“I am—” the Reverend Jesse Jackson called out to the black congregation at First Nazareth Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina, and they shouted it back, knowing what he’d say next.
“Somebody!” their famous guest preacher bellowed in turn.
The morning after Donald Trump won the state’s Republican presidential primary, Jackson, the longtime civil rights figure and past presidential candidate, came to this large church a mile from where the Confederate flag finally came down last year with a prayer, and a prophecy. He was blunt: If they don’t turn out to vote in the general election in November, Republicans, perhaps at the hands of a billionaire reality-TV star, will tear down the progress of Barack Obama’s two terms as the nation’s first black president.
“I hear the phrase, ‘Make America great again,’” said Jackson, reciting Trump’s campaign slogan with a tone of disbelief. “This is the best America’s ever been!”
He called Trump’s slogan a “throwback in time,” a coded message to appeal to white voters with a nostalgia for the Old South, and said there is a “tug of war for the soul of America” underway. By not voting, Jackson said, “We're building our own wall.”
“So much we’ve fought for is now in jeopardy again,” Jackson said. “There’s a toxic wind blowing in the country today” and a “violent undercurrent” to the political debate.
For Jackson, 74, who was born and raised in South Carolina, the recent days have been a sort of homecoming, on familiar ground with a familiar mission, getting out the vote. He's urging people to turn out for South Carolina's Democratic primary on Feb. 27, where Jackson has said he won't endorse either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, both of whom he's known for decades. He's also looking ahead to November's general election, when South Carolina is considered a solidly Republican state. His goal appears to be to test that premise by convincing the state's overwhelmingly Democratic-voting black population that it has a stake in what happens in November.
Jackson said he wouldn't tell the crowd who to pick next Saturday but that “if you voted yesterday, you need a real prayer.”
The people in the pews certainly knew their star preacher, even if some of them weren't even born when he made his landmark runs for president in the 1980s.
DeAndre Edmonds, 24, said he is wavering between Clinton, who he sees as more experienced and probably better poised to defeat the Republican nominee, and Sanders, whose energy he finds attractive. Edmonds said that “the scary part” of watching Trump is thinking he could be the Republican nominee or the next U.S. president.
Stephanie Bowen, 46, recalled that it was Jackson who'd registered her to vote when he came to speak at her college in 1988. She's already decided to vote for Clinton.
“It was a wake-up call,” she said of Jackson's sermon.
Saturday's primary here isn’t just about who’s running but about what's on their agendas, Jackson said, urging the congregation to press candidates from both parties to focus on the problems in their state.
One-fourth of South Carolina is living in poverty, he said. Blacks comprise about 30 percent of the state’s population but make up three-fourths of the prison population and hold only a tiny share of state contracts. Unity, he said, not isolating immigrants and refugees and Muslims, is the answer. “Build coalitions,” he said. “Most poor people in this state are white.”
“Finally, the flag is down, but the agenda is not,” Jackson said of the Confederate flag politicians agreed to remove from the South Carolina capitol last summer as the world watched. He said the “SEC Primary” nickname given to the Republican primaries on March 1 should instead be “the Confederate primary: That’s old, backwards, Make-America-Great-Again politics.”
“The hands that picked cotton will pick presidents!” Jackson intoned. “Let me hear you!”