Jesse Jackson Invokes History to Encourage Voter Participation - Higher Education
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Jesse Jackson Invokes History to Encourage Voter Participation

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by Tiffany Pennamon


“Keep your eyes on the prize” was the message Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. delivered to audience members at George Mason University (GMU) in an effort to inspire social change and increase voter turnout for the upcoming Virginia elections in November.

On Friday evening, Jackson spoke at GMU’s Harris Theater as a part of his “Healing and Rebuilding” tour, where the civil rights leader called for students, faculty and community members to use the power of their vote to make a difference.

“What’s different about our struggle today? Well, we have the law on our side…the right to vote,” Jackson said. “We’ve advanced in these last 50 years, and we must not let the forces of meanness and meaninglessness set us back.”

Jackson’s opening remarks called to memory the four little girls who were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama exactly 54 years ago to the event’s date—Sept. 15. The long-time civil rights leader said that their untimely deaths made them martyrs for justice, as did the killing of Heather Heyer on Aug.12 in Charlottesville.

The power of “innocent blood can take us forward, not take us back,” said Jackson. “In that tradition…Heather Heyer must be that to this generation because in many ways, we have to redefine this dimension of our struggle.”

During his speech, Jackson highlighted the progress made by decades of fighting for equal voter access starting with women’s right to vote in the 1920s, to the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s. He also discouraged people from attending, if possible, upcoming planned protests by White supremacists and KKK members to prevent more violence and potential deaths.

“There are more of us than them,” he said, adding that the focus should be on retaking Congress. “Don’t be a backdrop to their protests. We must be the generation with character who cares.” Instead, he suggested that this generation’s “burden” is to create a “more perfect union” where we must “build bridges not build walls.

Voting is what he says makes America great.

Jackson’s speech at GMU, hosted by the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Multicultural Education and the Office of Student Involvement, is a part of a larger tour of college campuses, churches and community centers. He is encouraging Virginia residents to register to vote and get informed about upcoming elections. The voter registration deadline in Virginia is Oct. 10, and statewide and municipal elections will be held Nov. 7.

Catering to the young voters especially, “Healing and Rebuilding” tour stops will include Virginia State University, Norfolk State University, Hampton University and the University of Richmond.

For GMU students, the former presidential candidate dispelled any doubts about registering to vote in-state if a student lived elsewhere previously.

“You may have come from New York or Philadelphia. . .you may have come from Danville…but your parents live there,” Jackson said, with audience members repeating his words in a call-and-response style.  “If I go to school at George Mason, get my mail at George Mason, I live at George Mason,” he added to audience applause.

After his speech concluded, Jackson began, “If you are 18 or older and you are not registered to vote at all, please stand.” He invited people who had not yet registered to the stage to fill out voter registration forms. He then extended the invitation for those in attendance to join the Rainbow PUSH Coalition (RPC), the organization he founded in December 1996.

RPC is a multi-racial, multi-issue, progressive, international membership organization that serves to “protect, defend, and gain civil rights by leveling the economic and educational playing fields, and to promote peace and justice around the world,” according to the organization’s website.

The Eta Delta Delta chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., GMU’s undergraduate chapter of the fraternity, paid homage to Jackson, who is also a member of the fraternity.

“To have someone of this magnitude is  a major thing for us,” said Tejon Anthony, the chapter’s president. “We’re just blessed and honored to be here and to have his presence here.”

Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at tpennamon@diverseeducation.com. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.