Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday accused Rev. Jesse Jackson of insulting Floridians with a series of reckless and divisive statements about the state and its “stand your ground” self-defense law.
While visiting the state Capitol Tuesday, Jackson talked about efforts to repeal the law and used the phrase “Selma of our time” — a reference to civil rights marches in Alabama that helped prompt change in the 1960s.
In a July 18 exchange on CNN, Jackson talked about an economic boycott to “isolate Florida as a kind of apartheid state given this whole stand your ground laws.”
Scott denounced both comments and demanded an apology, saying the longtime civil rights leader’s words “insult Floridians and divide our state at a time when we are striving for unity and healing.”
Other top Republicans also picked up on the comments, including House Speaker Will Weatherford and newly elected Rep. Mike Hill, the only African-American GOP lawmaker in Tallahassee. Hill called Jackson’s words a “disgrace.”
But Jackson, 71, said he would not apologize. “These guys are looking for a diversion from the horrendous laws that are separating people,” he said. “I will not respond in kind.”
The back-and-forth Wednesday, which spiraled on social media, further underscores the tension that remains in the state since George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. A group of demonstrators, who believe the stand your ground law aided Zimmerman’s defense, have been camping outside Scott’s office hoping that the law will be repealed.
Jackson briefly joined that group, the Dream Defenders, to help their cause. That much is clear.
But his comments Tuesday about the civil rights era — and their meaning — are more difficult to decipher. While Jackson mentioned Selma, he did it in an indirect way.
He spoke about how his organization, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, and others were going to recruit adults, ministers and students to come to Tallahassee and support the Dream Defenders. In Jackson’s telling, the cause was not limited to Florida or stand your ground laws, but to a myriad of issues that also included prison labor, credit card and student loan debt, and the cut in student loans.
“This is the Selma of our time, this is the transformative moment for this time,” Jackson said. “I think about students this past summer couldn’t get summer Pell Grants and were wiped out by the thousands. Students have reasons to fight back. Parent plus loans, students being kicked out of school, good minds no money. Fight back. Student loan debt, credit card debt we must fight back.”
Jackson later talked about Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who in 1963 famously stood in the door of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama to block the entry of two black students. Wallace later apologized to black leaders.
“Rosa Parks didn’t change her mind,” he said. “The bus company didn’t change their mind, but they eventually did. Wallace said we couldn’t go to the University of Alabama. He had to change his mind.”
Republicans took the comment as a comparison to Scott, who has refused to call a special session to overturn the 2005 stand your ground law.
But Jackson said it was meant to illustrate the role governors have in making change.
Hill, who recently became the first black Republican legislator since Reconstruction when he won a House seat in June, called Jackson’s comments ridiculous.
“When Jackson uses language that describes us as an apartheid state and compares our governor to one of history’s most notorious bigots, he is either hopelessly out of touch or purposefully dishonest,” Hill said in a statement.
Jackson spent the night with the Dream Defenders Tuesday, sharing stories with the group and offering encouragement. He left early Wednesday.
“He was telling different stories and correlating what’s going on right now in the movement that we’re creating with movements and moments that he’s been part of,” said Steve Parjett, one of the demonstrators staying in the Capitol. “He’s committed to continuing to help us and continuing to provide support.”
The group’s executive director, Phillip Agnew, said Scott should address his concerns with the Dream Defenders instead.
“It’s odd he’s taken issue with Jackson,” Agnew said. “Meanwhile, we’re sitting in his office and he won’t address us or the issues that we raise.”