According to Jesse Jackson in his article Victim-Victimizer: Why Excel?, what are some of the issues facing African Americans in 1977, and what did Jackson say should be done in response to these issues?
Jesse Jackson’s essay Victim-Victimizer: Why Excel? was adapted from a speech Jackson gave in his capacity as founder of Operation PUSH. Not surprisingly, it is a speech that could be given today and still, hopefully, resonate with many in his intended audience: African American youth. In his essay, Jackson places the African American community squarely in the crosshairs of a repressive white society that deliberately, he argues, attempts to keep blacks down by denying them an adequate education. While one can take issue with Jackson’s rhetoric regarding white motivations circa 1977, there is no question that the histories of slavery and segregation established the foundation upon which black disenfranchisement was able to take hold, and he was correct that slaves were denied the right to learn to read and write as an instrument of their continued oppression. In 1977, African Americans were witnessing progress with respect to civil rights, and African American politicians were making demonstrative gains in elections. Too many African Americans, however, remained mired in the economic and social doldrums that had their roots in the earlier periods of institutionalized segregation.
This, however, is not the main message Jackson was trying to convey his essay. The message he was advancing was about the importance of education and the importance of self-enfranchisement. Whites, Jackson argued, may be trying to keeping blacks down, but that was no excuse for blacks not being more forceful and proactive in taking control of their own destinies. As he noted in his essay, “. . .the oppressor is not going to run the race and give you his or her gold medal. You will have to conquer the odds and rise above your circumstance and win your own gold medal and then shout and sing.”
Jackson’s point was that nobody was going to help blacks achieve; they would have to do it themselves:
“Of all of your powers—your political power, your economic power, and your social power—no power is more fundamental than willpower. For if you get willpower, you’ll get voting power and you’ll get political power and you’ll get economic power and you’ll get social prestige. If you get willpower, you’ll have a power that the boss can’t fire. You’ll have a power that jail cells can’t lock up. If you get willpower, that will be a power that water cannot drown and fire cannot burn.”
And, in one of his more poignant comments, he noted the destructive effects of letting the disadvantaged environment in which many blacks lived seep into their souls and drag them down into the gutter: “It’s bad to be in the slums, but it’s even worse when the slums get in you.”
For Jackson, education was the key to social and economic progress. Without it, no African American was going to advance in this society; with it, there were no guarantees, but at least there would be options. As he noted, “ignorance is an impediment to progress.” That was true then, and it’s true now.