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Take Five: The Rev. Jesse Jackson, civil rights leader

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 24, 2009 - As African American History Month nears its end, the Rev. Jesse Jackson will speak at the University of Missouri St. Louis. But the Baptist minister and founder of the RainbowPUSH Coalition doesn't have much use for talking about race anymore.

He's done talking.

"We need economic equality and we need economic justice for all Americans," says the Rev. Jackson, who will be speaking Wednesday at UMSL.

"We are in an international economic crisis," he says. "But we must not lose our self-confidence as a nation."

The Beacon spoke with the Rev. Jackson before his trip to St. Louis and asked him five questions about a range of topics from President Barack Obama to discussions about race in the country and what's next for the civil rights leader.

Please share some of your thoughts about the president's first month: What's surprised you, what's disappointed you, what do you hope to see next?

Jackson: "What he has sought to do is to reach out" to Republicans in trying to win support for is economic stimulus package. "In spite of all of that, (Republicans) chose a bitter, hostile ideology."

The Rev. Jackson would like to see the establishment of economic equality, including getting college students access to more scholarships and the ability to borrow at the same low rates banks do. That, he thinks, would revolutionize households.

"This is not just a time for recovery; it's a time for reconstruction."

What would you advise Roland Burris to do right now?

Jackson: "No comment."

Attorney General Eric Holder recently said people weren't really talking about race. Do you agree with him?

Jackson: "We are talking about it. We talked during the entire campaign. ... We talked and voted, and now we need economic security for all Americans, and we are moving beyond talking into acting. The walls of race have been removed. Now we must build the bridges."

Race played a part in discussions about the presidential election. What impact does the financial crisis have in changing the discussion, or do you view them as different branches of the same tree?

Jackson: "We obviously must change the conversation, and so I think some of the discussion about race is a diversion." As a country, we're losing jobs, we're losing the manufacturing base, and drugs and guns are moving into neighborhoods, he added.

While black Americans are now well known for many achievements, including the presidency, blacks still have the No. 1 infant mortality rate, he said, the shortest life expectancy and the highest unemployment.

"Let's keep talking, but let's act. Let's invest. Let's close the gap."

And the results of that can best be understood through a sports analogy. Why do black Americans do so well at sports? he asks.

"Because whenever the playing field is even and the rules are public and the goals are clear, we all do well."

On inauguration day, you talked about the need for a citizen's movement, pushing the president forward and past what he envisions. What's your role now going forward?

Jackson: "We must move from the racial battleground to the economic common ground and moral high ground. We need a stimulus package that's adequate and it must get down to the people."

He's also troubled by continued violence in Darfur and the Congo, by disease and death around the world, and would like to see the country's foreign policy in line with the country's moral values.

The Rev. Jackson sees his role as a voice of conscience, he says.

And despite the challenges ahead, he's encouraged by the ground covered since his presidential bids in 1984 and 1988.

"America is maturing -- and that's a good thing."

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