with a diploma, but they bring in no job or they graduate with a diploma and they have to go back home and live with their parents as opposed to being free to go out and buy a house, buy a car, get married, have a family, the cannot afford to do so. So they go back home, which stifles the economy. President Barack and his wife Michelle said in a book he wrote when he ran for president, could not handle their student loan debt. It’s unbearable. Poor people ought to be able to go to school. And yet no one knows that the genius we need to cure cancer, the genius we need may be in the mind of a poor student.
DT: UT is involved in a major affirmative action court case. What do you think is the solution to that issue?
Jackson: Well, we have to accept that an advantage of 246 years of slavery, it was illegal for blacks to get on the track and whites could run as fast as they could run. We finally enable for them to get on the track freely and plan or path to repair the damage done by the time lost compounded by another 100 years of legal segregation. That’s why Johnson says in his speech at Howard University that it’s irrational to think that someone after 346 years can get on the track that they have been locked out of and be equal with those who have been running for three and a half centuries. So there has to be some affirmative action to offset negative action for women and people of color. ... Affirmative action is not a zero-sum game. Inclusion has led to growth. When there’s growth, everybody wins. The more blacks and Latinos and women educated expands the economy. It does not replace A with B. Because the walls have come down in the South, for example, and there’s no longer the fear that once existed. All these new airports – that’s the federal government. The Interstate Highways – that’s the federal government. The research and investment in this University – that’s the federal government. And so to see people like Perry run against the federal government de-benefits so many people. It’s demagoguery.
DT: [Regarding] the costs of higher education, how do you feel students can justify studying certain subjects, such as education, fine arts and the humanities, when high student debt and low pay make it financially impractical?
Jackson: Students should be protesting the rising cost of higher education en masse. There should be more focus on protesting the cost of higher education than going to football games. ... How many students are at the University of Texas?
DT: About fifty-thousand.
Jackson: If those students held a mass protest for student debt forgiveness, your legislature would come into a special session. If that took place at the University of Texas and Texas A&M and Texas Southern and across the state, you have the power. Our power is in marching and civil disobedience — you have the power through your vote — to march on campuses en masse demanding student loan debt forgiveness. And, of course, we’ve gone from in the fifties when education was free to now being cost prohibitive. We’re not going to remain a great nation if education is cost prohibitive because it means we’ll have to import students from other countries — which is what we’re doing, by the way.
DT: As somebody who was a part of these major social movements in the past, how would you advise students who support this cause to mobilize in such large numbers?
Jackson: First of all, students must be advised ... you must not self-degrade. You must not diminish your own power, your moral power, the rightness of your cause. Students fighting for the right to go to school but can’t afford the cost in money is a righteous cause. Students marching en masse for student loan debt reduction to administrative office is a righteous cause. That cause can go viral. Students pursuing their academics seriously, pursuing the highest and best grades they can get, likewise. Because, again, you want an airline pilot who is skilled in aeronautics, a medical doctor who knows his or her skill, but so many of our students who have the right credentials just do not have the money.
DT: Some here in Texas have argued that the solution is to have a more affordable but less substantial higher education system that focuses on quickly turning out graduates with technical skills. Rick Perry has talked about $10,000 degrees.
Jackson: Well, that’s another class strata. There are some people who should learn those technical skills because we always need trade skills. Plumbers and masons and carpenters and glaziers and builders and constructionists — we’ll always need the infrastructure workers. They’re highly valued skills because they’re necessary. Hard to find an unemployed plumber. On the other hand, the humanities and the arts also matter. Getting these high degrees also matter. So why have a cheap degree and an expensive degree? That’s just another class separation.
DT: You’ve come out very strongly against Voter ID laws, one of the most strict of which is here in Texas, so how would you go about trying to reverse the actions those laws have taken?
Jackson: The same people who didn’t want the Voting Rights Act in the first place saw mixed results, and they’ve never stopped trying to take it back. In this state, you can register with a gun ID but not a student ID. That’s an ideological loaded statement, choosing guns as an ID. In North Carolina, they’re already taking precincts off of campuses. In Ohio, they’re reducing the number of days you can vote. ...The Voting Rights Act enabled a new coalition of Americans to emerge out of the shadows. Blacks couldn’t vote, most couldn’t serve on juries, 18-year-olds couldn’t vote, though serving in Vietnam. You couldn’t vote on college campuses — you either had to go home and vote absentee. You couldn’t vote bilingually. That generation has changed the course of American politics. So everything they can do to make that more difficult, for seniors who might not have a voter ID, for students or for easy access — the countermovement to the Voting Rights Act is on the way. And it’s so sad to see the governors, as in the days of old, and the secretaries of state leading that movement, being the same people who are quick to fight wars for democracy in Ukraine or someplace. If they had voter ID in Ukraine, they’d be protesting just as loudly as the Democrats.
— Jacob Kerr and Pete Stroud