e-Newsletter of Moravian College and Moravian Theological Seminary | February 23, 2012 Twitter Facebook

Rev. Jesse Jackson shares his message with the Moravian community

Mark Wunderly, USG vice president, and Emmy Usera, USG president, pose with Rev. Jackson after the event.

Photo by Brenda Lange

After more than 50 years as an activist for social justice, the Rev. Jesse Jackson admits he has seen the race gap begin to close, although gaps remain—gaps in healthcare, wealth, gender equality, employment opportunities, education and more—what he calls an “access to fairness gap.”

“Too few have too much,” he stated simply during his presentation to more than 900 Moravian students, faculty, staff and community members on February 14.

Jackson visited the Lehigh Valley thanks in part to an initial meeting with Grace Ji-Sun Kim, associate professor of doctrinal theology at Moravian Theological Seminary and director of the MATS program, and James Braxton Peterson, director of Africana studies and associate professor of English at Lehigh University.  Jackson’s appearance at Moravian was part of this year’s IN FOCUS theme, poverty and inequality, and was sponsored by Moravian’s office of institutional diversity, IDEA, the Seminary, LVAIC and IN FOCUS.

“This is an inspiring day,” said Kelly Denton-Borhaug, associate professor and chair of the religion department, before the presentation. “This is history coming alive, and through IN FOCUS, we’re connected to enduring, practical and real global and local issues that help organize energy, time and critical thought.”

Khristina Haddad, associate professor of political science and a member of the IN FOCUS committee, agreed with Denton-Borhaug’s assessment. “The seriousness of the themes and academic engagement is so important,” she said. “This is creating a stronger institutional identity and is an important shift in the life of the college.”

Rev. Jackson answered questions posed by the three moderators, Kim, Peterson and special guest, Obery Hendricks, a visiting scholar at the Institute for Research in African-American studies and department of religion at Columbia University and a friend of Jackson’s. Hendricks has been called a provocative and innovative commentator on the intersection of religion, politics and social policy in America. He is also the author of The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted.

Larry Holmes, former heavyweight champion of the world, surprised his friend at the end of the event.

Photo by Brenda Lange

Throughout the 90-minute presentation staged as a conversation taking place in someone’s living room, the audience listened raptly to Jackson, sometimes breaking into applause, laughter and murmurs of assent.

The right to vote, or rather challenges being made to this right, was near the top of Jackson’s list for audience members, especially the students. “Use your right to vote, and fight any efforts to suppress it.” He also advised the young people to study with a passion, never degrade others, and take care not to self-degrade or self-destruct.
Ensuring the right to vote for all Americans was Jackson’s biggest accomplishment while working with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he said. His work with the civil rights movement left him feeling “empowered and very, very proud” when the mission was achieved, and profoundly sad when King was taken by an assassin’s bullet at the age of 39.

In addition to voting rights, Jackson brought up the “wealth gap that allows the wealthiest in the country to be protected and privileged at the expense of the rest of America;” the rudeness that pervades our political system and the media; and the food insecurity that threatens the wellbeing of more than 50 million Americans.  Through it all, he encouraged his listeners to take action: “There are those who want to roll back the clock, but we’re living today in the best America there’s ever been, and we must not go backwards.”

He stressed that the campaign for equality is a multiracial one, that a cultural and racial divide and economic barriers are still in place, separating Native Americans, Jews, blacks, those who live in Appalachia … 53 million Americans are food insecure, living in poverty. “And no matter their color, hunger matters. These poor, many of them working poor, are unbankable, just recycling poverty and restructuring inequality,” he added. “We should feed the hungry because they’re hungry, not for any other reason.”

Jackson focused mainly on social justice issues, only dipping into the political arena to address the attacks he feels have been made against President Barack Obama, and the racialization of poverty, including those who have called him the “food stamp president.”

“Food stamps are not pejorative,” said Jackson. “Defeating hunger is an honor, not a disgrace. Students get them [food stamps] cab drivers, housekeepers and fast-food workers do too. It is the malnutrition that matters, not the color—50 percent [of recipients] are white. And remember, the poor are not poor because they did something wrong.”

Rev. Jackson and the panel-James Braxton Peterson, Obery Hendricks and Grace Ji-Sun Kim-have a wide-ranging conversation.

Photo by Michael Clark

Rev. Jackson continued by comparing Obama to a captain of a ship that some are trying to sink, hoping he goes down with it. He said the degrading remarks and slanderous statements have simply become too rabid, and urged that, “we as a nation must reject degrading statements. Demeaning others is just a diversion, but attacks against Obama have hit a new level. Demeaning of people is not right and not necessary. Name-calling does not advance our cause.”

Rev. Jackson earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina in Greensboro, did graduate work at the Chicago Theological Seminary and was ordained a Baptist minister in 1968.
He became involved in the civil rights movement while still an undergraduate and began working with Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference after marching with King in Selma, Ala., in 1965. In 1971 he founded Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity). Over the years, Jackson has become a leading national spokesman and advocate for the disenfranchised and marginalized, working for peace, gender equity, and economic and social justice. He has acted as a diplomat in negotiating the release of United States soldiers and civilians around the world; and he ran twice for president, efforts that increased the rolls of registered voters.

“Many are surprised to find that Rev. Jackson is so soft-spoken, when compared to his tall, athletic structure,” said Kim after the day’s events were over. “He is a rather gentle, kind-hearted man who genuinely cares about people, their pain and their sorrow. We hear a prophetic voice as he encourages everyone to fight for justice, and his message comes through clearly, on and off stage."

His message clarified everything she's learned about the civil rights movement for Micah Leonard '12 who was honored to sit between Rev. Jackson and President Thomforde at a brunch preceding the presentation. "Hearing him speak about his experiences and feelings made everything I have heard my whole life real. It was an extreme honor and I feel blessed to have had this experience," she said.

For many in the audience who could remember most of the past 50 years in which Jackson has held an iconic position in American politics and social justice issues, his refrain was familiar, as he hasn’t wavered in his commitment to fight for social justice for all Americans.

For the students, watching and listening to this man they have read about in their history books, the experience was one they won’t soon forget.

See pictures from the day’s events here.

Before the presentation, Rev. Jackson taped an episode of Business Matters with the president of the Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, Tony Iannelli. The show is scheduled to air on Monday, March 5 at 8 p.m. on WFMZ-69.  It also will be available at beginning March 6.