LONDON – Britain's black community is still enslaved despite the end of the slave trade 200 years ago, the Rev. Jesse Jackson has warned.
"The slave trade ended [but] slavery did not end and the legacy has not ended," Jackson told the U.K.-based Christian Today newspaper after a meeting with black church leaders on Monday.
The U.S. civil rights leader is in the United Kingdom this week as part of a visit organized by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland to highlight racial justice.
"The legacy of slavery lingers in ways that can be measured today," Jackson said, pointing to the higher mortality rates and shorter life expectancy within black communities, as well as high numbers of young black people in prison and substantial disparity between black and white students at top universities such as Oxford and Cambridge.
"Hard work and effort and excellence cannot offset the impact of inheritance and access; so there you have structural inequality," he said.
Jackson made clear that an apology from the U.K. government for the slave trade would be "empty without a commitment to reconstruction."
"Words and action must go together, otherwise apologizing is a ceremony," he said.
Jackson went on to criticize the Church for its complicity in the slave trade.
"The Church for too long offered moral justification for our slavery and apartheid. The Church made the case to give tyrants and oppressors a comfort zone without a commitment to social change," the civil rights campaigner asserted.
"It's a constant challenge for the Church to challenge culture and not just absolve it. The Church must engage in social change and social justice, not just engage in a ceremony," he continued.
"Many churches are not actively involved in bringing about equal opportunity, even among their own churches. When the Church convenes to come up with a plan for racial justice and gender equality and workers' rights, that is the Church at its best."
Jackson also acknowledged the problem of gun and gang crime dogging the United Kingdom's major cities, and called for greater investment in the worst affected areas.
"They don't manufacture guns in the inner city. They don't manufacture drugs in the inner city. We must stop the flow of guns and drugs in, and stop the flow of jobs and investment out," he stressed. "We treat the poor poorly and differently. We must raise the expectations of human rights for people who are poor."
Jackson also dug his heals into the Iraq war, telling Christian Today that it was based on a "made-to-manufacture threat," and that Saddam Hussein was "contained" and therefore not a threat to Iraq's neighbors or to Europe at the time of the invasion by the U.S. and U.K.-led coalition forces in 2003.
"Here we used global power in a way that is bringing about a global catastrophe. We are losing lives, money, honour and moral authority," he said. "Since we engaged in that kind of war in Iraq, Iran is becoming a greater threat, Afghanistan is in real crisis and Pakistan is in an even greater crisis. By losing our moral authority we are unraveling our capacity to resolve conflict."
Later on in the day, Jackson took part in a meeting, also organized by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, in which he delivered an address to black grassroots activists and partners called "Entitled to excellence – inspiring future generations of black Christian leaders in church and society".
During the meeting, Jackson stressed the need for black people to have fair access to education in order to achieve equality in society.
"Those who are educated are going to lead the rest of us," he said, adding, "Strong minds break strong chains. We shouldn't have grasshopper complexes and die with low expectations."
Jackson began his visit to the United Kingdom with a sermon at the American Church in Central London, and headed to Oxford on Tuesday. On Wednesday, he was scheduled to lecture on freedom and education within the context of the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act by the British Parliament, and to take part in a ceremony to become an Honorary Fellow of Regent's Park College.
Jackson's latest visit to the United Kingdom follows a 10-city tour of England this past summer that included stops at London, Manchester and Liverpool.