The Rev. Jesse Jackson will speak at Olivet Baptist Church, 740 E. MLK Blvd., at 5:30 p.m. today.
Jesse Jackson in Chattanooga
• Spoke at Olivet Baptist Church
• Toured Volkswagen plant site
April and May 2010
• Spoke to AT&T shareholders at the company's annual meeting
• Spoke at Olivet Baptist Church
• Spoke to students at Howard School
• Attended a VW minority trade show at the Chattanooga Convention Center.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, one of the most celebrated black leaders of the past half-century but a lightning rod for criticism, is coming to Chattanooga today, even as the country's largest neo-Nazi group assembles here to mark its 40th anniversary.
He will join local black leaders in urging residents to stay away from the National Socialist Movement rally Saturday.
"We must not be present to let them provoke us," Jackson said by telephone from Atlanta on Thursday.
Instead, Jackson urged people of all faiths and races to join him at Olivet Baptist Church today. Others in the community are planning a counter-rally Saturday near the Hamilton County Courthouse, where the neo-Nazis will protest illegal immigration.
The former presidential candidate's appearance puts a national spotlight on the neo-Nazi rally and Chattanooga's reaction to it.
Jackson was the second black, after former New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, to make a national run for U.S. president. He ran again in 1988 and came in second in the Democratic primaries to Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.
The 72-year-old father and grandfather served as a shadow U.S senator for the District of Columbia from 1991 to 1997 and is the founder of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a multiracial organization advocating social change.
"We should have a rainbow of love, peace and justice," said Jackson. "We should be aware that these acts are designed to be provocative. We should not pour fuel on that fire. I would urge people to rally on Friday and stay away on Saturday."
Several local community leaders have the same idea.
Black ministers, Muslims and civil rights leaders will host an interfaith prayer vigil at 4 p.m. Saturday at Eastdale Village Community United Methodist Church, 1403 Tunnel Blvd.
Group leaders say they want to use the momentum generated by the National Socialist Movement's presence to address inequalities and civil rights issues that still will exist when the National Socialist Movement leaves.
"We must not take our eyes off the prize," said Sherman Matthews, Unity Group chairman.
He was among more than a dozen black ministers and professionals standing outside of Eastdale Village Community United Methodist Church on Thursday to provide an alternative meeting and message to the neo-Nazi rally.
"We will continue to work in solidarity with one another, using our collective strengths to overcome the oppression of marginalized people," Matthews said.
The National Socialist presence has drawn faith and civil rights leaders into alliance.
"It's the dry bones in the valley shaking and rattling and coming together in unity, because the spirit of the moment in our community demands that not one organization arrive at the solution. It demands that the total community be in agreement with cooperative unity," said local Nation of Islam leader Kevin Muhammad.
Unity Group vice president Quenston Coleman invited the Jewish Mizpah Congregation to the prayer vigil on Saturday. Ash-Lee Henderson, co-founder of Concerned Citizens for Justice, committed to attending the Jewish Holocaust remembrance service on Sunday. She also invited Hispanics in North Georgia, North Alabama and Chattanooga to attend the vigil. Other blacks reached out to Hispanics in the Catholic Church.
Black leaders and Jackson say their goal is peace.
"We did not make the new South based on fear, but hope," said Jackson. "We survived apart but now we are learning to live together."
Jackson pointed to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and the more recent arrival of German carmaker Volkswagen in Chattanooga, saying neither would have happened in the days of segregation and he doesn't want such injustice ever to return.
"We will not allow walls (of segregation) to replace bridges ever again," he said.
He said he's coming today at the Rev. Kevin Adams' invitation, but he's been coming to Chattanooga since 1958, when he was in high school and the Ku Klux Klan bombed the Howard School.
"I didn't come to provocate, but to reconciliate," he said Thursday. "I come as the fireman with an extinguisher, not to put fuel on the flame."
Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@times freepress.com or 423-757-6431.