From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject At the Bottom of the Empire: Homelessness, Housing Injustice, and Jesse Jackson’s Call to “Eradicate Poverty”
Date January 23, 2022 1:05 AM
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[It was not the failures, but the victories of PUSH that taught
Jackson the most crucial of political truths: No amount of private
successes could transform a public system working against the
interests of poor and working people. ] [[link removed]]

[[link removed]]


David Masciotra
January 21, 2022
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* [[link removed]]

_ It was not the failures, but the victories of PUSH that taught
Jackson the most crucial of political truths: No amount of private
successes could transform a public system working against the
interests of poor and working people. _

, Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair


“The bottom of the Empire,” was Reverend Jesse Jackson’s
description of who Martin Luther King was seeking to serve with his
politically revolutionary ministry of the 1960s. Jackson was standing
in the Reverend Martin Luther King Legacy Apartments on the West Side
of Chicago to give a press conference on, what would have been,
King’s 93rd birthday, January 15, 2022. Joining Jackson were
representatives from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and the
Illinois Union for the Homeless. The city of Chicago has transformed
the lobby of the King Legacy apartment building into a small museum,
showcasing the governmental-capital conspiracy that created the
“ghetto.” Through decades of redlining and other discriminatory
lending practices, public infrastructural programs to preserve
segregation, police enforcement of residential borders, and
“neighborhood covenants” among white homeowners and landlords to
never sell or rent to Blacks, Northern cities became white fiefdoms.

The Great Migration occurred when Black Americans fled the state
sanctioned terrorism and apartheid of Jim Crow and mass lynching,
hoping to find freedom and opportunity outside the Confederacy. While
cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit certainly offered
marginal legal and economic improvements, they also introduced new
networks of oppression – the loan officer eager to deny every Black
applicant, the hiring manager evaluating every job seeker according to
skin pigmentation, and the armed defender of Empire prepared to punish
any Black dissenter with the nightstick or smoking gun. If a Black
family managed to overcome the odds of oppression, and seriously
consider moving into a “white” neighborhood, they would receive a
visit from a community representative. As Lorraine Hansberry
brilliantly captured in her classic play about a Black family
attempting to integrate a Chicago block, _A Raisin in the Sun_, the
white representative would smile as he makes the nature of his threat
clear: You are not wanted, and if you try to move here, we will make
your life uncomfortable.

In late 1965, Martin Luther King, acting on the advice of Jackson and
the Chicago Freedom Movement
[[link removed]],
a coalition of organizations fighting for fair housing, decided to
spotlight the Union variety of white supremacy by temporarily staying
in a slum tenement in one of Chicago’s most neglected and exploited
neighborhoods. King and his family found, and introduced a formerly
disinterested media, to housing units with asbestos, no running water,
appliances that did not work, stairs that collapse, rats running
through the hallways and sneaking into the furniture, and a rancid and
infectious colony of insects.

“The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white
society,” King said, “Negroes live in them, but they do not make
them, any more than a prisoner makes a prison.” The “vicious
system” that King identified and sought to dismantle included all of
its leading institutions – both the instruments of capital and the
iterations of the State. During his forceful condemnation of the
Vietnam War in an speech at Riverside Church in New York
[[link removed]],
King described the need to conquer the “triplets of evil” –
“racism, militarism, and materialism.” All three were on stark and
hideous display in the Chicago slums – the racism of making Blacks
prisoners to subhuman conditions, the materialism of white society
profiting from Black misery, and the militarism that would come in the
domestic form of police brutality, and the international crime of
drafting young men of all races, but disproportionately Black, into
the military to fight an unjust war in Vietnam. From the bomb crater
in Hanoi to the burning cross in Birmingham, and stretching to the
slum of Chicago, the brutal devastation of, what King called, a
“thing oriented society” was revealing itself.

During one of the conversations that I had with Revered Jesse Jackson
for my book, _I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters
[[link removed]]_, he said
that the resistance he and other protestors faced in the South Side of
Chicago, during King’s stay in the slums, was the worst they had
ever confronted. While marching for fair housing laws, Jackson
remembers, “We never saw hatred, not even in the Deep South, as
severe as what we encountered in Chicago with the ethnic, Catholic
whites.” He explained that in Alabama, for example, the fear was
always that the Ku Klux Klan or the police themselves, as in Selma,
would turn violent on the protestors. In Chicago, it was as if the
entire white majority was overcome by wicked mania, acting out their
psychosis without shame or restraint. Ordinary civilians, from school
teachers to auto mechanics, were charging the marchers, attempting to
intimidate and assault them. The violence was so shocking that King
cancelled a second march planned for the nearby suburb of Cicero.
Richard Daley, then-mayor of Chicago, was hardly an ally, nor was he
an opponent of political violence. Three years later, he would
distinguish himself by giving a “shoot to kill” order to police
during the riots following King’s assassination in 1968. Daley, a
Democrat, was the kind of “law and order” fascist that President
Nixon, and later, President Trump would lionize and emulate in an
effort to demolish the promise of multiracial democracy.

Reverend Martin Luther King convinced Daley to adopt a number of fair
housing policies, but it proved merely a nominal victory. Daley did
not fund or authorize the enforcement of his promises, and Chicago,
like most cities, did not make any progress on housing until the
federal government forced its hand with the passage of the Civil
Rights Act of 1968, which “prohibited discrimination concerning the
sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion,
national origin, or sex.” While more effective than Daley’s empty
promises, the federal law still failed to prevent racist and
segregationist assaults on Black, Latino, and Native aspirations of
citizenship. Redlining persisted throughout the 1990s
[[link removed]],
and even as recently as 2008, Black applicants for home mortgages,
regardless of respective qualifications, were far likelier to receive
disastrous sub-prime loans
[[link removed]] than
white applicants.

In the brilliant and important new book, _White Space, Black Hood:
Opportunity Hoarding and Segregation in the Age of Inequality_,
Georgetown law professor, Sheryll Cashin
[[link removed]], identifies and condemns three methods of
white supremacy at work throughout the United States: boundary
maintenance, opportunity hoarding in the form of commercial exclusion
and educational apartheid, and stereotype-driven surveillance.

A young and precocious Jesse Jackson confronted these complex
mechanisms of oppression, alienation, and injustice as the director of
Operation Breadbasket, a Southern Christian Leadership Conference
campaign that, in 1971, Jackson morphed into an independent
organization, Operation PUSH. As acting president of PUSH, Jackson,
his staff and volunteers initiated a series of consumer boycotts,
protests, and media efforts to strike a blow against the apartheid
economy of Chicago. Even businesses in Black neighborhoods often
refused to hire Blacks for anything beyond menial labor, trade unions
routinely denied admission for Black workers, and grocery and retail
stores would not stock products from Black-owned companies. PUSH’s
project was successful beyond most observers’ expectations. Blacks
secured thousands of jobs, and millions of dollars in ancillary income
through product placement and entrepreneurship made possible only
because of PUSH’s pressure on banks and other lending institutions
to grant commercial loans irrespective of race. Due to PUSH’s
triumphs, Chicago became the 1970s and ‘80s epicenter of Black
banking and media. Jackson would take his economic efforts national,
managing to fight the racism of major companies, and negotiate deals
on the behalf of Black workers and consumers with General Motors,
Burger King, and other multinational corporations. He also effectively
mediated disagreements between public unions and their host cities,
most especially in Chicago when the firefighters union almost
bifurcated by race. Jackson convinced them that creating multiple
unions would only dilute their power as workers against a municipal
government aiming to cut their salaries and benefits.

It was not the failures, but the victories of PUSH that taught Jackson
the most crucial of political truths: No amount of private successes
could transform a public system working against the interests of poor
and working people. Corporate capitalism, and government that acts at
its behest, would continue to enrich the few, while immiserating the

“If you have a size nine foot, you aren’t going to fit into a size
six shoe,” Jackson said during one of our conversations, “There is
nothing wrong with your foot. There is something wrong with the
structure into which you are trying to fit it. So, the structure
determines your placement and movement, or inability to do either.”

Democracy, Jackson came to believe, offered the means to transform the
“tyranny” of “corporate structures” through governmental
imposition and reformation. “We are dealing with public districts
versus private territories,” Jackson articulated as contrast between
laws that are, at least ostensibly, open to public inspection and
revision, and the impenetrable authority of capital. “You can
inherit a company,” Jackson told me while talking about the
“unfairness” of capitalism, “You cannot inherit a congressional

When Jackson brought his leadership and organizational acuity to bear
on the political system, Operation PUSH bolstered progressive Black
candidates for mayoral and congressional offices. The Democratic
Party’s refusal to join their most active constituency in supporting
Harold Washington’s run for Chicago mayor led to Jackson declaring
his candidacy for president in 1984, and a second campaign in 1988.
Ushering millions of first time voters into the party, Jackson
galvanized a racially diverse coalition of supporters with a platform
of Medicare for all, tuition free higher education, paid family leave,
full employment through massive infrastructural projects, a public
development bank, and groundbreaking support for gay rights. Despite
acting as a docent to expand and diversify a stale and languid
political party, and finishing second to nominee Michael Dukakis in
1988, powerful Democrats plotted the destruction of Jackson’s
movement, beginning with the creation of the centrist Democratic
Leadership Committee – an organization Jackson christened,
“Democrats for the Leisure Class.” The corporate capture of the
party culminated with the coronation of Bill Clinton, who presided
over the obliteration of Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the
deregulation of banks and telecommunications, and approval of the
North American Free Trade Agreement.

It is the bipartisan demolition of the welfare state, obstinance
toward an agenda of social democracy, and constant castigation of
socialism as “tyranny” that brought Jackson back to the Martin
Luther King Legacy apartments, 57 years after his initial visit.
“Poverty is not only an economic failure. It is a moral disgrace,”
Jackson said from the podium.

“There are still millions of ‘working poor,’” Jackson
continued before punctuating the statistic with repetition of the
words, “moral disgrace.” Referring to a 2019 study from the
Chicago Coalition for the Homeless
[[link removed]],
Jackson offered another set up for his refrain, “There are nearly
60,000 homeless people on the streets of Chicago. Moral disgrace.”

Targets for Jackson’s opprobrium included Donald Trump, who the
civil rights leader charged with “resurrecting the ideology of
Jefferson Davis,” but also the bashful Democratic Party. “Biden
should stop meeting with Manchin and Sinema,” Jackson advised while
referring to the two right wing, obstructionist Senators within the
Democratic majority, “It only benefits their egos. Instead, he
should call for massive marches of poor and working people in Arizona
and West Virginia.”

The “moral disgrace” of oppression and privation in the world’s
wealthiest county, even as undertaxed billionaires enlarge their
coffers by the trillions
[[link removed]],
implicates the economic system of profit maximization at the expense
of human life, and the political system that acts as its shield.

It was as recent as October that Jackson, and the Rainbow/PUSH
Coalition, applied sufficient pressure on city, state, and federal
officials to intervene on behalf of the residents of Concordia Place
apartments on the South Side of Chicago. The public housing complex
subjected its inhabitants to daily torture – asbestos, mold, rat
infestation, unreliable appliances and faucets, and as if structural
and environmental abuses were not enough – routine sexual harassment
against women tenants from roving security guards.

The public status of the housing complex is partially deceptive,
because even though the apartments are taxpayer funded, the Chicago
Housing Authority and HUD have outsourced management to Capital Realty
– a private real estate firm guilty of similar violations against
the law, and fundamental human rights, in Washington D.C.
[[link removed]],
and other cities. Rainbow/PUSH convinced the Secretary of Housing and
Urban Development Marcia L. Fudge, and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot,
to meet with residents
[[link removed]],
and pledge millions of dollars for repair and renovations.

“We want Concordia to become a model for public housing,” Jackson
declared, but also struck a blow against anyone so complacent or
delusional to believe that the squalor of its units is aberrant,
“There are Concordia’s everywhere.”

The universality of Concordia delineates a toxic ecology of corporate
capitalism and government addicted to austerity. Still the only
developed country that does not guarantee basic services, such as
health care, paid family leave, and high quality education, to all of
its citizens, the US has veered so far to the right that even formerly
mundane measures, like funds for the maintenance of physical
infrastructure, are fodder for acrimonious political debate.

A few hours after Jackson concluded his remarks on January 15th,
Donald Trump headlined a fascist cult ritual in Florence, Arizona
[[link removed]].
While Jackson articulated the urgency of “eradicating poverty,”
Trump received a standing ovation for defending the domestic
terrorists of the January 6th attack on the Capitol, and for telling
the insane and dangerous lie that public officials are withholding
COVID-19 vaccines from white people.

The contrast between Jackson and Trump is iridescent, and it is as
ubiquitous as dilapidated and filthy apartment units in poor
neighborhoods. While Jackson speaks about justice for those at the
“bottom of the Empire,” Trump personifies and projects the crush
of imperial power against the lungs and hopes of its inhabitants.

Martin Luther King spoke at the Chicago Freedom Festival in 1966, as
part of his Chicago Freedom Movement campaign. During his address
[[link removed]], he called on
anyone within earshot to adopt a position of “divine

“Let us be dissatisfied until every handcuff of poverty is
unlocked,” King implored his audience. “Let us be dissatisfied
until race baiters disappear from the political arena…Let us be
dissatisfied until men everywhere are imbued with a passion for

Recalling his early days with King, and applying them to the
converging crises of widespread poverty and emergent fascism, Jackson
offered a simple phrase that one can only hope shoots through the
silence and passivity of the general public: “We need to come alive

_David Masciotra [[link removed]] is the author of five
books, including Mellencamp: American Troubadour
[[link removed]] (University
Press of Kentucky, 2015) and I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters
[[link removed]] (Bloomsbury,

_CounterPunch is reader supported! Please help keep us alive
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