Although his talk was titled "Race and the Response to Hurricane Katrina," Jackson tackled multiple major political issues in his hour-long speech, including the war in Iraq, the growing problem of poverty and the misrepresentation of civil rights activist Rosa Parks legend.
After a late entrance, Jackson briefly shook hands with members of a cheering and standing crowd before launching into a critique of the war in Iraq that immediately brought in the issue of class.
"If the draft [was instated], there would be different levels of protest tonight," he said, citing what he called the "backdoor draft" that forces poor Americans to enlist.
Jackson used the example of Hurricane Katrina to illustrate his attitude towards the Bush administrations treatment of poverty, characterizing its reaction to the disaster as favoring "political restructuring" over plans for reconstruction. He condemned the latent response to the hurricane as "negligent," saying that he had been in and out of New Orleans several times after the disaster occurred before President Bush arrived.
Jackson argued that not only was Hurricane Katrina foreseeable, but that the government had no plan for mass relief or relocation. He quoted Bushs statement about the "intractable face of poverty and race discrimination" before citing the simultaneous push for laws that reduce wages and keep the "working poor poor" in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina.
"The rich aren't rich because theyre working hard, and the poor aren't poor because theyre not working as hard," he said.
Having flown directly from Parks funeral in Detroit, Mich., Jackson was adamant about appropriately commemorating her legend.
"Rosa Parks challenged 356 years of legal racial supremacy," he said.
Jackson satirized the frequently-told story of Parks protest, going on to say that "her feet werent hurting, her feelings were hurting."
"Who she was, what she really did has been lost in all the talk," Jackson said. "She was more a freedom fighter than a seamstress; she didn't get arrested for sewing."
In delineating Parks tale, Jackson highlighted her involvement in the NAACP as a field organizer and her fight to vote that began in 1945, calling her the mother of the civil rights movement who fought for states rights.
Connecting her legend to present politics, Jackson criticized Bushs decision to nominate Samuel A. Alito, Jr., for the Supreme Court, who he believes has not traditionally supported states rights.
After discussing his three points, Jackson concluded by explaining that he believes that racial justice can become a reality because of what he has observed in the culture of sports.
"Whenever the playing field and the rules are public and the goals are clear, we can all go to the next level," Jackson said in segments, as the audience repeated after him.
Highlighting instances of multi-racial teams and fans, Jackson firmly stated that the "object of the struggle" was to "even the playing field."
"White owners recruit black and Latino players because they see value in them," Jackson said. "You cannot win unless you involve the universe in the competition."
Jackson also addressed race and class in the context of a college campus.
"The case for diversifying your student body is to gain admission to the world," Jackson said, which inspired one of over 25 interruptions of applause.
Bringing in the idea of campus diversity, Jackson made his argument specific to an institution like St. Olaf.
"We diversify to educate the locked-in," Jackson said. "We must see value in learning to live together."
After citing historical instances where race relations defined stereotypes, Jackson ended his speech with an energetic call-to-action.
"This land is our land," Jackson said. "Lets do something about it, lets save it."
After he finished his talk, Jackson offered two suggestions to the audience: he encouraged students to register to vote in their place of residence, and he promoted starting a chapter of his organization, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, on campus.
He also spent approximately an hour fielding questions from audience members, including St. Olaf and Carleton students and Northfield residents.
The questions ranged from the political to the racial. Many of the questions were of a highly personal nature, including one inquiring about the media coverage of blacks during Hurricane Katrina from native Somalian Mustafa Dualeh '06, who questioned calling New Orleans residents "refugees." Another question, concerning possible plans for dealing with natural disasters in the future, was posed by Clara Hemsteter '08, who transferred to St. Olaf from Loyola University in New Orleans at the start of the school year.
The Political Awareness Committee (PAC) sponsored Jacksons appearance. PAC Coordinator Ellen Krahn '06 said she was impressed with the turnout, which she estimated to be over Boe Chapels capacity of 1,100 because of the use of the choir loft, additional chairs around the podium and the bleachers on the altar.
Krahn said she received positive feedback about the event, and that Jackson told her after the speech that he loves engaging with students.
"The football analogy was a great way to speak to students about issues like poverty and race whether you're up on politics or not," Krahn said.