Cecil Jackson’s passion is all about connection.
When Cecil Jackson attended the Spokane screening of Eugene Jarecki’s “The House I Live in,” on December 7th he sat near the back of the small auditorium to watch the film.
In the colloquy afterwards, it was Rev. Happy Watkins who spotted him and called him forward to talk not just about what Cecil Jackson had just seen, but about his life story. And that alone was worth the price of admission. Jarecki’s award-winning documentary goes deep inside America’s drug war and how its reliance on draconian prison sentences has torn apart families and communities. Cecil Jackson bore witness to that narrative as a child growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, and he spoke to it that evening.
“It was so easy for me to believe the film because I lived that life,” Jackson says in an interview as part of our Smart Justice Dialogues. “I never used drugs, I never sold drugs. But I have family members who used and sold drugs.”
One of whom was his father, who left the family while Cecil was still a toddler.
“I saw the effects of a father being absent. You know, my mom had four boys, two of her boys spent pretty much most of their lives in prison,in and out of prison. The third one he’s battled drug addiction. Now, you know, I haven’t had any prison terms or drug addiction, but I always was a dreamer, and I always had something deep inside me where I wanted to make my mom proud, so when you see that kind of pain on your mom, you hear the crying, and all the prayers and all the things that she goes through by having sons who are being locked up in the prison system, sons who are struggling with addiction, as her baby boy I didn’t want to inflict any more pain on her.”
The turning point in the life that would eventually bring him to Spokane came one day in late July 1980, when he walking through a park in Fort Worth and was approached by a Navy recruiter. He enlisted and in early 1981 began what he describes as “an unbelievable journey of growth and education.”
He speaks with wonder when he describes his first 48 hours in the Navy, taking the first airplane flight of his life to San Diego and quickly bonding with the eighty or so other enlistees with whom he went through basic training.
“Twelve weeks later,” he says, “we cried like babies that we had to leave each other.”
But this was the path that eventually brought him to Washington state and to Spokane. He has been an athlete and a coach for most of his life. Five years ago he left his day job as a mortgage lender to start the Jackson Sports Academy, which is tailored toward youths from low-income families who may not be able to afford traditional sports camps.
He’s also become a presence at Smart Justice campaign events, bringing the first-hand account of his experience.
“I saw what drugs did to guys I grew up with who had promise. Beautiful young boys, to young men, to drug addicts. It’s heartbreaking and heart-wrenching.”
But what he also saw, Cecil says, is lives lost to long prison sentences far out of proportion to the crimes involved.
“If this were happening in a third world country we’d be appalled,” he says. “We’d be appalled that they would be locking their citizens up at the rate that we’re locking our citizens up. And I don’t understand it, I really don’t.”
“If you build it, they will come,” Cecil told an audience in west Spokane in late January. By which he meant that society gets to choose whether it’s going to emphasize putting resources into building schools or building prisons.
In the audio interview (above) with Tim Connor, he talks about his life, his work, and his vision for what he’d like to help create in Spokane to benefit children and especially young African-Americans.