Academic Activist Takes On D.C.
Published: Friday, October 18, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 22:10
Maurice Jackson is a professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University and author of the book Let This Voice Be Heard: Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic Abolitionism. A civil rights activist, Jackson has been significantly involved in the social, political and cultural forces of African American history in Washington, D.C. ,and now serves as the chair of the District of Columbia Commission on African American Affairs. His dedication to the nation and its capital earned him an induction into the Washington, D.C. Hall of Fame in 2009.
In your article published in The Washington Post this past August, you often alluded to Washington D.C.’s “Soul of the City.” How do you define this “soul”?
W.B. Dubois claimed that this soul is the “essence” of black people; D.C. is what it is because of black people. Even in the midst of slavery, black people still possessed the unwavering desire for freedom; slavery could not rob them of their dignity. Black people also found themselves involved in U.S. war efforts during both world wars but were nonetheless still denied equal rights following their return to civilian life. Later, in the 1950s, segregation was still rampant in America. In this decade, D.C. also experienced a flourishing of black culture that was concentrated on U Street, known as “the Washington Renaissance.” The mid-1970s brought new job opportunities for minority youth in D.C., in addition to efforts at preserving the city, seen in the establishment of black museums and the flourishing of African American culture. However, this was later marred in the ’80s by both budget cuts and Ronald Reagan’s “Three Strikes You’re Out” legislation, which issued severe penalties for drug-related crimes and unfortunately coincided with a crack epidemic. The consequences of this legislation were profound and prompted the emigration of young blacks who were simply unable to afford such [newly expensive] housing.
What prompted your involvement with the District of Columbia Commission on African American Affairs? How do you hope to address racial inequality in D.C. through your position as chair on the commission?
I got a call asking to be involved with the commission but was initially reluctant to accept — I can’t deal with egos; I think they prevent things from getting done. After mentioning this, I was subsequently offered the chair position, which I accepted. More than anything, we just need time and resources to succeed. Our commission is the only commission that is not funded. Many people assume that these issues of racial inequality and limited minority opportunities have been solved over the years, given their salience throughout U.S. history. Nonetheless, this isn’t the case. People look and see what’s going on but no one does anything about it. The people of D.C. shouldn’t have to struggle. 70 percent of African American men don’t graduate [from college]. African Americans in D.C. move out because they cannot afford housing. Such issues are only exacerbated by politics, as politicians seek only to promote their own agenda and create a well-received reputation of themselves. However, as the chair of the commission, I am not anyone’s candidate. It will likely take time, but I hope to make a difference.
Why did you choose to become a professor following your involvement in civil rights activism?
I tried to change the world, but the world wasn’t changing. Becoming a professor was honestly sort of a fluke. The school has been good to me but I’ve also been good to the school. I’ve given many of my books to Lauinger Library — in fact, there is a Maurice Jackson collection at this point. I’m also working on three or four projects right now, including my position on the D.C. Commission on African American Affairs, producing publications and actively recruiting more blacks into Georgetown’s graduate programs; blacks comprise less than 3 percent of the graduate student population here.
Is there any critique you have to offer regarding Georgetown’s education or its student body?
I think the students sometimes need to work a little harder. I suggest that students go out of the mold and take a variety of classes, learning how to think and informing their opinions on the world. I think students could also lighten up a little bit, maybe cut off their iPads and just get together to discuss the great issues of our time. Unfortunately, I believe that education is suffering. Sometimes, I walk into my office and just put my head down on the table, but I know I must try to make a difference, so I simply straighten my tie and look onward. Education means nothing if we don’t use it for the betterment of humankind. D.C.’s problems are not limited to racial issues; violence against women must also be addressed head-on. More than anything, students and D.C. residents in general should not only treat everyone with dignity but also carry themselves with that same dignity and respect. Nothing makes you better than anyone else. Not only should you abide by this because it is part of the Georgetown tradition, but also because it makes you a better human being, even if it goes against everything you’ve ever been taught.