For two weeks they have been coming in groups of three to five. White men, Afro-American men; some in full uniform, more in black suits with black ties and black sunglasses. All of them drop by my office at the Old State Capital in Tallahassee. One window of this historic office looks directly upon the portico and steps leading to the front door.
It is now Tuesday, March 7, 2000, and I sit in my office awaiting the thousands of people who have converged upon the State Capitol to protest what they feel is the end of affirmative action in Florida. The crowds will gather to hear the most powerful voices in the Afro-American community. These voices will resonate from the portico just 40 feet away; I will sit here to watch this historic event.
The hallways are filled with groups of Afro-American youth dressed in brightly colored "marshal" T-shirts. They pose in vivid contrast to the myriad of white police, capitol security and other law enforcement officers who occupy nearly every room in the building. In fact, I am sharing my office with a TV camera and monitor that will survey the crowd throughout the entire day.
Every now and then a very young and very tall "agent" with bleached platinum hair, comes in to take a look at the equipment.
Outside, at an early hour, there is a holiday atmosphere. T-shirts are being sold, mobile barbecue pits are being stoked, and eight-foot speakers are testing with gospel music. Everywhere I look there are people, gaily striped tents and, police officers. None of the crowd seems concerned that only a short distance away the governor of Florida is giving his State of the Union address. These thousands of people have not come to listen to the governor.
A massive crowd has now gathered. I walk from my office to the head of the staircase leading from the bottom floor. The building has been sealed. Anyone who will speak to the crowd must come up these stairs and out to the front portico.
Seven minutes later the stairwell is immersed in pandemonium. I step directly into the group of security agents with wires leading in their ears.
"Welcome to the capitol, Reverend Jackson would you please sign in?" I ask.
The Reverend Jackson is a big man with an immense presence and he is at this moment surrounded by no less than 15 men. He takes the pen from my hand with a gentle movement somewhere between resignation and recognition. He then grabs me by the shoulder and pulls me into what was now a huge crowd surrounding him.
He bows his head toward my face and when he speaks I can hardly absorb the tremor and melody of the voice. "I have, just this moment, right on those stairs, right under this capitol dome, been thinking that this is March 7, 2000 the 35th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, Selma, Alabama. We can never forget that day. Today we will all remember Bloody Sunday!"
His eyes penetrating and his face sagged visibly for a moment on the left side. He had already written "Keep Hope Alive, 3/7/00" on the paper. He now added a sentence on Selma, Alabama. He handed the clipboard back and grabbed my hand and said, "Thank you, God bless you."
And moved onto the life that not many of us have the capacity to imagine. To me it was obvious from those few minutes that the life of Jesse Jackson was burdened with great awfulness, sorrow and danger. Not many people can carry burdens like that all of their lives.
To me, it seemed, that Jesse Jackson knew what hope really meant he lived it every day. I watched the front door of the Capitol open for him and there is thunderous recognition. I am whispering, "God bless you, sir" to myself.
NOTE: Former Key West City Commissioner Joe Pais is with the State Division of Historic Resources, Old State Capitol, Tallahassee