Rev. Jesse Jackson speaks at the 28th annual Civil Rights Breakfast at the War Memorial Building.
Describing Baltimore as “the capital of civil rights in America,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson exhorted a crowd of about 300 people at the War Memorial Building downtown to “keep fighting the good fight” for equality even as significant strides have been made toward that goal in the U.S. over the past half-century and more.
Jackson, 77, among the most prominent surviving figures of the civil rights movement, cited landmark moments from that struggle Friday, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, before urging his audience to take action to advance other forms of equality in American society, including opportunities for better public education and for more business ownership for minorities.
“We are out of slavery, and free, but not equal," Jackson cried at one point, leaving it to the audience to repeat the phrase first once, then two more times, as part of a call-and-response rhetorical style he has helped make famous.
Jackson’s talk served as both the 28th annual Civil Rights Breakfast, a city event that traditionally draws community political and thought leaders together for discussion of related issues, and the kickoff of the city’s first annual Baltimore Civil Rights Week.
An initiative of the Baltimore Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement, the week will feature at least one civil rights-related public activity per day through Oct. 5. The events include a visit Sunday to Union Baptist Church in Upton for a discussion of the role of the church in the fight for civil rights; a panel discussion Monday on health-care disparities at Harbor Hospital, and forums on policing, the census, the so-called school-to-prison pipeline and more.
Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who interviewed Jackson onstage after his keynote address, said the city timed the week to commemorate two watershed events in history — the arrival of the first enslaved Africans on American shores 400 years ago and the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act 55 years ago.
He described Jackson as “one of the most important contributors to the passage of that act” — and agreed with the civil rights icon that its goal of bringing about equality for all has yet to be met.
“Despite the tremendous progress that has been made since 1964, we must continue to fight for equal opportunity,” Young said.
Jackson’s remarks included numerous references to Baltimore. He cited the city’s legacy as home to such civil rights heavyweights as the former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, former U.S. Rep. Parren Mitchell, and famed longtime NAACP lobbyist Clarence Mitchell, an instrumental figure behind the passage of most of the landmark legislation of the 1960s.
He also mentioned the digs President Donald Trump took at the city in July when he derided it as a “rat and rodent infested mess” and “a place where no human being would want to live.” Trump made the comments in criticism of U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, whose district includes part of the city.
To Jackson, the incident was important because, while it hurt feelings in the city, little action was taken in response.
“We resented it,” he said, pausing for listeners to repeat the words, “but we didn’t act on it.”
The program included recognition of three teens who have excelled in civil rights work — Aanishah Hussein, a senior at Notre Dame Preparatory School in Towson, who spent last summer researching the work of police oversight agencies in American cities in the Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement, and Tyvon Clark and Jankani Masi, 13-year-old students at Francis Scott Key Elementary Middle School who created an app called Aqua that is intended to enhance the process of speech interpretation for the deaf.
Before announcing scholarships for those students, Democratic state Sen. Jill P. Carter of Baltimore told the crowd it’s critical to celebrate “our best and brightest” and “recognize those who are following in the footsteps of greatness.”
Jackson was restrained in his remarks about Trump, a president of whom he has been openly critical, though he did leap to his feet at one point and share a joke about the chief executive. It involved a plane flight on which four people were passengers — Trump, Oprah Winfrey, former President Barack Obama and a schoolboy — and only three parachutes were available when the engines failed. In Jackson’s telling, Trump quickly grabbed one of the parachutes — only to learn, too late, that it was the boy’s backpack.
He cited information he said was more important than the president’s often brash tweets: the progress that has been made in electing minority representatives to Congress over the past decade.