Jesse Jackson talks racial unity at College of Charleston

The Rev. Jesse Jackson invited students to join him at the front of the room and register to vote during a visit to the College of Charleston on Thursday.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson gave a sort of altar call to a roomful of about 90 students Thursday night at the College of Charleston, where he was seeking youth support for a new statewide coalition of civil rights activists.

“If you are not registered to vote in South Carolina, come on down,” Jackson said. “I’m gonna register you right now.”

A dozen students walked down the aisle of chairs in Randolph Hall and registered. A few others signed up to volunteer with Jackson’s Chicago-based Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, which recently announced plans to open offices in Charleston and Greenville.

Jackson, an activist who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights era, has returned to his home state of South Carolina several times this year following the Walter Scott shooting and the Emanuel AME church shootings, as well as during the legislative debate that resulted in the Confederate battle flag’s removal from Statehouse grounds.

“The redemptive moment that Charleston had during its crisis has inspired the nation to choose redemption over retaliation,” Jackson said in an interview with The Post and Courier before his visit to the college. “What this massacre meant, and how it was handled by the governor, by Mayor (Joe) Riley, by the people themselves — this could have been a mess of unusual proportions, but it was handled quite the opposite.”

Jackson said his agenda in South Carolina includes expanding Medicaid, making higher education affordable, and ensuring racial equity in awarding of state contracts. Toward those ends, he said he plans to register 100,000 voters in the state in upcoming months. He said part of his message to South Carolinians is that poverty-related issues like rural access to health care affect white people just as much as — and in some cases more than — African Americans.

“Part of the challenge is to deracialize the debate and to whiten the face of poverty,” Jackson said.

At the college, Jackson also spoke briefly about law enforcement in the wake of the Scott shooting in North Charleston. “When people say they’re not being fair and just, people dismiss them and say, ‘There they go again,’” Jackson said. “But then came cameras, and thus Walter Scott. Walter Scott was shot down in the back, but without the camera, if Walter Scott could have told his own story, he would not have been believed.”

Jackson was joined by former S.C. Rep. Jim Felder, who will serve as state coordinator for the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. In addition to his political activism, Jackson said he has been visiting church leaders and asking them to use their Sunday school classrooms to host computer coding classes.

Jackson’s college visit was hosted by the College of Charleston Political Science Club, which has brought in other speakers including Rand Paul in the past. Club President Katherine Calabro said a representative for Jackson called her while she was in class recently to ask if she would help host the event. “Jesse Jackson?” she recalls answering. “The famous one?”

Cory Nelson, a junior political science student who took a voter registration form at the end of Jackson’s visit, said he would consider joining Jackson’s coalition in South Carolina.

“I’m getting an overall theme of unity, of coming together,” Nelson said. “He spoke a lot about black, white, how we have a lot of common ground, and coming together to live as brothers and sisters.”

Reach Paul Bowers at (843) 937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.