Fresh off the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., the Rev. Jesse Jackson brought his message of going “beyond the bridge” to the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.
Jackson said that while the 1965 march was a major moment in the struggle to get blacks the right to vote, the new challenge will be opening up access to technology and Silicon Valley.
“Voting has its place, but the fastest-growing industry, I believe, is high tech, so we need to get in there,” he said. “We must make access to technology and this new machinery a crusade for everybody, not just a campaign for the few.”
Jackson has been instrumental in convincing major technology companies to release their diversity figures, which have shown that on average, just 2 percent of their workforce is black.
When #YesWeCode founder Van Jones, who moderated the conversation with Jackson, asked how many in the SXSW audience knew that the veteran activist has been pivotal in making this happen, very few people raised their hands.
How Jackson went about getting companies to cooperate illustrated a new way of taking protest from the pavement to the boardroom, he explained.
“The magic is going from a protester to a shareholder,” said Jackson, whose organization the Rainbow PUSH Coalition bought shares in tech companies to push for change from the inside.
“Ours was a social-justice agenda to change the conditions,” he said. “The argument that we made was not so much of a negative one but of a value-added argument.”
And Jackson hasn’t just been giving speeches; he’s getting action, Jones said. Just last week, Apple became the third tech company this year to announce a donation of funds to help increase the number of women and people of color in the tech industry. Apple is committing $50 million to the cause.
In January, Intel announced a gift of $300 million, and in February Google donated $775,000 to Code2040, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping women and minorities find tech jobs.