Social Justice Day: The Reverend Jesse Jackson’s History on Campus

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Today, the University of Maryland hosts its second annual Social Justice Day, a campus-wide event for faculty, staff, students, and the community. After a day-long series of events and discussions on important social justice issues, featuring a morning keynote speech from Innocence Project Co-Founder Peter Neufeld, the Reverend Jesse Jackson will deliver a closing keynote speech in the Memorial Chapel. University Archives welcomes Reverend Jackson back to campus by revisiting his previous appearances through Diamondback articles accessed from our Student Newspapers database.

Reverend Jackson has appeared on campus multiple times, the first  on April 24, 1985, at Cole Field House, as part of his state primary presidential campaign. Ahead of Jackson’s visit to campus, Chancellor John Slaughter said Jackson “clearly demonstrated to the country that he’s a person of great sensitivity and compassion. He’s a very articulate and thoughtful spokesman on a number of issues, not only on civil rights and human rights, but economics and foreign policy.”

Jackson supporters began rallying several weeks earlier in the Nyumburu Cultural Center on April 4. “The fundamental reason we have to support Reverend Jackson is economic democracy. Our economy is being undermined by corporations. We’ve got to hold them accountable,” said Alvin Thornton, Jackson’s state issues coordinator. Ahead of Jackson’s first appearance, student reactions were mixed. “This rally is not a University of Maryland, College Park deal: it’s statewide,” said Michael White, sophomore computer science major and coordinator for Jackson supporters on campus. “There are a lot of things I don’t like about it, but that’s the way it has been run by the state campaign.” Members of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) also anticipated Jackson’s appearance. Campus treasurer Sally Davies considered Jackson’s rally “very historic,” saying it was the first time they requested leave for the entire University of Maryland system. “Jesse Jackson speaks for all the poor and working people,” said campus AFSCME Vice President William Swain. Chancellor Slaughter supported the gesture, expecting department heads to grant leave to employees requesting to attend the rally. “It is through such appearances that citizens of the state are able to make informed political decisions, and such democratic processes should be encouraged whenever possible,” said Slaughter.

Although Jackson’s campaign expected a crowd of 15,000 at Cole Field House, Jackson spoke to a crowd of between 2,000 to 5,000 people. “We need more than a new president, we need a new direction. It’s time for a change,” said Jackson during his speech. For Jackson, this ‘new’, ‘right’ direction included both higher corporate taxes and national health care. During his speech, Reverend Jackson said things such as “in a nuclear age, we cannot fight it out, we must think it out,” and, promoting his progressive tax plan, “those who make the most should pay the most.” The audience, repeatedly interrupting Jackson with applause, responded with a standing ovation, chanting “Win, Jesse! Win!” Regarding the underwhelming turnout, state campaign coordinator Sherman Roberson challenged Ronald Reagan and other opposing candidates to “pick a Tuesday, come here and do what we did.” During Jackson’s rally, Chancellor Slaughter also provided a red-and-white Terrapin jacket, which Jackson immediately donned.

Jackson returned to campus later that year on September 25, sponsored by Alpha Phi Alpha and the campus chapter of the NAACP.  Standing on a chair, Jackson told a crowd at the Hornbake Library plaza, “from womb to tomb, you are in the political process. You have no capacity to escape your political responsibilities,” adding “if you want to go to graduate school and not to war, you must give peace a chance and give Reagan a ranch.” Reverend Jackson also emphasized the importance of education, stating “schools and teachers at their worst are better than jail and jail wardens at their best.” In Jackson’s second appearance, he seemed “more animated and in lighter spirits” than his previous visit, when he was “guarded by a phalanx of Secret Service officers.”

Reverend Jackson returned to campus briefly on June 23, 1986, for the public memorial service for Maryland basketball star Len Bias. Jackson’s remarks began with a request for a round of applause for Bias, in which the audience responded with a two and a half-minute standing ovation. “You cannot judge Lenny, or any other player, on the basis of his last shot,” Jackson told the crowd of 11,000 at Cole Field House.

Returning to campus at Ritchie Coliseum on Saturday March 5, 1988, while campaigning for president, days before Super Tuesday, Reverend Jackson spoke to a crowd of roughly 600 who had waited for him for over four hours, promoting corporate taxation and addressing issues such as the War on Drugs.

Jackson spoke on campus twice in 1992, the first time on February 3, at the Hardee’s in Stamp Student Union, to promote voter registration as part of a Rainbow Coalition nationwide effort to empower students through voter registration drives. “Every vote counts. Whenever young Americans have come alive, America has always been made better,” said Jackson. “You are empowered if you have the will to use that strength. If you want jobs when you graduate, vote about it. If you want better housing, vote about it.” After Jackson’s speech, a voter drive registered 242 students. Eight months later, he returned to Stamp in the Colony Ballroom, where he told a crowd of roughly 400 students to support Bill Clinton and Al Gore in the upcoming presidential election. Before his speech and discussion, Jackson watched the Vice Presidential debate with the audience. “Students must identify their interests,” Jackson told the audience. “If their interests are in more scholarships and more aid and less tuition; if their interest is in the American economy and putting people back to work in a cleaner, healthier environment; interest in choice for women, then there must be a one-term limit put on the Bush-Quayle administration.”

Has it really been 26 years since Reverend Jesse Jackson has spoke on campus? Seems hard to believe. We welcome him back to the University of Maryland and look forward to his message as part of Social Justice Day.

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