Participating in the Struggle of America

What did Jackson see as the true meaning of America? What did he see as the proper means and ends of the civil rights movement? Why did he fear that black Americans would lose sight of the true meaning of their struggle? What was his criticism of the “direct-action” methods practiced by other civil rights protestors? What did he believe to be the properly constructive idea of direct action? With respect to Jackson’s contention that no minority group can prevail by forcing a direct confrontation with the majority, do subsequent events in the history of the civil rights movement support or disprove his position?
Which is the more defensible position: Joseph Jackson’s defense of America or Malcolm X’s repudiation of it? Also consider Jackson’s concern that direct-action protest would degenerate into a spirit of revenge and mob violence. How would the Black Power authors and the authors of the Kerner Commission report respond to this concern? How does Jackson’s defense of the rule of law compare or contrast with Bayard Rustin’s position regarding the relation between law and justice?

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Another unjustly neglected figure in America’s civil rights story, the Reverend Joseph H. Jackson (1900–1990) was born in rural Mississippi. Largely self-educated in his early years, he received his higher education at Jackson College (now Jackson State University), at Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, and at Creighton University. He began his career as a Baptist minister in Philadelphia but spent most of his career as the pastor of Olivet Baptist Church in Chicago, where he served until his death in 1990.

Jackson was an influential national leader. Beginning in 1953, he served for nearly thirty years as president of the National Baptist Convention (NBC), an association of black Baptist churches originally formed in 1895 and, during Jackson’s career, the largest black religious organization in the United States. His tenure as NBC president was at times tumultuous. A factional dispute, in part concerning the convention’s positions on the proper approach in civil rights activism, came to a head at the 1961 annual meeting and resulted in a schism. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose family had been involved in the NBC from its beginning, and other advocates of a relatively militant approach to civil rights left the NBC to form the Progressive National Baptist Convention.

This selection draws together excerpts from addresses Jackson delivered at NBC annual meetings in 1962 and 1964—a period when the civil rights movement, in his judgment, was reaching a crucial turning point.

—Peter C. Myers

Source: Joseph H. Jackson, Unholy Shadows and Freedom’s Holy Light (Nashville: Townsend Press, 1967), 192, 194, 195–96, 196–99. We date the selection to 1964 because the longest excerpt is from a speech Jackson gave that year and because that date best reflects Jackson’s position in the evolving debate over the character of the civil rights movement.

[Address to the National Baptist Convention 1962]

The American Negro today faces the greatest crisis of his history since the days of Reconstruction. And his future as a man and as an American citizen and as a citizen of the world depends on how well he faces the test of this hour and how constructively he uses the opportunities at hand. . . .

The next forward step in racial development and progress will not be made by our white friends for their Negro neighbors, but will be made by Negroes for themselves. And this step depends not on what Negroes can force others to give or do for them, but what Negroes in the light of new opportunities will do for themselves and for the social order in which they live. We then must possess a new courage to face frankly the failures and shortcomings in our local community, and address ourselves with boldness to the correction of the same; for it takes far more courage to face the personal problems in our lives and those in our immediate families and communities, than it does to analyze the shortcomings of those who oppose our growth and development. We must go from protest to production. . . .

Protest has its place in the economic, political, and social struggle of mankind, and by it much good has been achieved. But I repeat, protest is not enough. We must go from protest to production. That is, we must seize every opportunity new and old in order to become creators as well as consumers of goods, we must become inventors as well as the users of the tools of production and also the investors of capital as well as the spenders of it. Our strategy in this struggle must not be based on an assumption that the relationship of manager and laborer, owner and user of capital, will or should always characterize the relationship between our white opponents and the Negro race. Any Negro leader who shapes his philosophy, his theory, and his practice as if the end of our economic struggle has been attained when we win the right to be hired in a factory owned by another, is a traitor to the highest potentials of his race and a dangerous enemy to social progress, and a stumbling block to mankind. While we know employment is an economic necessity, earning and spending is not enough for a progressive people. . . Remember, my friends, that no people have ever been given their independence simply on petition, and no race has come to its deserved heights of equality by resolutions adopted by powerful assemblies, and no people have ever been fully emancipated by the mere writing of new laws or the amendments of old ones. Neither have any struggling people been moved to the unquestioned heights of freedom by the verdicts of courts or the rulings of judges however lofty and far-reaching the verdicts might be. Freed men are not really free until they learn to exercise their new acquired opportunities to gain for themselves economic, intellectual, political, moral, and spiritual independence and self-reliance. For hands freed of manacles, and feet liberated from chains will atrophy and will grow weaker still unless employed immediately and constantly in the pursuit of freedom and in the task of human betterment, moral and spiritual uplift. . . .

[Address to the National Baptist Convention 1964]

. . . We have heard much in recent months about direct action in terms of boycotts, pickets, sit-ins, and demonstrations of various kinds. In each case the purpose as stated is a lofty one; namely, the winning of civil rights and the achievement of the equality of opportunity. I repeat, these are worthy ends and desirable goals, but this kind of direct action is orientated against others, and for the most part, must be classified in the negative since they have been designed to stop, arrest, or hinder certain orderly procedures in the interest of civil rights. In some cases, however, these actions have been against practices and laws considered to be both evil and unjust.

Today, I call for another type of direct action; that is, direct action in the positive which is orientated toward the Negro’s ability, talent, genius, and capacity. Let us take our economic resources, however insignificant and small, and organize and harness them, not to stop the economic growth of others, but to develop our own and to help our own community. If our patronage withdrawn from any store or business enterprise will weaken said enterprise, why not organize these resources and channel them into producing enterprises that we ourselves can direct and control. In the act of boycotting, our best economic talents are not called into play, and we ourselves are less productive and seek to render others the same. Why not build for ourselves instead of boycotting what others have produced? We must not be guilty of possessing the minds and actions of a blind Samson who pulled a massive building down upon himself as well as his enemies, and died with them in a final act of revenge. No act of revenge will lift a race from thralldom, and any direct actions that reduce the economic strength and life of the community are sure to punish the poor as well as the rich. Direct actions that encourage and create more tensions, ill will, hostility, and hate, will tend to make more difficult the mental, moral, and spiritual changes essential to new growth and creativity in human relations.

Remember that when we seek to change certain acquired notions and habits of men we are seeking to change that which is very vital in human nature. When we labor to change segregationists and racists who believe they are right, we are facing the task of reconditioning human emotions and building within new patterns of thought, and changing human nature itself. In addition to that type of direct action which is negative and aimed at the correction of others, we need the type of direct action also that starts with ourselves which tends to produce a higher type of life within us as well as within others, and which aims to build a better community in which the available moral forces may be used to create new attitudes and new dispositions where human beings will regard others as they regard themselves. Why should we expect direct actions against others to bear immediate fruit, and then procrastinate and postpone the direct actions that will make us better businessmen, better statesmen, better thinkers, and better men and women with better homes and better fellowship NOW? Now must not only be applied to the needs for changes and attitudes of segregationists, it must also be applied to us as people and as a race when we aspire for the best and seek the more constructive and creative methods of life. We can be better now. We can acquire a better education now, we can organize our capital now and receive our share in this economy of free enterprise now. In spite of all that we have attained as a people we have not exhausted our possibilities, and the past does not define the limits of our potential. Are we not as well equipped to respond to the call of the right, the just, the good, the highest, and the best as are the white segregationists against whom we fight? Has not the great God put in our souls the thirst for truth and righteousness? Are we not endowed as coworkers with the great creative spirit of the universe? Then we need not wait until all is well before we harness our resources and venture upon new ways of life and creativity.

We must not play ourselves too cheap or postpone the day of greater things when the hour of fulfillment is already at hand. To the leaders of school boycotts who have called children to remain out of school in order to help correct the evils and errors of an imperfect system of education,1 are you willing now to use your influence to lead young people to desert the ranks of drop-outs and struggle now to make the best out of the education that is now available? The call to stay out of school does not appeal to the highest in students but to the ordinary and the easy. It requires less initiative to stay out of school than it does to attend school. It requires less mental alertness to refuse to study than it does to study. Is not some education better than no education? Of course we should get all the education possible and go as far up the ladder of intellectual attainments as our powers will allow us. We must strive for the very best opportunities, the best possible schools, and the best possible teachers, but if these are not available to us then let us make the best use of what we do have. Remember that the future is with the person who knows, thinks, understands, and who has character and soul, and who can produce, invest, create, and live in harmony with the highest and the best. Of course we adults must continue to correct all the evils which make education more difficult. We must strive for quality education and seek to make available all the resources possible for the education of the young, but our young people must keep their feet in the upward path of learning and their minds stayed on the quest for truth.

The progress of the race lies not in continued street demonstrations, and the liberation of an oppressed people shall not come by acts of revenge and retaliation but by the constructive use of all available opportunities and a creative expansion of the circumstances of the past into steppingstones to higher things.

  1. 1. In October 1963 the Chicago Coordinating Council of Community Organizations organized a one-day boycott of Chicago’s public schools to protest de facto segregation in the schools.
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