Almanac

Schools - February 26, 2014

Jesse Jackson challenges M-A students

by Dave Boyce

Grandfathers may recognize the situation that faced the Rev. Jesse Jackson around 2:15 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 20, as he took the stage at the Performing Arts Center at Menlo-Atherton High School. Mr. Jackson, 72, was trying to communicate with teenagers. In the darkened theater, every one of the 500 seats had an M-A student in it.

While Mr. Jackson's trademark call-and-response exchanges did not achieve the energy of a revival meeting, students did play along and gave him thunderous applause when applause was called for.

Mr. Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, was in town to visit the organization's East Palo Alto office. The likely reassignment of all East Palo Alto children to M-A seemed an occasion to invite Mr. Jackson to speak, M-A Principal Matthew Zito told the Almanac.

Mr. Jackson arrived at M-A's podium and began in a way familiar to anyone attuned to politics and civil rights in the 1970s and 1980s. "I am," Mr. Jackson said boldly and loudly into the microphone. "I am," said the students in a unified reply. "Somebody," Mr. Jackson said, and the students echoed him.

And not for the last time. Two or three repetitions later, Mr. Jackson went into his remarks. He spoke with no notes for about 30 minutes, his talk punctuated every few minutes by uplifting and perhaps spontaneous chants — on togetherness, on doing one's best, on thinking of oneself as a global citizen, on succeeding academically, on being a teenager.

"I'm too old — to be a child — and not old enough — to be an adult. — I'm in — a twilight zone."

The community awaiting them as adults is a global one. Distances on the planet have been "dwarfed by science and speed," Mr. Jackson said. he gave an example of two airliners taking off from New York City, one heading to San Jose, California, the other to Senegal. A mere seven hours later, the passengers deplane and are half a planet apart.

But America is special, he said. "China is for the Chinese, France is for the French, Britain is for the English," he said. "Americans are those who yearn to breathe free," he said, referring to the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. "What makes America great is our ability to take rejected stones and make of them cornerstones and build a great nation."

"We must learn to live together and learn to speak more than one language," Mr. Jackson said. "We must all learn to live together like brothers and sisters."

A French twist

Mr. Jackson recalled his own experience on speaking another language. Upon entering high school, he was accomplished enough to play on the football team, rare for a freshman. Well and good, but as a sophomore, his mother told him, he would be signing up for the choir. He resisted, but in the end joined the choir. His mother then added learning French to his load.

He fought that, too. But it was "a momocracy," he said. He signed up but decided to underachieve. He learned croissant and poulet and a few other words.

He graduated and wound up working with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on civil rights. In 1963, when Dr. King spoke in Washington, D.C., of his dream of living in a nation in which people would not be "judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character," the reality was very different than today, Mr. Jackson noted.

From Texas to Maryland, he said, African Americans could not use a "whites only" public toilet. They couldn't sit at the front of a bus, he noted. They couldn't buy ice cream at a Howard Johnson restaurant, or stay in the hotel.

Mr. Jackson was on the hotel balcony with Dr. King when he was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. "We decided we would not let one bullet kill a whole movement, so we kept moving," he told the M-A gathering.

The movement led him to Chicago, where he had a home. At one point, he was to host an ambassador from an African country. Mr. Jackson and friends and family were sprucing up his home and yard, he said, when a couple of big limousines pulled up. The ambassador stepped out and had a question for Mr. Jackson: "Parlez-vous francais?" To which Mr. Jackson, having been an underachiever in high school, had but one answer: "No."

"No one has the right to do less than their best," he told the students.

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