A ‘Big Tent’ Approach to Making Speeches: A Collection of Jesse Jackson’s Speeches and Sermons

Review of: Keeping Hope Alive: Sermons and Speeches of Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.; by Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., edited by Dr. Grace Ji-Sun Kim

“I’ve never really felt there was much difference between my speeches and sermons—different approaches to achieve the same thing: conveying the good news. You have to start with the isness of the situation, the context of people’s lives. Otherwise, you can end up with pietistic entertainment. It doesn’t move the needle of social structures; it doesn’t change the conditions of people’s lives. But if you start with the isness of the situation, the rightness of it, you bring a sense of justice, you look for the goodness of the mercy of God. And you can usually find some biblical reference to deal with our everyday situation, because the story of Jesus is really telling the same story.”

–from Jesse Jackson’s “Concluding Thoughts” chapter in Keeping Hope Alive

Early in his career, the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson would refer to himself as a “country preacher.” Over time, that “country preacher” would become a highly-influential activist/leader in American politics, known and respected around the world. He accomplished this one powerfully-worded and delivered sermon or speech at a time. 

By compiling Keeping Hope Alive, Dr. Grace Ji-Sun Kim, its editor, has made accessible the full text of some of Jackson’s most important speeches from the mid-1980s until the early 2010s.  This includes numerous overseas speeches by Jackson, plus his two well-known key addresses from the 1984 and 1988 Democratic Party national conventions.

Considering that the most recent previous anthology of Jackson’s speeches—titled Straight From The Heart—was published in 1987, Keeping Hope Alive fills an important gap in the published record.  Because Straight From The Heart ends approximately where Keeping Hope Alive begins, the two can be read together. Straight From The Heart is out of print, but second-hand copies are easy to find. (Perhaps Dr. Kim and her publisher, Orbis Books, could look at merging elements of both books into a second edition of Keeping Hope Alive.)

Speechwriters who pick up Keeping Hope Alive should do so with this gentle caution: while the book includes informed, thoughtful commentary and context around the theological inspiration and influences shaping Jackson’s remarks, there is comparatively little examination of the techniques he used to earn his reputation as a superb public speaker. 

So no one should be under the impression that this is a “how-to” guide – nor would it be fair to judge it on those terms. However, for those willing to read Keeping Hope Alive closely (and watch videos of the 1984 and 1988 convention speeches while reviewing the relevant texts, for example), major elements of Jackson’s success can begin to be identified. His deep scriptural knowledge gives him access to the beautiful language of the Old and New Testaments, with all of their illustrative power. At the same time, he can speak with first-hand awareness of and insight into pressing political issues – uniting the spiritual and temporal spheres. He freely invokes the past, present and future, to guide and exhort his audience. Add to this mix dashes of humor, alliteration and rhythmic repetition.

Beyond his specific words, Jackson’s voice, as he raises and lowers it to emphasize a line or thought, takes on what others have called the characteristics of a “musical instrument.” This gives the delivery of his speeches additional resonance. 

If Jackson has been able to speak circles around other leaders, it is not because he simply has some unusually charismatic presence that entrances audiences into hanging on his every syllable. Surveying the speeches reprinted here, it’s obvious that Jackson’s strength as a public speaker surely rests in some part on him being much more comfortable drawing on a much wider set of techniques than is typical. 

One could put it this way: Both in terms of his political outreach and his pragmatic speaking style, Jesse Jackson believes in a “big tent” approach, where there is room for all—whether for people or rhetorical devices. There might be something there for every student of Jackson’s success to consider. 

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