The Sankofa Cultural Arts Center hosted the Rev. Jesse Jackson and community leaders from Austin and the greater West Side Jan. 19, to address the issue of economic inequality that’s plaguing many communities nationwide.

Jackson was the keynote speaker Sunday at Sankofa, 5820 W. Chicago Ave. He was joined by elected, community and business leaders, as well as a packed house with residents and media.

Though Jackson Sr. was the event’s featured speaker, community organizers took the lead in charging residents to speak up against economic inequality. The event also included several wrongfully-convicted individuals who spoke about economic and social injustices.

Jarret Adams, co-founder of Life After Justice, was wrongfully-convicted of a sexual assault and served nine years in prison before the conviction was reversed. Through Life After Justice, he is working to establish re-entry homes for recently-released prisoners, in hopes of providing them with the tools they need to interact in society again.

“The organization is just a hope and a dream right now. We’re looking for Rahm to give us contracts to clean up our own neighborhoods,” Adams said, referring to Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Russell Cunningham was arrested for a class 4 crime, the lowest you can be charged with, and held in Cook County Jail awaiting trial for six months because he couldn’t afford the $20,000 bond ordered by the judge.

“My bond hearing was literally two minutes,” said Cunningham, father of two and an Austin resident, noting he did not have any other criminal convictions and thought he would be a good candidate for a substance abuse program.

He’s struggled with alcohol in the past but being in jail for six months and not receiving help didn’t benefit anyone.

After six months, Cunningham was sentenced to probation. By that time, he had lost his job and still had a substance-abuse problem to address.

“I was kept away from my family when they needed me,” Cunningham said. “Our court system punishes people for being poor.”

Another topic discussed was Chicago’s educational system and the lack of resources for children in many neighborhoods.

Jackson Sr. also recalled the March on Washington and observing Dr. King preparing for the day. He said King’s speech that day has become known as the “I have a dream” speech, but that was not King’s original manuscript for the day.

“It was the ‘broken promises’ speech,” Jackson said.

Jackson said King’s intent in 1963 was to tell government leaders they had broken the promise of emancipation that was offered when African Americans were freed from slavery.

Jackson urged West Side residents not to become complacent and accept the inequality they are dealing with in their community.

“The one thing worse than slavery is to adjust to it,” Jackson said

Read more about the event at and in Wednesday’s Austin Weekly News.