To my complete surprise, through the Young Leaders UK Programme, I was selected to meet Ambassador Matthew Barzun and Jesse Jackson. I’m interested in the civil rights movement and being of the generation in the UK that has not seen such struggles understanding history and the journey to where we are now, is humbling.
Martin Luther King was in his late twenties when he began to lead the civil rights movement in Montgomery. Rev Jesse Jackson was at Martin Luther King’s side throughout the civil rights movement, he too starting in his twenties. He was there when King was shot and killed. He survived a violent history and to be able to touch living history was a privilege. One I won’t forget.
‘Don’t wait’ He said ‘We were doing these things at your age. You can start now.’
I arrived to the event at Winfield House late, having gone to the US Embassy after believing Google maps could not possibly be sending me into the middle of Regent’s Park. In fact there is a road running through the park which has other residences too. Lesson learned – Google maps knows everything.
Fortunately, I had not missed too much and I joined the other YLUK members and sat in a high ceiling opulent drawing room. Jesse Jackson spoke in a relaxed manner about the past, the present and his observations about where we are today. He had not a prepared speech, he gently ambled through the history of his own life story, recollecting and drawing on his thoughts as they came to him.
‘Education is the key’ he said ‘Strong minds break strong chains. My mom used to say (he put on a high pitched accent emulating his mother) ‘once you learn – they can’t unlearn you!’
This is crucial. It is something that as a young person working in a trade union, I am also familiar with. Once a person knows what their rights are, what is right and what is wrong, they are then able to represent themselves, to have a voice. Some say ignorance is bliss – that may be true – but it is also the chain that ties you down.
‘It is better to fight the right fight and lose – than fight the wrong one and win,’ he paused, explaining that ‘sometimes losing is winning because you are paving the way for something to be able to happen.’ This reminded me of a saying from German Playwright Bertolt Brecht ‘If you fight you might lose, if you don’t you have already lost.‘
Rev. Jesse Jackson ran for President in 1984 and 1988, and many believe that these campaigns paved the way for Obama’s election victory in 2008.
‘We are winning…we are in the Whitehouse’ he said, he looked around the room, at the ceiling, the paintings, taking it all in. ‘Look where we are now – we are sitting here in this room, a civic building. That is not something that you could have even thought of doing back then. There is still some way to go. But we are winning.’
We posed questions to him, on gender, race, the future of society on his advice for pushing forward, on social injustice – ‘Simple’ he said. ‘Don’t be guilty of it. If you’re in the office for example and someone speaks badly to a female colleague, you may not deal with it right away you may need to be smart about it. But say something, do something. Don’t be guilty of it.’
The YLUK Programme is for young people, to inspire them and to enable them to work together, to lead in change. As Jessie Jackson said at our meeting ‘You need to love to lead. If you don’t love – you can’t lead.’
Are you interested in becoming a YLUK’er? Click YLUK
NB: I don’t claim that these are perfect quotes – I wrote these down after the event. I hope that they do not misrepresent what was said and that is not my intention.
By Sarah Siena Edwards