Skip to main content

For Dr. King, everybody in and nobody out

By Jesse Jackson, Special to CNN
updated 12:08 PM EDT, Thu April 4, 2013
People wait in line at sunrise for the dedication ceremony at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial on the National Mall in Washington on Sunday, October 16. People wait in line at sunrise for the dedication ceremony at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial on the National Mall in Washington on Sunday, October 16.
HIDE CAPTION
Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Today is the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Rev. Jesse Jackson: King's work was not about complexion, but direction
  • He says if King were alive today, he would fight against poverty, polarization
  • Jackson: King fought for a one, big-tent America, everybody in and nobody out

Editor's note: The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a longtime civil rights activist, is the founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and was an aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

(CNN) -- Today is the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a champion for freedom, civil rights and justice.

I was blessed to be with him the last weekend before his death. I remember the trauma he felt as a result of his opposition to the war in Vietnam.

Before going to Memphis, King had the Rev. Ralph Abernathy call for a staff meeting in his church study on a Saturday morning. His close aides came. King complained that he had felt the pain of "a migraine headache for four days." He said, "Maybe I've done as much as I could. We've come from the back of the bus, gotten the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act..." One of us -- Andy Young -- asked him not to talk that way. King responded, "Don't say peace when there is no peace."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson
The Rev. Jesse Jackson

Many of his supporters had turned against him because of his position on the war in Vietnam, but King felt he had to do what was right. He contended, "There are those who want me to confine my morality to the war on poverty and overlook the war in Vietnam. However, the bombs in Vietnam ultimately explode at home because of poverty." He contemplated fasting until he was near the point of death, anticipating that "those who disagree with me would come to my bedside and we could reconcile."

But then he shook off his pessimism and declared, "Let's turn a minus into a plus, like we did before. Let's make this nation deal forthrightly with the issue of poverty."

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



It was with this insight in mind that we went on to Memphis to work with sanitation workers. Beyond their work and their stained uniforms, these workers wanted their children to graduate from college and to attain the American dream.

King was invited to speak at the Mason Temple church, but he still suffered from a migraine headache. He sent Abernathy and me in his place. It was a big space, and everyone applauded, assuming King was behind us. We went to the back of the church and called King to tell him he had to come, even if not for long. He came. That night, he gave the now famous "mountaintop" speech.

Yet, Memphis is memorable less for the accolades for King than for the condemnations of him. We idolize him now as a martyr; we but rejected him as a marcher.

Dr. King was invested in the war on poverty, but the federal government and the media were invested in the war in Vietnam. He was invested in justice, but many in the world were invested in the status quo. He was vilified, lied to, spied upon, jailed and threatened. Sick and misguided people wanted to see Dr. King dead, but he represented a truth that lives cannot deter, that jails cannot confine, and bullets cannot kill. Those who shot him meant it for evil, but instead they shot him into immortality. King cannot be buried.

When confronted with a dilemma, King often said that we face three questions: First, our vanity asks "Is it popular?" Second, politics asks the question "Can it win?" Finally, conscience asks the question, "Is it right?" It may be neither popular nor politic, King argued, but if it is right it will prevail.

In the time since King saw his vision from the mountaintop, much has changed for the better. Three women have been appointed to the Supreme Court; voting has become more democratic; women sit on juries as well as men; students vote en masse. We now have a black president and our state legislatures and local governments are comprised of people who are black, Asian, Hispanic, white, female and male.

Ultimately though, King's work was not about complexion, but direction. He fought for freedom, but equality was the next stage. Freedom was the absence of barbarism and sickness; the fight for equality is a move towards sharing resources.

Former allies in the freedom movement would not necessarily be our allies in the equality movement. We may go to sporting events together, like when the New Orleans Saints play the Atlanta Falcons, but when the game is over we rarely vote together, do not share capital and grow together. We are missing an opportunity and growing apart.

While we struggle over the battles of sequestration and fiscal cliffs, we ignore the growth of poverty. Instead of horizontal divergence based on race, we now face vertical polarization that separates the haves from the have-nots. There is no apparent plan for reconstruction.

If King were alive today, I imagine he would cry out for new priorities. He could not rest with the new forms of war and old forms of poverty. He would abhor the political polarization that is the new normal in American life. He would challenge the rhetoric of states rights and its attempt to undermine a more perfect union. King fought for democracy over Democrats, the republic over Republicans, a one big-tent America: everybody in and nobody out.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jesse Jackson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT