The Children's Crusade

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The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson has made a pledge. A pledge to the nation's children. A pledge to crusade against youth violence and its disproportionate impact on the black community. A pledge to "Reclaim Our Youth."

But after three decades of fighting civil-rights battles, the 52-year-old former Presidential candidate and Rainbow Coalition founder knows he can't do it alone.

So he's taken to the road to ask others to pledge their support. He's looking to schools, churches, and parents for a helping hand. But perhaps most appropriately, Jackson has turned to the students themselves.

"Students cannot be exempt from the army to fight the war on drugs,'' he charges. "There can be no draft dodgers in this war. There must be a values revolution. And the victims must lead it."

Last month, Jackson took time out between school visits to speak to Education Week Staff Writer Meg Sommerfeld about his Reclaim our Youth campaign.

Despite the cold and dreary day outside, the Rainbow Coalition's national headquarters in Washington were abuzz with activity.

Sitting behind his desk, surrounded by an array of plaques and awards, Jesse Jackson immediately began to spell out his agenda. He spoke passionately about the coalition's charge to "challenge families and youth to stop the self-destructive behavior, stop the violence, stop the flow of guns and drugs, and step away from a decadent, degenerative value system.''

Over the past six months, Jackson has taken that charge to some two dozen schools across the country. At each school, he has asked students to sign a pledge promising to take an active role in ending the choke hold of drugs and violence on schools.

In addition to these visits, the Rainbow Coalition has launched a church-based effort to mentor youths who have come into contact with the juvenile-justice system. The coalition hopes that 100 churches in 100 cities across the nation will each pledge to "reclaim'' 10 first-time, nonviolent juvenile offenders. (See Education Week, Sept. 29, 1993.) The outreach effort will also involve police officers, judges, social workers, educators, and others who interact with at-risk youths.

The Rainbow Coalition officially unveiled the initiative at its anti-violence summit of black leaders in Washington this past January. Drawing a host of prominent speakers--including U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, entertainer Bill Cosby, film director Spike Lee, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and countless state and local elected officials--the event garnered national media attention. Yet, Jackson avoids calling the Reclaim Our Youth campaign "new.''

He prefers, instead, to describe it as "an expansion and emphasis'' of his earlier work begun in Chicago in the 1970's through the Push for Excellence program. That effort "was designed to motivate youth to achieve against the odds, to achieve academically the way we would achieve athletically, and to use the same basic disciplines and commitments to do it,'' Jackson recalls.

Twenty years ago, he suggests, teenage pregnancy was the primary issue of concern for young people. Today, it is drugs and violence. "We've seen the social, the cultural, moral values deteriorate,'' he observes. "We've never seen such explicit violence and sex and vulgarity as we are now witnessing.''

The campaign has also evolved in part out of Jackson's own experiences. In 1989, he and his family moved from Chicago to northwest Washington, not far from Howard University. "My family lives in the heart of the city, by choice,'' Jackson says. "So we witness the killings in our streets, the shootings.'' Though he does not mention it at the time, his own family's home has been burglarized.

"But,'' he adds quickly, "we also see the hope of people fighting back. We've seen the neighborhood rally.''

Having reared five children of his own, Jackson has witnessed firsthand the obstacles black youths must overcome. "All three of our boys, all three of them, have played by the rules. But they have been handcuffed, they have been falsely accused, they have looked down the barrel of the police guns,'' he recalls. "God forbid if they had been guilty. They had two things going for them. They were innocent and sober. And they had a family that's staying with them. So they have been able to survive the fire, but not the smoke.''

"Until this national mindset changes,'' Jackson concludes, "all of our youth will have smoke on their clothes.''

Breaking the Silence

As he speaks at school assemblies across the country, Jackson paints a picture of a "conspiracy of silence'' that has enabled a culture of drugs and guns to thrive.

During a recent visit to Greenville (S.C.) High School, Jackson began in his usual fashion, asking students to stand up if they answered "yes'' to a series of questions.

"I asked my routine questions: 'How many of you know someone in your age group who is dead because of drugs?' And half of them stood. 'How many of you know someone in your age group who's in jail because of drugs?' All of them stood.''

He pressed on. "'How many of you know someone who has taken drugs in this school?' All of them stood. 'How many of you know who sells drugs in schools?' All of them stood. 'How many of you know someone who has brought a gun to school?' Almost all of them stood.''

And then he pulled out all the stops. "'How many of you have told some teacher, or some parent, or some minister, about it?''' he asked.

And no one moved.

"That,'' he explains, "is called a code of silence. That complicity may come from fear, or it may come through collaboration, but it's complicity. And in that silence, that school becomes a sanctuary for drugs and guns. An incubator.''

Rather than conform to this code of silence, Jackson says, young people must create and uphold a code of honor that will expose purveyors of drugs and violence.

"You must not only not take drugs and guns yourself,'' he told the students, "you must drive them out.''

Afterward, he asked them to sign a eight-point pledge. Those who do promise--among other things--to renounce drugs and guns and to study three hours a night without music, television, or interruption from phone calls or social visits.

After all, Jackson says, "the people who have the greatest interest in a safe environment must fight for one.''

Throughout the interview, Jackson speaks with passion and conviction about his hope for the future of America's young people, his sentences often unfolding into the sermon-like cadences that mark his public speeches.

"Victims must always accept the burden--though not the blame--to initiate change,'' he continues. "Slavemasters don't retire, the slaves have to fight back. Sex abusers don't change, the abused have to fight back. Oppressors don't change, the oppressed have to fight back. Those youth who are now on line to be shot or jailed, those who are trying to learn in fear, they must assume some responsibility to fight back.''

Teaching Values

Likewise, Jackson suggests, school leaders cannot sidestep their responsibilities. First, they must take greater steps to insure that their campuses are secure.

Mid-conversation, an aide brings in some steaming soup, which Jackson manages to gulp down between his answers.

But beyond a good security plan, Jackson continues, schools must communicate a strong sense of morals and ethics.

"The ultimate anti-drug weapons are a set of values and a made-up mind,'' he asserts. "Both of which can be taught, you know. That's why character education''--he pauses and repeats the phrase deliberately--"character education, and not just I.Q. education, must be taught.''

Searching for an metaphor, he points to a basketball game he attended during his visit to Greenville High. "There, with a sense of focus, the players, black and white, played together. They pulled for each other, they passed to each other. They dove on the floor for balls together. They sweated together. Black and white players, black and white cheerleaders. They're conditioned, they're trained to be ballplayers, they're trained to be cheerleaders. ... Unless they do those things together, they cannot win.''

Students must learn such lessons off the court, too, Jackson suggests. "Unless they're conditioned to reject sex without love--making unhealthy, unwanted babies--then they will do it. And we cannot teach math in between crack sniffs. We cannot teach literature in between gunshots.''

Reaching Parents

Parents also have a critical role to play in Jesse Jackson's game plan. Yet, schools, he charges, have often failed to embrace their assistance.

"While schools have P.T.A. meetings, they've basically rejected parental involvement. There's a real tension between parents and teachers. And, yet, that wall must come down, if either is to survive. We know that when parents and teachers know each other, the teachers teach differently. And when parents and teachers know each other, children behave differently.''

Ironically, Jackson notes, sometimes, parents are more willing to invest their own time and energy if they decide to take their child out of a public school. "I've seen parents take their child out of a school two blocks from the house and put that child in a private school 90 miles away and drive up every weekend. And they're far more familiar with the teachers 90 miles away than teachers three blocks down the street.''

"That's an attitude,'' he concludes, an attitude Jackson believes needs to change. "We seem to have more confidence in our private schools for the few than in our public schools for the many.''

So, in addition to the student pledge, the Rainbow Coalition is asking parents to sign their own five-part pledge, agreeing to take their child to school, meet their child's teacher, exchange home phone numbers, turn off the TV for three hours a night, and pick up their child's report card every nine weeks.

Weaving a Basket

Also at the root of the problem, Jackson suggests, is the failure of schools to cultivate relationships with churches and other places of worship in their communities.

"For the most part, schools have felt they could operate in a vacuum apart from churches,'' he asserts. Ministers, priests, and rabbis are typically only invited to schools for graduations, or to preside over a crisis, he observes.

Today's schools should be able to adhere to the constitutional provisions of separation of church and state, Jackson says, and still find a place for churches.

"It is said that it takes a village to raise a child,'' Jackson notes, referring to a popular African proverb. "It takes teachers and preachers and priests and rabbis and retired people and senior citizens and the barber and the service-station attendant. Somehow, as a center of the social-cultural matrix, schools must have a sense of involving other people in that process.''

Similarly, he observes, churches can help facilitate parent-teacher bonding. "You know, these areas where most of the women are without husbands, the priest, the rabbi, the pastor can initial the child's report card, to be that extended parent, that co-partner.''

"The same is true with those institutions and the judicial order,'' he continues, referring to the Reclaim Our Youth plan to have churches mentor first-time, nonviolent offenders. "Judges, with the right working relationship with the social worker and religious leaders, can direct those youth to a religious institution and not to jail. It's morally right, it's healthy, and it's cheaper.''

"The bottom line is, we must weave a basket. Each of these institutions represents its own little strip of straw. And unless they interrelate and interconnect, and become woven, they won't have a foundation that can hold up our youth ... a solid place for them to stand.''

Restoring Faith

Cutting the interview short to rush off to another meeting, Jackson promises to resume the conversation the next day.

By 4 o'clock the next afternoon, Jackson's animated public persona is less evident. He seems tired, almost weary, his voice at times trailing off at the end of a sentence.

Nevertheless, he launches into an explanation of how his work on the youth-violence front ties into the broader civil-rights movement. "Civil-rights frontiers are always defined either by what threatens us or by our objectives,'' he remarks. Today, he notes, the number-one cause of death among young black Americans is homicide. "It's the new civil-rights frontier because it takes the most lives.''

What's more, he continues, violence is driving the nation's budget priorities. But he says he is frustrated by the Clinton Administration's responses, which he describes as dominated by "the politics of fear and reaction.''

"As opposed to having an action to educate those youth, there's a fear, there's a reaction to incarcerate them. 'Three strikes and you're out, lock 'em up.''' In the past, he says, public schools were seen as the way out. Today, Jackson fears that too many people think state-of-the-art jails are the solution.

"We've got to revive our confidence and our faith in our children, and re-establish confidence in public education for the masses of our children,'' he argues, pointing out that such a shift requires the participation of national political leaders. "Public leaders must begin to advocate for the schools, they must begin to project their value, their significance.''

After all, Jackson says, "What has made America the most productive country in the world has been access to public education. Here, it's log cabin to White House; Hope, Ark., to Yale to the White House. Suppose there had been no public education in Hope, Ark.? In Americus, Ga.? We have Presidents who have come from peanut farms and cotton plantations and went on to achieve.''

"Dreams keep coming from these uncommon places,'' Jackson continues. "The astronaut Ron McNair, he went to North Carolina A&T, where I went to school. The guy who's about to be an assistant A.G. [attorney general] for civil rights, Deval Patrick, came from the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago.''

"The point is, we cannot give up on measuring our character by how we treat 'the least of these,''' he concludes. "Is that not the great biblical message?''

Commenting on the various strategies used to bolster school-desegregation efforts, such as magnet schools or public school choice, Jackson says merely that he supports "any combination that attracts.'' Although he hardly offers a rousing endorsement, he does seem to think that efforts to create special schools designed for black youths in such cities as Baltimore and Detroit are worth experimenting with--at least for the time being.

"In some selected situations, it may be all that's left, based upon desperation,'' he muses. "Ideally, people ought to learn and live and grow amongst each other, and compete with one another, in their developing years. But every time I go to the penitentiary, there's an all-black-male academy. So if it came to that, I'd rather see all-black-male high schools with some real commitment to discipline and regimentation.''

Facing the Music

In recent months, Jackson has attracted media coverage for his forceful condemnation of the profane and misogynistic lyrics featured in some "gangsta rap'' recordings. "We must not satisfy the vulgar appetites of our enemies by referring to our own people as niggers, bitches, and whores,'' Jackson declared at the Rainbow Coalition's anti-violence summit, a remark that elicited applause from the audience.

While still critical of these recordings, Jackson draws attention to the need to eliminate what he views as a double standard for white entertainers. "The same year the media put a lot of focus on Ice-T and 'Cop Killer,''' Jackson points out, "the most popular movie was 'The Terminator,' with Arnold Schwarzenegger, a high-tech cop killer''--the same actor, he has noted, whom President Bush named to head the President's Council on Physical Fitness.

"Gangsta rappers,'' he says, "are not real gangsters, they're just imitating the worst in society. It gives them a false sense of power. As they speak with anger about their experience, they speak in defiance, they're reflecting what they have lived through. These youth at age 18, they're planning their funerals.''

"My appeal is for them to change society, not just imitate it,'' Jackson continues, "to transform it, not just reflect it.''

Yet, Jackson also thinks the issue has been blown out of proportion relative to other pressing societal concerns. "Race-degrading lyrics are distasteful. But race discrimination is unbearable. That's where the real focus has to be, race discrimination.''

"We would do well to focus on forces that are abusing power, and thereby denying opportunity, denying access. We should be focusing on educational equity for our youth. Vocational skills and a job for their parents. A comprehensive health-care plan. A clean environment. We must seek to build coalitions and be kind toward one another.''

With this vision in mind, Jesse Jackson continues to forge ahead with his blueprint for improving the lives of America's young people. This April 4, on the 26th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rainbow Coalition will sponsor a youth march on Washington to urge the White House to address young people's need for "jobs, job training, and justice.'' According to the coalition, Jackson hopes the march will "turn Dr. King's crucifixion date into a resurrection.''

Asked about what he does to keep going in the face of the barrage of depressing statistics and stories that fill the nightly news broadcasts and the daily newspapers, Jackson has a simple answer: "Pray.''

"There's great strength in religion,'' he observes. "Religion should not isolate us, it should insulate us. It should give us the capacity to go through the storm without drowning, to go through the fire without being consumed. I gain strength from the hope that I see among those who are willing to fight back. Fortunately, for those of us who are driven by hope, one candle can challenge a whole room full of darkness. So we must let our light shine."

Vol. 13, Issue 25, Page 36-38

Published in Print: March 16, 1994, as The Children's Crusade
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