Jesse Jackson to Black Journalists in 1984: ‘You Work in Pain’

  • Jackson: ‘Before You Be a Little of Everything to Everybody, Be Something Special to Where You Live’
Jesse Jackson in 1984
Jesse Jackson in 1984

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson spoke before about 860 people on Saturday night, Aug. 18, 1984, at the banquet of the National Association of Black Journalists’ convention. Among those in the audience was Coretta Scott King. Here are excerpts of what he said (leaving in, for effect, some of the rhetorical repetition):

No journalist is objective. Nor should you strive to be. You should strive to be fair . . .

The African American journalist is trapped in this two-ness. On one hand you are covering a community that is enraged, and fighting for freedom and power. You were born into it, bred into it. You’re covering a community that is enraged, in anguish and pain. But you’re reporting to another community that is resisting and usurping and disallowing the sharing of power. And then you’re judged by the appraisers, the owners, the chief beneficiaries of the status quo, the editor and publisher. What a crossfire!

Let’s go through it one more time. (applause)

You are covering a community that is enraged. Reporting to a community that triggers that rage. Working for appraisers that profit from the agony. (applause). And so you have this challenge of trying to satisfy slave and master. (Jackson had said he thought America a ‘caste’ society.) It’s tough (applause). The blacks have the needles and the editors have the scissors. The blacks are saying tell our side of the story, and the editors are saying cut it, that’s not the point we’re trying to sell (applause).

President Ronald Reagan meets with Jesse Jackson and Navy Lt. Robert Goodman on Jan. 4, 1984. Jackson told the 1984 NABJ convention, “The fact is the journalist who went on a limb and said we would bring Goodman from Syria was Ken Walker [of ABC News]. . . . Ken had no more access to the primary source than anybody else. He pulled together the sum total of his experiences and made a judgment and took a leap. And he won. . . . “ (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library).

And so the needle’s in your backside and the scissors are in your chest. You work in pain (applause).


The freedom movement must free journalists who are black, as it must free every other segment of the Afro-American community.

In many ways, African American journalists are at the back of the journalistic bus. And some of the same techniques and tactics that got us on the back of the public accommodations bus, and the back of the political bus, must be employed to get us [out] the back of the journalistic bus (applause).


It would be amazing to see what one strong night away from national TV would mean to the media of America.

Just one night away from a top-rated show is a tactic that must be employed to get you from the back of the bus. Maybe just one pray-in, one meal-in, one economical crawl for papers that have 40 percent black readers and no black columnists and editors (applause). Just one night . . .


‘The Fight for Appraisal Power. That’s Yours’

We’ve found that the illiterates were able to move from the back to the front by fighting for freedom. Surely the literate amongst us should fight and tell the story. And tell the story.


You cannot write your way into an editor’s room. That’s a political judgment. You cannot write your way into a daily column. That’s a political judgment.

We run, whites referee and judge. We act, and they appraise, document and interpret. In other words, white politicians have fought for political power — and that’s what we should fight for — and business people fought for economic power, and educators fought for educational power, there’s another power not on the table that must be put on the table: the fight for appraisal power.


That’s yours: Appraisal power. In an industry that allows the 5-foot-6, cigar-smoking, spastic sports writer to make judgments on 7-foot giants (applause) that will allow men who cannot walk 10 yards to be the judge of [track-and-field Olympian] Carl Lewis. . . .

We cannot rest until we have our share of appraisal power. This is one thing we know (applause). Having the best skills from the best schools of journalism is not enough. And for those who read 30 and 40 and 50 percent of those newspapers whose readership determines the advertisers, [we] say: We want our share of columnists.


And I’m speaking for the record.

There are too few black columnists and editors. On this campaign, blacks learned and produced. Editors were resistant to put a major focus on the positive. The fact is the journalist who went on a limb and said we would bring [Navy Lt. Robert] Goodman from Syria was Ken Walker [of ABC News]. The first to break the story (applause). Ken had no more access to the primary source than anybody else. He pulled together the sum total of his experiences and made a judgment and took a leap. And he won . . .


‘You Must Be the Authorities on Afro-American Life’

You must become the authorities on African American and African experience. Before you be a little of everything to everybody, be something special to where you live (applause). There should be nobody in your shop who knows more about our options in Southern Africa than you. Nobody that knows more about the denial of trade to African governments than you. Nobody should know more about how willing our government is to allow military coups to overthrow civilian rule in Africa, because they would rather deal with a general than a black democracy, than you.


You must be the authorities on African life. You must be the authorities on Afro-American life.

“As a result of our campaign, African Americans can now write about a presidential race. You can now comment on national TV talk shows. You must be the authorities on the African American experience.


Because we are told that we are minorities so much, we begin to think minor, and accept minor treatment ‘til we cease to realize just how major the black American experience is. The fact is [that in] the last election, Democrats got 37 million votes. There are now 12 million African Americans registered. About 33 percent of the total national vote. 19 million eligible.

Slightly over 50 percent of the total Democratic vote . . .

In New York, for example, all candidates had to take a very public position on whether they were for or against the [U.S.] Embassy moving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. They could not avoid that question. If they tried to duck it, journalists would not let them duck that question in New York.


What a city! Two million African Americans. More people from the Caribbean live in New York than still live in the Caribbean. We have not projected an African policy, a Caribbean policy. It was a non-issue. Candidates did not want to speak to it. Journalists would not demand an African policy statement. A Caribbean policy statement. Haitians dying at sea in leaky boats. Washing ashore in Miami. We could not demand a statement. Journalists would not allow us to not speak to the embassy shift. They allowed the candidates not to speak to African and Caribbean issues in New York state.

Syria. We opened the Mideast window. The government allowed it to close. We opened that window using the African American experience. Andy Young talked to the PLO, saying there must be another strategy . . .




Those are some good words. I’m gonna make a copy for myself, to read when I feel low.