Originally created 02/04/03

Jesse Jackson starts Southern tour for civil rights



COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The Rev. Jesse Jackson is back, urging audiences across to South Carolina to take stock on the civil rights movement after 40 years and not to be satisfied with the way things are now.

"We've gone from degradation to decency, but now its time to go from decency to equality," Jackson told a rapt audience of over 1,000 Monday in the gym at historically black Benedict College.

Jackson is touring South Carolina this week, and plans to make the rounds of other Southern states soon. It's some of the highest-profile work for the civil rights leader since the finances of his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition were investigated and a lawsuit over child support payments for the daughter erupted in early 2001.

Jackson wants to hit small towns more than urban areas because he thinks that's where his message of "poverty, prisons, predators and peace" is needed the most.

Events like November's elections titling toward Republicans and the Bush's administration stance against an affirmative action program in Michigan should spur students into action. "All of our gains are under attacks," Jackson said.

Monday's event was more like a religious rally, with the Benedict choir singing and Jackson, hobbled by a broken ankle he suffered last week, pausing to wipe his brow with a handkerchief on an unusually warm winter day.

Shouts of "Amen" and "You tell 'em," frequently interrupted Jackson remarks.

Jackson both started and ended his speech with a pep talk telling students they can now do anything they want because of strides made by their parents and grandparents in the last 40 years.

He talked about how all the nation's struggles - such as the Civil War and segregation - and its triumphs - such as the civil rights movement - have taken place in the South.

"This is the most populous region with the best weather, richest soil and poorest people," Jackson said.

Jackson told the students when they get jobs and successful careers, they have a special responsibility that "the blessed must not forget the distressed."

Lenders who charge heavy interest on short term loans must be stopped as well as credit card companies that lure college students into debt before they earn their first dime, Jackson said.

They "play you off as economic suckers and chumps, giving you a credit card where it will cost a dollar and a quarter for a dollar," he said.

Jackson also railed against leaders that think it is economic progress to put a prison in rural, impoverished areas, and cite as proof "the Wal-Marts and Burger Kings" that sprout up afterward.

It's "all about locking up poor kids for profit," Jackson said. "They are paying $17,000 a year to incarcerate our youth, but just $3,000 a year to educate them."

Jackson said leaving the Confederate flag on Statehouse grounds confuses him because "usually losers put away their public displays."

"They didn't have the Confederate flag on the shuttle," Jackson said, referring to the space shuttle Columbia that disintegrated this weekend in the skies above Texas. "They don't have the Confederate flag in Kuwait either, where our soldiers are waiting to invade Iraq."

Jackson's interest in the state was piqued earlier this month when he came back to his hometown in an unsuccessful attempt to get the Greenville County Council to make Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a county holiday.

"There is no good reason Greenville County should go counter to the rest of the nation," said Jackson who plans to return to Greenville on Tuesday for a prayer rally before county council's next meeting.

Jackson said eight other South Carolina counties also don't honor King. A bill filed by Rep. Fletcher Smith, D-Greenville, and Rep. Karl Allen, D-Greenville, would require all counties to recognize King's birthday.

While Jackson spoke at length about the King holiday in remarks at the end of the rally, he only spent less than a minute addressing the issue during his speech.

Instead, he reminded the audience that 30 years after his high school class wasn't allowed to pose for a photo on the Statehouse lawn, he sat beside senators and other dignitaries as he ran for president in 1984.

"Those who are behind for any reason must run faster," he said.