Tavis Grant, Rainbow PUSH’s former national field director, becomes the civil rights organization’s acting national executive director.
If you’ve been in Chicago for any length of time, you’ve seen the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and chances are, by his side is Bishop Tavis Grant. When Jackson was helping residents of Concordia Place Apartments take a stand against the management and upkeep of the 297-unit apartment complex in the city’s Eden Green neighborhood, Grant was on his side. When Jackson stepped off the plane at O’Hare International Airport in August 2021 after receiving the Commander of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest honor, at a ceremony in Paris, Grant was nearby.
Today, Grant, a longtime Rainbow/PUSH Coalition member, leads the international human and civil rights organization. On September 5, Grant became the interim national executive director of Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, where he serves as administrator for day-to-day operations in Chicago and for satellite offices, affiliates and chapters across the country.
“Consistency is one of the truest markers and means by which we measure each other,” said Grant, former national field manager for Rainbow/PUSH. “I think what I appreciate is the fact that what I’m doing is what I was doing a month ago. What I’m doing now is what I was doing a year ago. I happen to be in the driver’s seat. I have the responsibility, the obligation, and his (Jackson’s) sanction. I feel the weight of that from him, from his family, from the organization.
Grant crossed paths with Jackson as a junior at Rezin Orr Academy high school. Jackson’s message “I am somebody” resonated with him at a time in his life when he needed to hear it. According to Grant, Jackson became a role model and an example of possibility. The first and second person he voted for was Jackson, during his U.S. presidential bids in 1984 and 1988. During his time with Jackson and Rainbow/PUSH, Grant served as a volunteer and youth organizer, and became a member of the personnel under the former PUSH operation. Chief Tyrone Crider.
“I’m a byproduct of Reverend Jackson’s PUSH Excel chip,” Grant said. “I have always lived with the impact and impression he made on me. I traveled with him, I was a speechwriter, I was a janitor, a bus driver, I fry chicken once in a while – I’ve done everything in the organization except that and now I have the chance to do it.
We spoke with Grant, the grandson of Texarkana, Arkansas, sharecroppers, a week after his nomination to talk about his goals, obstacles and upcoming Rainbow/PUSH Coalition activations ahead of Election Day. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Q: Having been with the organization this long, what are your top three goals in this new role?
A: The first thing I want to do is be part of the transformation of the organization in this era of black culture and black renaissance, if you will. We have a black mayor, Lori Lightfoot; Toni Preckwinkle (County Council Chairman); Chris Welch (the Illinois House speaker) – we now have black political power that in Harold Washington’s heyday was unimaginable. And there is a civil rights gap right now – an age gap, a technology gap, a philosophical gap. So when you say Black Lives Matter and you say Rainbow/PUSH, NAACP and Urban League, it’s like you’re talking about two different eras. I think Reverend Jackson’s niche and gift was to create PUSH, a by-product of the SCLC (the Southern Christian Leadership Conference), Dr. King’s brilliant idea to start Operation Breadbasket, an economic social justice arm of the black church. Jesse Jackson took that and made it PUSH and it was young, innovative. He took youth, progressive politics and the black church and shook them up and made them work. We now have a climate that may not happen again, where possibilities are now with us on an organizational level. Under my leadership, I am acutely aware and uniquely qualified in my journey to make this pivot rather than trying to recreate the organization. Reverend Jackson was a thermostat. He could take the temperature of the culture. What are millennials talking about now? Constitution of heritage, generational heritage. How to get a generation without connecting the past with the future? I think that’s what this opportunity does.
Second, we must be responsible and intentional in providing an incubator for new talent, new leaders – not just political leadership, but economic leadership. We move money today like never before. We understand and appreciate finance, but how do we socially develop people? In (Jackson’s) transition from candidate, humanitarian, civil rights leader, there was not the necessary imperative for leadership development that would allow us, from a branding perspective, to offer people something more than an organization that would provide policy analysis and all of being involved in social justice issues.
Third, reclaim our space in the area of economic justice. We now have a wave sweeping through the economic life of our community, with services and resources devastated in such a way that Reverend Jackson has launched Buy Black campaigns. He profiled black professionals and black entrepreneurs and black upstarts – that’s PUSH’s modus operandi. I think these three people coming into 2023 are important to do several things: have real relevance and viability, have some sustainability… It’s a tremendous opportunity to build and be creative, (and) the board has me given great autonomy. It’s almost like putting the keys in the car and they say “make sure you drive it back with a full tank of gas”.
Q: What do you consider to be the biggest obstacle to your goals?
A: The perception that civil rights don’t matter. Every day, I meet someone who says to me, “I didn’t know all about Rainbow/PUSH? “Can you help me keep my job?” Or, “My child is expelled from school, what should I do?” “I can’t afford a lawyer. But can you come to court? You need to support PUSH before you need PUSH because when you need PUSH we may not be there because you didn’t support us.
Large gatherings of people marching down the street to bring about change, that’s one side of it. Winning a multi-million dollar settlement is civil litigation, not civil rights. Civil rights are about public policy and aim to restore the essence and legitimacy of constitutional rights. It is about having access and equity and about marginalizing the disparities that are often perpetuated from one generation to the next. The sense of work and worth is a huge obstacle for people who recognize that the winds of change are not blowing behind us. These are headwinds and they keep increasing. And there are a number of efforts to diminish, demoralize, and marginalize our growth in ways we never imagined, never even imagined. The need and imperative for a strong civil rights organization is upon us. I think we’ll see it halfway through. We will definitely see him enter the next presidential cycle.
Q: Rainbow/PUSH send water to Jackson, Mississippi, for their recent water problems; what will it take to stop having Third World situations in our country?
A: The federal government is going to have to innovate – EPA, FEMA, small business associations are going to have to superimpose their will on the state government for the good of the citizens… appealing to the President, the White House, leveraging their resources with Congressman Bennie Thompson. This did not happen by chance. If you add COVID to the equation, it’s an ever-evolving disaster. We still have a disproportionate number of African Americans who are unvaccinated. Now when you put in water with bacteria in it, you have a third world situation on your hands. We are talking about seniors, handicapped children, people who already live below the national poverty line. It’s really a big problem.
Q: What is Rainbow/PUSH doing regarding Election Day?
A: A voter registration bus campaign, a procession in 17 cities. The tour runs October 8-22 and begins in Minneapolis. We have to add to the reels and we have to return what’s on the reels. The other side is organized. They have a systematic approach to this and they are hoping for COVID to break out, bad weather in the area and they have a perfect storm. When you look from Minneapolis to Jacksonville, Florida, there is a path to victory. In the past, we’ve waited until the eleventh hour to try to do something. This tour will be something we haven’t seen halfway through. Usually we pass halfway through and take a break. Now it’s you who plays or you are played. This tour is more than inspiring, we will be producing what will be a non-partisan electoral guide to the issues. I think part of our challenge in mobilizing our base is to make sure that our base is educated on the real issues, which are not “Do you trust the vaccine? or “Does Dr. Fauci work for Russia?”