A new gen­er­a­tion of protest holds great prom­ise for Amer­ica

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION - JESSE JACK­SON jjack­son@rain­bow­push.org | @RevJJack­son

The in­spir­ing rise of a new gen­er­a­tion protest­ing racial in­jus­tice is driv­ing a new era of change in Amer­ica, like the gen­er­a­tion that emerged 60 years ago to build the civil rights move­ment of that time.

July 16, 1960, is marked in my me­mory: That is the day I joined seven other friends to walk into the whites-only Greenville Li­brary, and to be ar­rested for vi­o­lat­ing the seg­re­ga­tion laws.

That was more than five years af­ter the 1954 Brown v. Board Supreme Court de­ci­sion that de­clared “sep­a­rate but equal” — the lie that jus­ti­fied seg­re­ga­tion — a vi­o­la­tion of the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion. Yet in Greenville, South Carolina, where I grew up, noth­ing had changed.

We still lived in a seg­re­gated bub­ble. The pub­lic li­brary, the buses, the schools, the pool — all were still seg­re­gated. There were no Black po­lice of­fi­cers, or fire­men, no Black elected of­fi­cials. Even the grave­yard was seg­re­gated. Our op­tions were lim­ited. For ex­am­ple, grad­u­at­ing from high school, I could not even ap­ply to Fur­man or to Clem­son or to the Univer­sity of South Carolina. I went to the Univer­sity of Illi­nois on a foot­ball schol­ar­ship.

When I re­turned from Christ­mas va­ca­tion in 1959, I could not use the pub­lic li­brary to do my as­sign­ments. The Blacks-only li­brary did not have the book I needed; the white li­brary did, but I could not walk in the door. I vowed that I would not ac­cept that when I came home in the sum­mer.

Protests were be­gin­ning to spread, as a young gen­er­a­tion de­cided to burst the bub­ble of seg­re­ga­tion and claim their rights under the Con­sti­tu­tion. Students in Nashville and Greens­boro and else­where were be­gin­ning the sit-ins. The July demon­stra­tion at the li­brary was a turn­ing point in my life, as demon­stra­tions were for many across the South.

We met with fierce re­sis­tance. We were de­nounced as out­side ag­i­ta­tors, tarred as so­cial­ists or com­mu­nists, and suf­fered from vi­o­lent op­po­si­tion from pri­vate vig­i­lantes and uni­formed po­lice of­fi­cers.

But the move­ment kept build­ing and would not go back. In 1964, we won the Pub­lic Ac­com­mo­da­tions Act, which de­clared an end to seg­re­gated pub­lic fa­cil­i­ties. In 1965, we won the Vot­ing Rights Act, pro­pelled in part by the hor­ri­ble spec­ta­cle of the po­lice riot on the Ed­mund Pet­tus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Per­son­ally, I started work­ing with Dr. King in 1965.

The bar­ri­ers that we struck down opened the way for a new South. In­dus­tries and mod­ern com­pa­nies like CNN would come to the South. As uni­ver­si­ties de­seg­re­gated, so did ath­letic fields. Pro­fes­sional teams like the At­lanta Braves could be built. African Amer­i­cans be­gan to win elec­tions at the state, lo­cal and na­tional level.

We broke the chains of le­gal apartheid in the United States and trans­formed the coun­try. Yet, as we have wit­nessed time and again, we did not end racism in this coun­try. We did not suc­ceed in break­ing the bi­ased in­sti­tu­tional struc­tures that still en­force racial in­jus­tice — from red­lined neigh­bor­hoods to sav­agely un­equal schools to wage and hir­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion to a dan­ger­ously dis­crim­i­na­tory crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem. Dr. King’s drive for eco­nomic equality as the next stage of the civil rights move­ment was cut short by his as­sas­si­na­tion.

Now a new gen­er­a­tion is emerg­ing to chal­lenge these in­jus­tices. The demon­stra­tions in the af­ter­math of Ge­orge Floyd’s mur­der have been the largest in our his­tory.

On opin­ion sur­veys, a stun­ning 15 mil­lion to 26 mil­lion Amer­i­cans re­port that they have par­tic­i­pated in demon­stra­tions for Black lives in 2,500 places from small towns to big cities. Forty per­cent of the coun­ties in the coun­try have wit­nessed protests. White par­tic­i­pa­tion has far ex­ceeded that in the first civil rights move­ment.

And al­ready politi­cians have be­gun to re­spond — re­form­ing po­lice prac­tices, ban­ning choke­holds. Mis­sis­sippi leg­is­la­tors voted to re­tire the state flag with its Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle em­blem.

This new gen­er­a­tion of protest holds great prom­ise for Amer­ica. De­spite its breadth and depth, it will face great re­sis­tance — and not sim­ply from a Don­ald Trump des­per­ate to dis­credit it for his po­lit­i­cal pur­poses. En­trenched in­ter­ests will re­sist change. The move­ment is fo­cused on re­form­ing ar­eas — crim­i­nal in­jus­tice, eco­nomic in­equal­i­ties, ba­sic eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal rights — that threaten the priv­i­leged and the pow­er­ful.

Yet what we learned 60 years ago is that when peo­ple move, change is pos­si­ble. Then the pow­er­ful forces of seg­re­ga­tion that seemed over­whelm­ing could not with­stand the moral force of a gen­er­a­tion not will­ing to put up with glar­ing in­jus­tice silently. Now this gen­er­a­tion has an op­por­tu­nity to make Amer­ica bet­ter, and the lives and op­tions of mil­lions are at stake in their strug­gle. This is a time for any­one with a con­science and a pulse to join this ex­tra­or­di­nary move­ment.

AP

On April 3, 1968, the day be­fore the as­sas­si­na­tion of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader stood on the bal­cony of the Lor­raine Mo­tel in Mem­phis, Ten­nessee, with Hosea Wil­liams and Jesse Jack­son on his right and Ralph Aber­nathy on his left.

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