he Rev Jesse Jackson was born in the racially segregated south when Franklin Roosevelt occupied the White House and war raged in Europe. He was an eyewitness to the assassination of Martin Luther King, campaigned against the Vietnam war and twice ran for US president.
But, now an elder statesman of 78, he has never seen anything like the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 1 million Americans and killed more in April alone than died in Vietnam over 15 years. The world’s most powerful and wealthy country also bears by far its biggest death toll: almost 90,000. It is enough to shake faith in American exceptionalism.
“Our military cannot defeat this germ,” Jackson says by phone from Chicago, one of the hardest-hit cities. “Having the biggest banks, having the biggest military has no meaning in this kind of germ warfare. The frontline is not soldiers; the frontline is doctors and nurses. The planes are grounded, the bombs are irrelevant. It turns out that pride precedes a fall. Sometimes people have to learn that we don’t control everything.”
Despite lockdown and Parkinson’s disease, Jackson is still working with gusto at the Rainbow Push Coalition, a progressive organisation he founded in 1996. It has convened thousands of black doctors and lawyers and released a manifesto suggesting that high-risk groups, including African Americans, be prioritised for coronavirus testing.
Jackson has twice written to Donald Trump urging testing for the 2.2 million people currently in prison. At a time when most Americans are looking inward, he has also called for massive intervention in Africa, a particularly vulnerable continent that is close to his heart.
“We’re working virtually, making conference calls, using this time to organise people,” he says. “We’ve talked to about 2,000 ministers around the nation over the past 10 days, trying to convince their congregations to honour the protocols and stay in the house.”
For a brief while it became voguish to indulge a comforting myth that the coronavirus was the great equaliser, touching the bus driver and Prince of Wales alike. But while infections do not discriminate, humans do. Despite making up only 13% of the US population, African Americans represent 30% of the deaths from the coronavirus.
A Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Committee report last month concluded that people of colour have less access to quality healthcare, are more likely to have a pre-existing health condition and suffer greater exposure to air pollution that puts them at higher risk of asthma. They also make up a disproportionate share of frontline workers, are less likely to be able to work from home and more likely to rely on public transport, and are hit hardest by poverty as layoffs continue to rise.
“We know that people should honour the [social distancing] protocols, but some find it more difficult because of congested conditions or their transportation,” says Jackson. “A lot are untested and uninsured. If you’re uninsured, you can go to the hospitals only to be told you can’t get service, so you end up resorting to your own home remedies, or you end up in the hospital too late.
“That points to disparity in income and education and healthcare. It shows the black condition in America. The legacy of slavery and Jim Crow is very clear.”
Like Trump’s regressive presidency, the virus is a shock to the system that forces a confrontation with class, race and structural inequality. What had been ambient noise for the privileged is suddenly vividly clear and difficult to ignore.
“After 400 years of slavery, segregation and discrimination, why would anybody be shocked that African Americans are dying disproportionately from the coronavirus?” Jackson asked in a statement published on 7 April, arguing that all past US presidents have failed to “end the virus of white superiority and fix the multifaceted issues confronting African Americans”.
He adds, by phone: “America has decided the place of blacks in this society, which is beneath that of European immigrants. People say America is 244 years old, but Africans have been here 157 years before the constitution. We shouldn’t say America was founded in 1776 – it started with slavery in 1619; so we’re still invisible to that extent.
“We still make less, live under stresses and don’t live as long. We’re still looked upon as the other based upon skin colour, as some kind of irreparable sin in the society. People try to adjust to it but, when a pandemic sets in, the data comes out.
“We’re about 60% of prisoners in this country. People are sick behind those walls. You can have 200 inmates sick with Covid-19 and the workers go home and they spread it. So the prisons become the epicentre of the untreated and untested and undetected.”
Itching to revive their economies, several southern states led by mostly white male governors are already reopening bowling alleys, cinemas, hairdressers, restaurants and other outlets against federal guidelines. A group of activists, mostly black women, warned in a petition that reopening now “is irresponsible and a death sentence for many of us”.
White privilege will offer no immunity in an interconnected society, says Jackson. “If blacks are the drivers and unprotected, the driven are hurt. If the cooks and waiters are unprotected, those they cook for are all unprotected. So we’re more integrated than we realise on a daily basis.
“So we really must have healthcare for all as one of the by-products of this pandemic. Anybody who’s left out is a threat to those who are left in. When people as affluent as Prince Charles and Boris Johnson and athletes are affected, it means that the gated community did not protect you from the pandemic. If the poor are not protected, the rich are in jeopardy, because you cannot separate by community the poor from the rich, the white from the black.”
Roosevelt was tested by the Great Depression and second world war and rose to the challenge. George W Bush faced the 9/11 terrorist attacks; Barack Obama the financial crisis. Trump had his shot at greatness with the coronavirus pandemic and few, outside his most ardent supporters, would dispute he threw it away.
The first president elected with no previous political or military experience squandered a precious six weeks, instead golfing, holding rallies and prophesying that the virus would disappear “like a miracle” in warm weather rather than following the pandemic emergency plan bequeathed by Obama and building a rigorous nationwide testing programme.
Is Trump responsible for tens of thousands of deaths? “He had an opportunity to move early on it and did not move early on it. The infrastructure that [George W] Bush and Barack had put together on pandemics was ignored. He dismantled the infrastructure and did not pay adequate attention to the threat.
“As the threat changed, we didn’t have ventilators and respirators. All our preparation was for a financial fight or a military fight. He should have declared a national testing mechanism. There should have been a national lockdown to break the back of it. The attention should have been early; it was not.”
Trump has sought absolution at press briefings that sometimes run for more than two hours with a mix of self-congratulation, bloated exaggerations, broadsides at reporters and bad science. He recently ad libbed a jaw-dropping proposal to study the merits of injecting disinfectant into coronavirus patients. It has left his opponent in November’s election, the former vice president Joe Biden, struggling to get a share of the limelight.
“Trump is using the daily press briefing as a platform to promote his politics while Biden is facing lockdown in his basement. But there’s a real chance the more he talks, the weaker he gets.”
Jackson – whose activism began as a student trying to desegregate the public library in his birthplace of Greenville, South Carolina – ran against Biden in the 1988 Democratic primary. Biden’s campaign fell apart after he quoted without attribution the then British Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, and was accused of plagiarism. Jackson, bidding to become the US’s first black president, gathered 7m votes and finished first or second in 46 out of 54 primary contests. But he lost the nomination to Michael Dukakis, who went down to George HW Bush.
Does it hurt that he will never be president? “No, it doesn’t,” he says firmly, “because I was a trailblazer, I was a pathfinder. I had to deal with doubt and cynicism and fears about a black person running. There were black scholars writing papers about why I was wasting my time. Even blacks said a black couldn’t win.”
Some of his foreign policy positions at the time, he points out, became widely adopted: a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in South Africa (he met Margaret Thatcher to plead for Britain to drop its support for the apartheid regime). In 2000 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the US’s highest civilian honour.
When Obama won in 2008, he praised Jackson for making his run possible. As Obama delivered his election night victory speech at Grant Park in Chicago before a crowd of 240,000, Jackson’s tear-stained face was among the most indelible images. “It was a big moment in history,” he recalls. “I cried because I thought about those who made it possible who were not there … People who paid a real price: Ralph Abernathy, Dr King, Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer, those who fought like hell [at the Democratic national convention] in Atlantic City in 64, those in the movement in the south.”
Some felt that Obama should have pushed faster and further on racial justice in his two terms. But Jackson ranks him among the US’s top presidents. “First, given America’s history in terms of race, he inspired indescribable pride. No 2, his family and their decency and dignity were a big deal.”
He points to the Paris climate accords, Iran nuclear deal, rapprochement with Cuba and rescue of the economy as signal achievements. “He stabilised the ship when the ship was sinking and got it back above the water. And no scandal. Trump creates a desire for Barack all over again. When he travelled around the world, he was the best face America’s ever had.”
In March, Jackson endorsed Bernie Sanders, returning a compliment from 1988 when Sanders backed his campaign. “His ideas made the most sense to me,” he explains. But after a promising start Sanders fell away, partly because of his failure to connect with older African American voters, where Biden dominated.
“His campaign was [about] class without appreciating the caste dimension of poverty,” Jackson explains by way of post-mortem. “There are 55 black members of Congress and he didn’t have one. Maybe one or two black mayors, but he didn’t cultivate an African American constituency.”
Biden, meanwhile, benefited from his “kinship” with Obama as well as Trump’s repeated attacks that kept his profile up and his name on the front pages. “The opposition had no infrastructure for the black vote. In many ways, he inherited votes he didn’t campaign for.”
In recent weeks, Biden has been endorsed by Sanders, Obama, Hillary Clinton, House speaker Nancy Pelosi and the civil rights hero John Lewis in a show of party unity. Will Jackson support him enthusiastically? “Yeah, as an alternative to the present administration, but we’ve not had a meeting with the black constituency on what our demands are.”
The ground is shifting under Trump and Biden’s feet. Sanders argues that the pandemic, which has put more than 30 million Americans out of work, shows the failure of the US healthcare system. As an opportunity to reimagine the social contract, the present moment is being compared with Roosevelt’s New Deal or the post second-world-war consensus in Britain.
“Biden won the delegates but Sanders won the issues,” Jackson reflects. “Sanders’ agenda will dominate the [Democratic national] convention. One of the by-products of this pandemic is going to be the need for healthcare for all. We can’t afford not to have healthcare for all because if you see the gap between the 1% and 99%, the 1% can’t hide from who it is that’s caring for the masses. The real soldiers are not the investment bankers. It’s the doctors and nurses. There is a new appreciation of the common people, doctors and janitors and truck drivers, what they call essential workers.”
“In many ways,” he says, “as African Americans, we’re at the the bottom of the foundation. The foundation is where it starts from. So when the foundation’s in trouble, the whole building’s in trouble.”