Voters can’t let race get in the way of shared issues


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Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, speaks at Christ Missionary Baptist Church in Memphis on Sunday.
Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal

The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. says Americans cannot afford to let race divide them in the voting booth. 

They need to work together on shared issues, he said. 

As an example, the civil rights activist, who spoke Tuesday evening at a voter registration rally in Nashville, pointed to the political messaging that motivated the white working poor to stand against Obamacare although they supported affordable health care. Common ground can be found, he said. 

More: Tennessee Democrats push effort to increase voter participation

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“When you put walls between people, on the other side of that wall is ignorance and hatred and fear of others,” Jackson said. “We must not let the wall builders control our destiny.” 

Jackson, the 76-year-old founder and president of the Chicago-based Rainbow PUSH Coalition, preached from the pulpit at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church. The Rev. James Turner II, the church’s pastor and the new president of the Interdenominational Ministers Fellowship in Nashville, hosted the civil rights leader. 

The Tuesday event jump-starts IMF’s effort to increase voter turnout before upcoming local, state and national elections, Turner said. The black church has a long history of using “Souls to the Polls” drives to galvanize the black vote. 

Clergy, community leaders and elected officials, including Mayor Megan Barry and State Rep. Brenda Gilmore, spoke Tuesday, urging those present to vote. 

In recent years, Tennessee has had dismal voter participation. The state ranked 50th in turnout at the voting booth in 2014, according to Pew Research Center.

Hundreds of thousands of black people in Tennessee are not registered to vote, and that number is in the millions across the South, Jackson said. He also asserted that a registered voter who sat out the 2016 presidential election essentially cast a vote for President Donald Trump. 

“What would Dr. King do in the era of Trump?” Jackson said. “Not with violence, but he would fight back.”

Jackson’s message was similar to the one he shared earlier this week in Memphis, which is commemorating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination this year. Jackson, a protege of King’s, was at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968, when King was fatally shot. 

On Sunday, Jackson celebrated Black History Month and spoke at two Memphis churches on a wide range of issues from health care to local “food desert” concerns.

More: Echoes of ’68 reverberate in events honoring King, sanitation workers

In Nashville on Tuesday, Jackson stopped by the state capitol to help local clergy advocate for issues that concern them. And, he also spoke to students at American Baptist College and Tennessee State University, two of the historically black colleges and universities in the city.

At the church Tuesday evening, Jackson urged those present to consider ways to bring more people to the polls.

He pointed out that TSU’s student body numbers in the thousands. If they all register to vote and turn out, they could easily sway a mayoral race and the city council. He urged those registered to commit to registering someone else and to make sure high school seniors are signed up. 

“We must become creative,” Jackson said. 

The Commercial Appeal contributed to this report. Reach Holly Meyer at hmeyer@tennessean.com or 615-259-8241 and on Twitter @HollyAMeyer

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