Jesse Jackson

Rev. Jesse Jackson was a major figure of the Civil Rights Movement and Baptist minister who ran for president in 1984 and 1988. On Thursday morning, Jackson sat down with The Daily Texan to discuss the civil rights issues he feels students in the United States are most affected by today.

Photo Credit: Shelby Tauber | Daily Texan Staff

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

Photo Credit: Jonathan Garza | Daily Texan Staff

Scroll down to read our liveblog, which was updated throughout the day.

Update (6:17 p.m.): In his speech Thursday night at the Civil Rights Summit, former president George W. Bush focused primarily on education as both a battleground and driver of civil rights progress.

“From Little Rock Central High School to the University of Mississippi, the fight for civil rights took place in educational settings,” Bush said. “Education provides the skills necessary to expand horizons and allow for economic success. In so doing, we secure our democratic way of life.”

Check back soon for a full recap of Bush's remarks.

— Pete Stroud

Update (5:47 p.m.): Education panelists agree reform will not come from Washington, D.C.

Former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-California, agreed education reform will not develop at the federal level.

“It’s going to be done, as you lament and as I lament, outside of Washington,” Miller said.

Spellings said education will be a pertinent political issue in the future.

“It's going to be a political issue, certainly on the role of the federal government in education,” Spellings said. "We have sold that education is the key to the American Dream."

In order for any education legislation to be passed, both parties will have to work together, according to Miller.

“If you keep this [partisanship] up, I think you lose your democracy,” Miller said. “You can’t get  to the remedies, because you can’t talk to one another about it. You’ve got to walk across the aisle.”

— Julia Brouillette

Updated (4:54 p.m.): SG leaders react to Obama's keynote address 

Kori Rady, Student Government president, said he enjoyed Obama’s speech and found he could apply certain aspects of it to his own life.

“His speech was as good as Obama’s speeches always are,” Rady said. “The general focus was on how to stay on course and push for what you believe in. If you look at the heart of that, you can relate it to what you do in your daily life — there was something tangible there for you to take away.”

Ugeo Williams, former SG vice president, said he found out he had a seat at the keynote address early Thursday morning.

"It felt really great seeing him,” Williams said. “I’m pretty sure I was one of the million people who felt like he was making eye contact with me."

— Madlin Mekelberg

Updated (2:36 p.m.): Q&A with Rev. Jesse Jackson

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. Read the full Q&A here.

Updated (1:48 p.m.): Three protesters arrested outside LBJ Library during Obama address

Three people, including two UT students, were arrested after protesting for immigration rights outside the LBJ Library during President Barack Obama’s address, according to UTPD spokeswoman Cindy Posey.

Posey said the University will file charges against the three protesters for criminal trespassing.

Undeclared freshman Emily Freeman, radio-television-film freshman Alejandra Gomez and Patrick Fierro, who is not a UT student, were protesting as part of several immigration-related demonstrations coordinated by University Leadership Initiative over the course of the week.

Linguistics junior Diana Morales, a ULI member, said the group members knew there was a chance they would be arrested.

“We knew that the three people who were there were willing to take any risk to bring our message to Obama,” Morales said. “His administration has deported over 2 million people – this is something no other president has done, and his term is not even over.”

On Wednesday, ULI members, including the three people who were later arrested, chained themselves to the Martin Luther King Jr. statue on campus, where they stayed overnight.

— Adam Hamze

Updated (1:05 p.m.): In keynote, Obama highlight's LBJ's use of government as a force for good

Read the full story here

At the keynote address at the Civil Rights Summit Thursday, Obama said that though people still debate the role of government in helping promote equality, to deny that government can help forward society is to “ignore history.”

President Barack Obama delivers the keynote address at the Civil Rights Summit on Thursday morning in the Lady Bird Johnson Auditorium. Photo by Charlie Pearce / Daily Texan Staff

“It’s true that despite laws like the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and Medicaid, our society is still racked with division and poverty,” Obama said. “Yes, race still colors our political debates, and yes, there have been government programs that have fallen short. There are limits to change...[but] I regret such premises, because I have lived out the legacy of LBJ’s efforts.”

Obama said major pieces of legislation, though unpopular at the time they were passed, established critical legal protections for African Americans and other American minorities.

“The law alone isn’t enough to change hearts and minds,” Obama said. “[Johnson] understood laws could not accomplish everything — but only the law could anchor change, and set minds and hearts on a different course. And a lot of Americans needed the law’s most basic protections.”

— Madlin Mekelburg

Updated (9:33 a.m.): In interview, Rev. Jesse Jackson shares his thoughts on the state of civil rights today

In an interview with The Daily Texan, Rev. Jesse Jackson said the rise in student loan debts is one of the biggest civil rights issues the United States is facing today.

“We should, in fact, have a plan now of student loan debt forgiveness and reaching out to that talent pool,” Jackson said. “That is one of the challenges of our time – rapidly reducing student loan debt."

Jackson said students should protest the cost of higher education.

 “America moves best when young America comes alive,” Jackson said. “You have the power to vote, to march on campuses in mass, demanding student loan debt forgiveness.”

On Wednesday, Jackson said he left a scheduled trip to Japan early to attend the final day of the Civil Rights Summit in Austin.

Check back soon for the full transcript of the interview.

— Jacob Kerr and Pete Stroud

Updated (9:29 a.m.): "Women: How High is the Glass Ceiling?" afternoon panel canceled 

The "Women: How High is the Glass Ceiling?" panel has been canceled this afternoon due to personal circumstances of one of the panelists, according to Elizabeth Christian, president of the LBJ Foundation. 

The afternoon panel "Social Justice in the 21st Century: Empowering Minds, Changing Hearts, and Inspiring Service," at 2:05 will continue as scheduled. 

Rev. Jesse Jackson will be giving a press conference at the Performing Arts Center following President Barack Obama's keynote address. 

Updated (7:00 a.m.): The second day of the Civil Rights Summit featured a speech by former President Bill Clinton, who honored two of President Lyndon B. Johnson's landmark achievements — the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — and slammed voter ID laws across the country that he said disenfranchises voters. Read about his speech here.

Read more about Wednesday's panels, which included:

1) A discussion about the relationship between President Lyndon B. Johnson and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The panel featured historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin, Joseph Califano Jr., former special assistant to President Johnson, Andrew Young, former U.S. Ambassador and congressman, and historian and author Taylor Branch. Todd Purdum, Vanity Fair contriuting editor and Politico senior writer, moderated the panel.

2) A conversation with Hall of Famers Bill Russell of the NBA and Jim Brown of the NFL about their involvement in the civil rights movement in their youth. Harry Edwards, sociology professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, moderated the panel.

3) A reflection by leaders who were on the front lines of the civil rights movement. The panel featured U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, former NAACP chairman Julian Bond, and Andrew Young, former U.S. Ambassador and congressman. Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, moderated the panel. 

Other highlights from the day can be found on our Civil Rights Summit, Day 2 Liveblog.

Rae Lewis-Thornton tested HIV positive at the age of 23. She will be speaking to UT students about the stigmas of HIV/AIDS on Wednesday. 

Photo Credit: Parrish Lewis | Daily Texan Staff

In the winter of 1986, Rae Lewis-Thornton decided to donate blood at a local hospital in Washington, D.C. She was young, successful and happy, with a boyfriend and a job working for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. 

Three months later, Lewis-Thornton received a letter from the Red Cross regarding the blood she donated and asked her to come in. She left the Red Cross that day, HIV positive at the age of 23.

Nearly 30 years later, Lewis-Thornton is still fighting her disease, but she is focused on changing the stereotypes associated with HIV/AIDS in America. On Wednesday she will speak at the Texas Student Activity Center about this issue and its stigmas. The event is presented by the African American Culture Committee.

Lewis-Thornton tested positive when much was still unknown about HIV and AIDS. As this strange new illness ravaged America, researchers could not get a grip on the disease.

“At that time we didn’t know HIV was a death sentence,” Lewis-Thornton said. “I remember thinking when I left the Red Cross, ‘It’s alright, I only have HIV, and I can handle this.’”

Lewis-Thornton also remembers intense confusion. HIV was mostly associated with homosexual, drug-using white men at the time. Lewis-Thornton was drug and alcohol free, heterosexual and monogamous in her relationships. She didn’t understand how an educated and successful woman was placed in this situation.

“People never seem to think it could happen to them,” Lewis-Thornton said. “That is the major issue I want to come across. You are the only one who can keep you safe.”

For seven years Lewis-Thornton kept her HIV a complete secret. She continued to progress in political organizations and worked on several presidential and senatorial campaigns. She did not let her situation come across in her work and most of her friends and family were completely in the dark.

When she turned 30, however, her T-cell count dropped below 200, and her virus transitioned into AIDS. At this point, Lewis-Thornton knew she had to tell her close friends and family about the illness that was slowly destroying her body.

She said she was most worried about informing Jackson of her illness. After working together on two presidential campaigns, he had become like a father to Lewis-Thornton.

“I’ll never forget when he said, ‘I loved you before AIDS, and I’ll love you after,’” Lewis Thornton said.

Lewis-Thornton had no intention of going into motivational speaking. It never even crossed her mind. One day, however, a Chicago high school teacher begged her to speak with her students about the realities of HIV/AIDS. She was hesitant at first, but was ultimately convinced.

As the class periods changed, some students left and the next class filed in. But Lewis-Thornton noticed that throughout the day, some students did not leave.

Lewis-Thornton asked the teacher why some students were being kept in the room for multiple lectures. She asked if it was a punishment. 

According to Lewis-Thornton, the teacher replied, “A few of the kids have been skipping class to hear you speak again. They’ve refused to leave.”

The actions of these students flipped a switch in Lewis-Thornton’s mind. Three weeks later, she quit her job and decided to start speaking for groups interested in the truth about HIV/AIDS. She believes it is her calling.

“I walked away from that high school and couldn’t shake this feeling of gratitude,” Lewis-Thornton said. “I knew I had the duty to educate everyone I could about this illness.”

Lewis-Thornton’s lectures are typically open forums where no question is too provocative. She has few reservations addressing intimate details about her story and the effects of HIV/AIDS.

“You can actually see the girls squirm when I tell them I have 15- to 21-day menstrual cycles,” Lewis-Thornton said.

Lewis-Thornton believes that HIV/AIDS should be as relevant today as it was in the early 1990s. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one person contracts HIV every nine-and-a-half minutes. She said that although it is not a “sexy” topic, HIV/AIDS is too important to glaze over.

Abigail Emery, a biology pre-med freshman and a budding AIDS activist, agrees with Lewis-Thornton. She will be attending Lewis-Thornton’s lecture Wednesday.

“It is an issue that has seemed to become nonexistent in the past decade,” Emery said. “There is still so much that must be done.”

Perhaps Lewis-Thornton’s new perspective and approach to AIDS awareness will give UT students a reformed understanding of HIV/AIDS relevance today. Lewis-Thornton hopes to inspire a new generation to stand up in the fight against AIDS and its negative stereotypes, one lecture at a time.