TOPICS > Politics

Jesse Jackson Speaks at the Democratic National Convention

August 27, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

TRANSCRIPT

JESSE JACKSON:  Thirty-three years ago tonight, a young preacher about the same age as my son was putting the final touches on one of the great prophetic messages of our age.

On August 28, 1963, Dr. King projected a vision of peace and equality that could heal our nation, and a troubled world. His vision touched America’s conscience. The Republicans in San Diego put forward the image, the vision, of a big tent.

Remember, America – you can’t judge a book by its cover. On the cover, Powell and Kemp. But inside, the book was written by Newt Gingrich and Ralph Reed and Pat Buchanan. What is our vision tonight? Just look around.

This publicly financed United Center is a new Chicago mountaintop. To the South, Comiskey Park, another mountain. To the west, Cook County Jail, with its 11,000 mostly youthful inmates.

Between these three mountains lies the canyon. Once Campbell’s Soup was in this canyon. Sears was there, and Zenith, Sunbeam1, the stockyards. There were jobs and industry where now there is a canyon of welfare and despair. This canyon exists in virtually every city in America. As we gather here tonight:

- one-fifth of all American children will go to bed in poverty;

- one-half of all African-American children, growing up amidst broken sidewalks, broken families, broken cities, broken dreams;

- the No. 1 growth industry in urban America – jails;

- one-half of all the public housing built in this nation during the last decade – jails; – the top 1 percent wealthiest Americans own as much as the bottom 95 percent – the greatest inequality since the 1920s.

As corporations downsize jobs, outsource contracts, scab on workers’ rights, a class crisis emerges as a race problem. The strawberry pickers in California, the chicken workers in North Carolina, deserve a hearing – and justice. We must seek a new moral center. We have been here before.

The last time we gathered in Chicago, high winds ripped our tent apart. We could not bridge the gap. We lost to Nixon by the margin of our despair. In 1968, the tension within our party was over welfare. In 1996, it’s welfare.

Last week, over the objections of many Democratic Party leaders, and the opposition of millions of Americans, Franklin Roosevelt’s six-decade guarantee of support for women and children was abandoned. On this issue, many of us differ with the president. Patricia Ireland and I even picketed the White House.

But we can disagree and debate, and still work together. Diversity is the measure of this party’s strength; how we handle adversity, the measure of our character.

We must find the bridge, keep our tent intact. And we must make the commitment to right the wrongs in this bill.

Now that we have ended welfare as we know it, we must provide jobs and job training and education and day care as we ought to know it.

The fight was never about welfare, but always about jobs and opportunity. Welfare is the exhaust pipe of a failed economic engine. We want to be a part of the engine of growth.

The passage of the welfare bill creates a moral imperative to provide a job with a living wage for every man and woman in America. That was Roosevelt’s dream, and Dr. King’s. What is our obligation to the people in the canyon?

First, we must claim and reclaim our children. We must lift our children up, not lock them up. Instead of three strikes and you’re out, we must have 4 balls and you’re on:

- pre-natal care and Head Start, ball one;

- an adequately funded education, ball two;

- access to a marketable skill or a college education, ball three;

- a good job at a living wage, ball four.

Eleven-thousand youthful inmates to our West, without treatment, most return sicker and slicker.

We need a trade policy that works for working people. Right now, we subsidize corporate welfare to take jobs out of the canyon.

I recently visited Indonesia, and I am clear on this: When corporations can downsize and outsource to nations which pay 30 cents an hour, our workers cannot compete – nor should they have to.

And tonight, labor leader Muchtar Pakpahan and opposition leader Mrs. Megawati face government interrogation and harassment. Respect for human rights must remain a nonnegotiable part of fair trade.

In the canyon, we must have a plan to rebuild and redeem our cities, to reinvest in America.

I suggest we have at least as much sense as the honey bee, which knows enough to repollinate her flower. When the Berlin Wall came down, we offered Poland a development bank – 40-year loans, three-fourths of 1 percent, first payment due in 10 years.

America has $6 trillion in private and public pension funds. We could take 5 percent of the workers’ money, with workers’ consent, government secured, to rebuild our infrastructure.

It will not increase taxes. After World War II, we helped rebuild Germany – the Marshall Plan. We helped rebuild Japan – the MacArthur Plan. Now we must rebuild America.

Sometimes, though, you have to play good defense before you get back on offense.

President Clinton has been our first line of defense against the Newt Gingrich-Contract on America-right-wing assault on our elderly, our students, our civil rights.

We must maintain that line of defense – and protect the first lady, too, from their mean-spirited attacks. We must re-elect the president and take back the Congress, and stop the right-wing train in its track.

In l994, the Gingrich tidal wave was not so high; our sea walls were too low. With only 40,000 more voters, Newt Gingrich would never have taken power.

This low turnout cannot repeat itself in l996; we must inspire and mobilize our base vote – the margin of our hope.

The stakes are so very high.

This year, for the first time in our lives, the right-wing extremists – Dole, Gingrich, Lott, Armey, Helms, and Scalia-Thomas – have a chance to take over all three branches of government. This would be an unparalleled disaster for our people.

Our job is to win in November.

Our mission is to lift America up with a higher vision, to redeem the canyon, to find the moral center.

In this season of high stakes and critical choices, if you don’t vote, you are irrelevant to the process. If you go along to get along, you’re a coward. Only by principled engagement can you be a force for change and hope.

Remember our history: Progress comes through an enlightened president, in coalition with an energized people.

In 1932, FDR did not run on a New Deal platform. The people mobilized around their economic plan, and FDR responded with the New Deal.

FDR was the option. The people provided the answer.

In 1960, neither Kennedy nor Nixon ran for president on the promise of a public accommodations bill. But Dr. King supported Kennedy. JFK was the best option.

Desegregated public accommodations came from Greensboro and Birmingham, from the sit-ins and marches and street heat. From we, the people, in motion.

In 1964, neither Goldwater nor Johnson campaigned on the Voting Rights Act. But Dr. King supported LBJ; he was the best option. We won voting rights on the bridge at Selma.

We, the people provided the answer.

In 1996, Bill Clinton is our best option. The cross is on his shoulders. But burdens shared are easier to bear.

We, the people must organize and mobilize to help the president provide a better answer for America.

In Tracy Chapman’s words, we must “start all over, make a new beginning … make new symbols … redefine the world.”

After November, we, the people must hold on to the moral center, and continue to fight for expansive, inclusive, humane politics in America.

This is our mission. It is a vision worth struggling for.

Keep hope alive.