Jesse Jackson on Martin Luther King’s assassination: ‘It redefined America’

The civil rights veteran, one of only two surviving witnesses to Kings murder 50 years ago, says his mentors response to Trump would have been: We must not surrender our spirits

Jesse Jackson still remembers the audio of the gunshot and the sight of blood. They have been with him for half a century.” Every day I think about it, it’s like pulling a scab off a sore ,” he says.” It’s a hurtful, painful suppose: that a human of love is killed by hate; that a human of peace should be killed by violence; a man who cared is killed by the careless .”

Jackson and fellow civil right veteran Andrew Young are the last surviving adherents of Martin Luther King who witnessed his assassination on 4 April 1968. Others who were at the Lorraine motel in Memphis, Tennessee, that day have been claimed by the happen decades. And each milestone anniversary has offered a snapshot of Jackson’s, and the nation’s, jagged and jarringly uneven narratives.

Twenty years after the deadly shooting, in 1988, Baptist preacher Jackson was mounting his second bid to become America’s first black chairperson. He invoked King and his death repeatedly as he took on Michael Dukakis in the Democratic primaries and caucuses. He won 11 competitions but failed to gain the nomination.

At the 40 -year mark after King’s death, the torch had been passed to Barack Obama, locked in a Democratic primary of his own against Hillary Clinton and under pressure over his relationship with the outspoken pastor Jeremiah Wright. The senator praised Jackson, a fellow Chicagoan, for attaining his run possible. On the night Obama won the presidency, Jackson wept.

The image of a sobbing Rev Jesse Jackson is projected on to a large screen as CNN announces the victory of Barack Obama on 4 November 2008. Photograph: Stan Honda/ AFP/ Getty Images

Now it is 50 years and the wheel has turned again. Jackson announced last November that he has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s illnes . Donald Trump, endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, is in the White House. Just as many find King’s assassination by the escaped convict James Earl Ray- a white man partly inspired by the segregationist governor George Wallace- as a reactionary strike against revolution, so Trump’s election has been interpreted as( in King’s phrase) a” white backlash” against Obama.

Amid the uproar of the 1960 s, King, outspoken against the Vietnam war, was one of the most disliked men in America and their own lives was in constant peril. His house was bombed, his followers were killed, his name was junked by newspaper editorials and his phones were tapped by J Edgar Hoover’s FBI. His two-thirds disapproval rating in a 1966 Gallup poll sits at odds with today’s” I have a dream” sanctification .~ ATAGEND

” They loved him as a martyr after he was killed but rejected him as a marcher when he was alive ,” remembers Jackson, 76, still a dedicated activist, speaking by phone from an African development conference in Morocco.” We tend to embrace martyrs. In many styles he has a moral authority now you wouldn’t see if he was still alive. He is a universal frame of reference for moral authority, the global frame of reference for nonviolent justice and social change. If he had not died, that probably would not be the case .”

King and a group of close aides, including Jackson, headed to Memphis to support predominantly African American garbage workers who had gone on strike for better safety conditions and pay after two colleagues were crushed to demise in the back of a truck. On the evening of 3 April, members of the civil rights leader’s inner circle went to a public gathering at the Mason Temple.” He was reluctant to come to the session that night ,” Jackson says.” He had a migraine headache, he didn’t feel like talking. Ralph Abernathy[ a close friend of King] and I went to the church. The people considered us coming in: they were cheering.

” Then Ralph Abernathy said to me,’ Jesse, they’re not cheering for us. They suppose Martin’s behind us .’ He chuckled. He went to the back of the church and called Dr King on the phone. He said,’ Martin, come to the church and let them see you .’ Dr King told,’ I’ll be there in a few minutes ,’ and he came here. Then Ralph Abernathy dedicated him a instead long introduction to give him time to think .”

Reverend Jesse Jackson: Martin Luther King’ refused to stop what he was doing out of dread because he did it out of courage ‘. Photograph: Christian Alminana/ Cannes Lions

King went on to deliver a speech unbearable in its prescience . He described the” menaces out there” and what fate might befall him at the hands of” some of our sick white brothers “. He said:” But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life- longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now … I’ve appeared over and I’ve seen the promised land .”

Jackson tells:” There are those who think he was anticipating the next day. He had just come from a plane which had been emptied because of the risk of being the plane being hit by a terrorist attack. He was aware but he felt that’ a coward succumbs a thousand times before his death, but the valiant savor of demise but once ‘. He refused to be afraid because of the risk of ambush and sabotage; he refused to stop what he was doing out of dread because he did it out of fortitude .”

The next day, King was staying at his regular Memphis haunt, the Lorraine motel. It was 6pm and the group were preparing to head out for dinner. King was standing on the balcony outside room 306. As Jackson, who was in the car park eight feet below, tells it:” He told,’ You’re late for dinner … You don’t even have on a shirt and tie .’ I said,’ Doc, the prerequisite for eating is appetite , not a tie-in .’ He chuckled and told,’ You’re crazy .’ We joked around that route .”

King turned to Ben Branch , a saxophonist standing next to Jackson, and asked him to perform his favourite ballad, Take My Hand, Precious Lord, at a rally afterwards that night:” Play it real pretty .” Then came the shoot. King was hurled back violently, blood gushed from his jaw and neck as his spinal cord was severed. His affiliation was ripped off by the force of the bullet.

Jackson heard police wail,” Get low! Get low !”, and pour into the scene with firearms drawn. He adds:” We were traumatised to watch him lying there soaked in blood, 39 years old. He’d done so much to attain America better, built bridges, sacrificed his subsistence, sacrificed his life. I remember Ralph Abernathy coming out and saying,’ Get back my friend, my friend, don’t leave us now ,’ but Dr King was dead on impact .”

Jackson walked to his room and called King’s wife, Coretta.” I said to her I think he’s been shot in the shoulder. I couldn’t say what I find. She had a certain resolve, a certain understanding of the danger of the mission. She’d seen him stabbed, she’d heard the threats. She knew the price you paid for trying to construct America better. She had made peace with the fact he could be killed, they both of them could be killed, the house could be bombed. She’d constructed peace with it over a 13 -year period .”

Approximately 5,000 people listen to Martin Luther King at the University of California in Berkeley on 17 May 1967. Photograph: Associated Press

King was taken to hospital but never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead about an hour after being shooting. It was a seismic shock.” In many routes it redefined America: before and after Martin Luther King ,” Jackson says, claiming:” When he was killed, the FBI in Atlanta jumped on the tables in exultation .” But the news also unleashed frenzy across the country. Riots broke out in more than a hundred cities, leaving 39 people dead, more than 2,600 injured and 21,000 arrested, with injury estimated at $65 m.

The civil rights movement was at a crossroads. Some African American leaders called for greater militancy; others vowed to adhere to King’s nonviolent confrontation and disruptive resistance. Jackson reflects:” We had to make a big decision: permit one bullet to kill a whole motion for which we worked and forfeited the game, or oppose even harder, and we did that. In his name we kept opposing. We’ve never stopped, as a matter of fact. He laid the cornerstone. The alliance started rebuilding on the ground laid by his philosophy .”

There were many strides forward- school consolidation, affirmative action- and bitter reversals- school resegregation, voter suppression, a change from spending on poverty to mass incarceration- along the way. He draws a biblical comparison:” Barack won the election in 2008. That’s 40 years after’ 68, which means that it was 40 years in the wilderness. We never stopped running, never stopped creating issues, never stopped combat poverty, never stopped fighting the war. And then, with the momentum of 40 years, we take the White House, win it twice in a row. That an African American man can win in this hostile nation toward black aspiration is significant all by itself, it seems to me .”

And yet then, as if in malign mockery of King’s now overly quoted phrase,” the arc of the moral cosmo is long, but it bends toward justice”, came Trump, who rose to political prominence by questioning whether Obama was born in America and has employed the presidency to stoke racial divisions. The writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates has called the 45 th chairperson a white supremacist.

Would Jackson use the same description?” Self-declared. It’s not exactly a secret. Trump’s cabinet makeup, the decision makers: there is white male ascendancy ideology. The dangerous part of the white domination is in a global world we need the desire and the vision to compete and communicate with the world. We’re surrendering world leadership. There’s no leadership on climate change, on African development. We share 2,000 miles of border with Mexico and they’re a trading partner; to offend Mexico is irrational; to offend Canada likewise.

Mourners, including Ralph Abernathy, centre, and Andrew Young, right, pay their respects as Martin Luther King lies in country in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo: Keystone/ Getty Images

” Dr King believed in multiracial, multicultural alliances of conscience , not ethnic patriotism. He felt patriotism- whether black, white or brown- was narrowly conceived, devoted our global challenges. So having a multiracial set told much about his vision of America and the world, what America should stand for as well as the world .”

It is this internationalist, outward-looking perspective that nourishes Jackson as he seems back on achievements of the past half-century that his mentor would surely have applauded. He points to the restoration of Haiti’s exiled chairwoman, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the release of Nelson Mandela and objective of apartheid in South Africa, the freeing of Africa from colonialism and occupation and, back home, the rising number of African Americans in Congress and other political offices.

” The moral arc of the universe is long and it bends towards justice but you have to pull it to bend; it doesn’t bend automatically ,” Jackson muses.” Dr King are applied to remind us that every time the movement has a tailwind and runs forward, there are headwinds. Those who resist change in some sense were re-energised by the Trump demagoguery. Dr King would have been disappointed by his victory but he would have been prepared for it psychologically. He would have said,’ We must not surrender our spirits. We must use this not to surrender but fortify our faith and fight back .'”

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