The Rev. Jesse Jackson invoked Martin Luther King Jr.'s hopes for a new South, urging a packed hall Monday night in Charleston to fight Republican-led voter ID and immigration laws that he says hearken back to the old South's racist past.
More than 400 people crowded into the International Longshoremen's Association Hall to see and hear Jackson, who at 70 remains the nation's most famous civil rights activist.
In a rousing speech that was at once a history lesson and a rally cry, Jackson said King's work helped the South grow while GOP "voter suppression schemes" are putting South Carolina on backward path.
"You couldn't have Boeing behind the cotton curtain; you couldn't have Michelin tires behind the cotton curtain," he said. "When the walls came down, the South could grow. We are not going back to the old South."
Jackson, who was born in Greenville, made numerous references to streets and towns in South Carolina, beginning with Atlantic Beach, a blacks-only beach during segregation.
Noting that Monday night's GOP debate is in Myrtle Beach, Jackson said Republicans are trying to "resurrect the rope" that kept blacks and whites apart.
Jackson's call-and-response cadence soon had the audience repeating his appeal for an even playing field: "Whenever the rules are published and the goals are clear, and the referee is fair and the score is transparent, we can lead."
But he said voter ID laws are reminiscent of past attempts to restrict blacks and women from the polls, and the GOP is trying to send them to the Supreme Court -- "the same court that gave George Bush the election."
Jackson's comments, however, didn't take into account President Barack Obama's two appointees, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, to the high court.
Jackson had strong words for Gov. Nikki Haley, who rejected spending tens of millions of dollars in the state's surplus on education and other programs.
"We should be hiring police officers, we should be hiring firemen and teachers, and building houses. This land is my land. This land is made for you and me!"
Jackson had even harsher words for the tea party, saying it is part of a "massive backlash after Obama won."
Jackson said "this is not the Boston Tea Party," which he said was designed to stop tyranny. He likened the current tea party to the Confederacy.
"The Fort Sumter Tea Party was willing to dissolve the union" in the name of state's rights, he said, adding that today's tea party is similarly divisive.
It's not the first time Jackson has attacked the tea party. He did so in the summer, prompting vigorous rebuttals from tea party officials, who called Jackson's statements an attempt to use racism to hijack its messages of limited government.
He urged people to vote in Saturday's GOP primary and then change their votes in November. And throughout the night, Jackson referenced King's speeches and his use of biblical verses.
Like King, Jackson urged the audience not to fear walking through "the valley of the shadow of death" and finished with a thunderous chant to "keep hope alive" for a "new South! Happy Birthday Martin Luther King! Happy Birthday Martin Luther King!"
After the rally, Jackson shook hands and did interviews with reporters. Asked about Mitt Romney, the GOP front-runner, Jackson said the former Massachusetts governor and the other candidates are hurting themselves by turning their backs on African-American and Latino voters.
"There are 16 million registered black voters and 10 million Latino voters. It's very risky math not to reach out with them."
Nearby Betty Shine of Goose Creek and Stacha Burgess of Summerville watched Jackson work the crowd.
"It's about liberty and fairness," Shine said when asked about Jackson's speech. "It's history," added Burgess, who was only disappointed by the lack of children in the audience. "Today's children don't understand what people went through before them."
Reach Tony Bartelme at 937-5554.