Jesse Jackson in Rock Hill: ‘The flag is down, the flag agenda is still up’

The Rev. Jesse Jackson had some good things to say about South Carolina’s Republican leadership on Tuesday.

He praised the state’s GOP Gov. Nikki Haley for pushing to take the Confederate flag down from the Statehouse in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Charleston last month. Jackson, a renowned civil rights activist, former presidential candidate and Greenville native, has made several appearances in the state since the June 17 massacre at Emmanuel AME Church.

But during an appearance at Rock Hill’s Freedom Center on Tuesday, Jackson said there is still a lot of work to do to combat poverty, discrimination and inequality, and he laid the blame on the same state leaders that helped remove the rebel banner.

“The flag is down,” Jackson said, “but the flag agenda is still up.”

Jackson took part in a panel discussion with state Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, and former state Rep. James L. Felder of Sumter, one of the first African-Americans elected to the state Legislature since Reconstruction. But Jackson was the main speaker, and most questions after the panel were directed toward him.

Tuesday’s event was the beginning of a statewide tour for Jackson, with the main focus on the need to expand Medicaid in South Carolina under President Obama’s health care reform law, which Republican officials have resisted.

Earlier this year, Jackson visited South Carolina and criticized state leaders’ rejection of expanding Medicaid benefits. He said the move directly impacts the quality of life and life expectancy of 200,000 poor people in South Carolina who don’t have health insurance. When one audience member asked about getting people to march against police brutality, Jackson answered about the need to march for Medicaid.

Jackson’s fellow panelists shared Jackson’s emphasis on Medicaid expansion.

“This is not an African-American issue, it’s a human rights issue,” King said.

Jackson agreed, arguing making change requires a larger coalition to get behind a progressive agenda. Of the 1 million people in South Carolina living in poverty, more of them are white than black, although Jackson said that isn’t the impression many people have.

“We must whiten the face of poverty,” he said.

The activist also spoke about the need to improve the disproportionate impact the criminal justice system has on the black community, an issue highlighted by the on-video shooting of Walter Scott by a white police officer in North Charleston earlier this year, among other incidents that have garnered national attention. At one point Tuesday, Jackson shared the stage with the mother of Jonathan Ferrell, a black man shot and killed by a Charlotte police officer. A jury was seated this week in the officer’s trial.

Jackson called for greater equality before the law, saying the high number of black men in prison is “the hole in emancipation.”

“Right now, you are free and unequal,” he told the mostly black crowd.

Bishop Herb Crump with Freedom Temple Ministries said he appreciated Jackson’s addressing police actions in the black community.

“We as a church have been working to improve the relationship between law enforcement and citizens, minority citizens in particular,” he said. But he stressed Jackson’s appearance in Rock Hill should not be of interest only to its African-American residents.

Members of the downtown church were excited to see Jackson come in to speak, although some were disappointed there were still empty seats in some of the pews. Jackson said Crump should invite him back to speak on a Sunday morning.

The Freedom Center has hosted prominent political figures in the past, from Hillary Clinton, the current Democratic presidential frontrunner, to former GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul.

“The issues we’re discussing – health care, mental health, economic development, jobs – go beyond race, ethnicity and gender barriers to all of humanity,” Crump said.

Jackson made a similar point when one woman pushed back against “whitening” the face of poverty, saying the struggles of her family should be enough. But Jackson argued a minority needs a majority coalition to create change.

“Your patch is nice,” he said, “but it doesn’t make a quilt.”

Bristow Marchant: 803-329-4062, @BristowatHome