Jackson pushes social issues at Rock Hill visit

The Rev. Jesse Jackson addresses the audience at Tillman Auditorium at Winthrop University on Sunday. Jackson spoke about young people and voting.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson addresses the audience at Tillman Auditorium at Winthrop University on Sunday. Jackson spoke about young people and voting.

It was the same old Rev. Jesse Jackson charisma Sunday at Winthrop University, with a few more crinkles around the eyes and much less fevered crescendo in the delivery.

The man who walked with Martin Luther King in the 1960s and picked up the banner when King was gone, the man who made an impressive showing among both black and white voters when he ran for president twice in the 1980s, was more subdued in his address before a predominately black crowd of about 250 people at Tillman Auditorium.

People who remember Selma, Ala., and King's assassination were there. Students young enough to be his grandchildren came to see their legendary hero.

By adding good nature to his zeal, Jackson managed at the end of his speech to register about 40 students to vote without raising so much as a drop of sweat on his brow.

Born in Greenville, Jackson has a mission to overcome apathy and register people in his own state to vote. The statewide tour is sponsored by his Rainbow PUSH Coalition. Winthrop's Delta Sigma Theta Sorority hosted the local stop.

Even the BBC was filming his visit to Winthrop. Jackson has been campaigning for workers' rights in Great Britain, where he would like to gain more Rainbow PUSH membership.

The South Carolina visits are nonpartisan. He declines to discuss presidential preferences, though he has said he supports Barack Obama but is not campaigning for him.

His bus arrived 40 minutes late, but the crowd forgave the minute he entered the auditorium. His message addressed issues of yore -- poverty, discrimination, health care.

"In a football game, whites root for blacks to tackle whites," he said, adding the vice versa is true. "Why? Because they play on an even field where the rules are public and the goals are clear, where hard work matters."

That led to a discussion of how lower-income people of all races toil without health care. He called for more emphasis on prenatal care, Head Start and day-care programs and less on the need for building jails.

This new Jackson placed more emphasis on racial and cultural harmony.

Leading the audience in one of his signature repetitive chants, Jackson proclaimed: "We were taught to survive apart. We were taught to fear one another. Fear leads to hate. Hate leads to violence. We must learn to live together, not die apart as fools."

He called the war in Iraq a "house of sand."

"If we can build roads, hospitals, bridges and schools in Iraq," he said, "we can also build them in Rock Hill."

He also called for a ban on assault weapons and touched on women's issues, including the potential for a female president, more than once.

Before darting off to a dinner appearance at 7 p.m., he entered a room to pose for a photo with all of Winthrop's black sorority and fraternity members.

Jackson cast a grandfatherly gaze on the eager young faces and gently said, "We must have a multi-racial base." They scrunched closer together and nodded approval.

On his walk back to the bus, Jackson said this was more of "a teaching visit" than his spirited speeches of the past.

He was not surprised by the BBC interest in his South Carolina tour. "The same groups of people are oppressed no matter where you go," he said.

Although he is not campaigning for a specific presidential candidate, he does demand candidates "speak to issues that affect people's lives."

"Those running must address issues that matter," he said. "They must touch where the people feel differences."