Jesse Jackson, Jr. Helps Obama Win Black Vote

Farai Chideya talks with Ill. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., son of civil rights activist Jesse Jackson. Jackson, Jr., is supporting Barack Obama for president and has stepped up his support with a one-minute radio ad.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Maybe politics is like a game of kickball - everyone wants their friends and the folks with the muscle on their team, except in the world of presidential politics who choose a team by endorsements, pledges of loyalty from business leaders, celebrities and other politicians. Heavy hitters are starting to publicly announce their vote for president. Representative John Lewis, an icon of the civil rights struggle, chose to endorse Senator Hillary Clinton. And last week, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, a former Justice Department official for President Bill Clinton, chose Barack Obama. Now Senator Obama gets even more support from a congressman who's also the son of a civil rights leader. We're talking about Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., a Democrat from Chicago.

In a one-minute radio ad, Jackson recalls 1988, the year when his father won South Carolina's Democratic presidential primary.

(Soundbite of radio ad)

Representative JESSE JACKSON JR. (Democrat, Chicago): Once, South Carolina voted for my father and sent a strong message to the nation. Next year, you can send more than a message. You can launch a president.

CHIDEYA: With us now, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. Welcome.

Rep. JACKSON JR.: Hello, Farai.

CHIDEYA: How you doing and how does your father feel about invoking his legacy, running this ad in South Carolina?

Rep. JACKSON JR.: Well, Reverend Jackson is a supporter of Barack Obama. He's known Barack most of his life. And Reverend Jackson knows that I served as one of Barack's national chairpersons of his campaign. I'm proud of Barack's effort. He has shown the right judgment needed to lead our country and to rebuild our moral standing in the world. And so I was proud that the senator asked me to participate in this radio advertisement. And I'm fairly confident that the people of South Carolina will hear our message.

CHIDEYA: Now the latest AP poll has African-Americans split down the middle between Obama and Clinton in the presidential race. What is the senator going to do including your ad to really try to reach the African-American voting population?

Rep. JACKSON JR.: Well, remember now, the first contest - the early contests are in Iowa; the next contest in New Hampshire where there's a minimal African-American populations. But South Carolina, nearly 40 percent, almost 50 percent of the general election ballot - nearly 40 percent of the general election electorate are African-Americans in South Carolina. South Carolina has a strong and historic opportunity to send a strong message to the rest of the nation about the future of our country.

CHIDEYA: How long do you think that Senator Obama has to reach black voters and other voters in the sense that there's going to be a flood of primaries? When do you think is a make-or-break moment for him?

Rep. JACKSON JR.: Well, like all other campaigns, the primary dates, the caucus dates are set in stone, and so the senator has roughly 100-day sprint to make the case his message of hope, his message of the new politics to the American people. We are running very strong in Iowa. We've always known that maintaining the kind of super pressed sensitivity to Barack would be very difficult to maintain. It's the holiday season now.

And as the American people begin to focus on this campaign at the turn of the year, at the beginning of the New Year, I'm fairly confident that the American people will look anew and look afresh at Barack Obama. And they won't vote for the politics of the past, they'll vote for the politics of the future. The American people tend to vote, Farai, their hopes not their fears. And so you can't scare people into voting. You have to provide them with the vision and with hope, and I believe the Obama campaign will do just that.

CHIDEYA: Now what about the racial politics of running for president in America? You have unprecedented moment where a white woman and African-American man are vying for the top spot in terms of the Democratic field. This ad that you have done is very specific - referring to our community - issues like racial profiling. Will it reach - hit the right spot in the black community and/or will it distance others of other races?

Rep. JACKSON JR.: Well, I hope it does hit the right spot. Barack Obama is not speaking as a friend of the community; he is speaking as part of the community - he's one of us. He directly relates to the struggles within the African-American community. You know, when my father ran for president in '84 and '88, it was all for the legacy and a history from 1960 to the time he announced his candidacy in 1984 on speaking to issues of civil rights and social justice for African-Americans primarily, but for all Americans. And so Reverend Jackson started with an African-American base. But the political reality of America, to make America better for everyone, Reverend Jackson acknowledged that he had to build a Rainbow Coalition.

Now we have Barack Obama, inheritor of the Rainbow Coalition, a broad base cross-section of Americans who support him who must now do just the opposite of Reverend Jackson's effort. He has a rainbow. He now comes to show up the base, and that's where African-American leaders can measure this candidacy by one standard. Give Barack Obama the opportunity to speak to all Americans about their hopes, about their concerns, about their future, and not limit him to a segment of the population. After all, Barack Obama is not running for mayor of New Orleans, he's not running for mayor of Detroit, he's not running for mayor of Washington, D.C.; he's running for president of the United States, for all Americans. And his candidacy deserves that chance.

CHIDEYA: Very briefly, do you think that in the time between your father's historic runs in 1994 and 1998 and now America has changed enough to have a black man as president?

Rep. JACKSON JR.: Well, I think, very briefly, the question is: Since the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, are all Americans willing to move in a different direction? And I think it's becoming increasingly clear that they are. In 1776, Hillary Clinton could not be the nominee of our party, neither could Barack Obama. In - 1863, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton could not be the nominee of our party. And for sure as I'm sitting here, one of them will be at the nominee in 2008, and that's because America is constantly becoming a better nation.

CHIDEYA: Congressman, thank you so much.

Rep. JACKSON JR.: Farai, thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: We've been speaking with Jesse Jackson Jr. He's a Democratic U.S. representative from Illinois.

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