NEW YORK - A conversation with the Rev. Jesse Jackson before an overflow crowd opened this year's Left Forum conference at Pace University in lower Manhattan this weekend.
Labor activist and Left Forum board member Bill Fletcher Jr. introduced Jackson Friday night saying that his two historic presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988 "shook the United States" and stood in open defiance of the "demon of Reaganism."
Jackson and his campaigns brought together the labor, civil rights and women's movements with key elements of the U.S. left to forge a "pro-equality populism" that challenged corporate power and at the same time built interracial unity, Fletcher said.
Jackson, in brief remarks and then in dialogue with Prof. Max Fraad Wolff of New School University, said, "The left is not on the margins.The left is the moral center of the nation."
He urged participants and the broad left to remember that the struggle for progress requires the long view. He noted that today's struggles stand in the context of the 50th anniversaries of the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa and the lunch-counter sit-in campaigns in the U.S. South that ignited the civil rights movement.
"We have global capital," said Jackson. "But we have not globalized human rights, workers' rights, women's rights, children's rights or environmental security." And, he added, "we have not democratized the economy."
Jackson is president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, which has championed reforming Wall Street and restructuring financial rules. He called for forgiving the student loan debt that millions of student and workers are in default on. "If banks get zero percent interest, then students should get zero percent interest," he said.
Jackson pointed to revitalizing public transportation as a key in the struggle for jobs, the environment and our cities. "Transit worker jobs are green jobs," he said. He also called for reviving the U.S. steel industry in order to build electric cars, light rail and the needed transportation infrastructure.
Jackson spoke on a wide range of topics from job creation to ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the U.S. response to the Haiti earthquake, but particular interest was focused on the left's attitude towards the Obama administration and the health care reform bill, which has since passed, but was then headed for a vote in Congress.
"I support single-payer comprehensive health care ... but I also know this battle is about more than health care," said Jackson. "If we lose this battle this week, it will not end there." He mentioned immigration reform, the Employee Free Choice Act and other pressing legislative measures that would be shelved or set back if congressional Democrats were unable to pass health care reform despite its flaws.
Responding to a question about the "symbolic nature" of Obama's election victory and the pending health care bill, Jackson asked if adding 32 million more people with health care coverage was just a symbol. He called passing health care reform an urgent need, saying, "it is morally right; it is necessary."
Jackson reflected on the history of the civil rights movement and the progression of legislative and legal victories from the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and beyond. He noted that every football player knows that "every play plans to score, but defense decides how far you get."
"It is a real ideological civil war struggle," he said, pointing out that the right wing is against the whole progressive agenda, not just health care reform. "We cannot allow them to break our will to fight."
In response to criticisms and expressions of frustration with the pace or direction of change following the election of Obama, Jackson called on the left and the mass movements to get out in the streets. "We determine the agenda by our action," he said. "Street action makes public opinion."
Again pointing to history, Jackson reminded the audience that President Lyndon Johnson thought pushing for voting rights was premature when Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement began the Selma campaign. "We delivered Johnson, said Jackson. "He didn't deliver us."
Jackson ended his remarks by urging the audience to action.
Speaking of the ultra-right, he said, "They want the country back, and we've got to keep it."
The Left Forum gathered hundreds of activists, academics, organizers and students from around the country and the world to discuss and debate the issues of the day and strategize a progressive agenda.
Many of the panels and discussion were captured on video and will be available online soon.
Full audio recording of jackson's remarks are available at Uprising Radio.
Photo: Left Forum