EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the latest in a series of reflections on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. ahead of the dedication of a new memorial to the civil-rights leader on the National Mall. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., was first elected to Congress in 1995. His father, civil-rights activist Jesse Jackson, was with King in Memphis, Tenn., when he was assassinated. Following are edited excerpts from the interview.
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Has King—the man or the message—informed decisions in your career or personal life?
Dr. King was a small man, but he used the Constitution and the law to fight for big ideas. He marched for legislation that changed America—public accommodation, voting rights, open housing—and died fighting in a multiracial coalition for legislation to end poverty.
But I think, eventually, like President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dr. King would have concluded that we need something more than progressive legislation for protection; we need something permanent in the Constitution—i.e., new economic constitutional amendments.
In 1944, FDR said we needed "an American standard of living higher than ever before known." The Constitution, he said, provided "certain inalienable political rights," but it needed a "Second Bill of Rights" to provide economic security for all Americans.
The "Poor Peoples' Campaign," an economic movement, was Dr. King's last crusade. If he had lived, I believe Dr. King would have fought to add new amendments to the Constitution, guaranteeing economic rights. It was this personal insight into Dr. King, in part, that inspired me to write A More Perfect Union and to introduce House Joint Resolutions 28-36.
Is there a song that for you evokes King’s legacy, or the civil-rights movement?
Black Man and Happy Birthday by Stevie Wonder; All Along the Watchtower by Jimi Hendrix; America the Beautiful by Ray Charles.
Is King’s message relevant to any contemporary civil-rights or equality issues?
Dr. King's message is more relevant today than ever. My appeal to contemporary civil-rights organizations is to not just guard against the erosion of civil rights—i.e., protect civil rights gains—but fight for human rights and move from fighting only for progressive legislation to fighting for constitutional amendments. I believe that's where Dr. King would be—morally, philosophically, economically, and politically—if he were alive in 2011.
Interview conducted by Christopher Snow Hopkins