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  • Matilde Aranha & Echo Caise

Interview: Jack Healey

Keeper of The Flame: At 85, 'Mr. Human Rights' Reflects on Decades of Global Advocacy

We speak with Jack Healy. Called ‘Mr. Human Rights‘ by U.S. News and World Report, Jack brought human rights to the global stage through his creative use of media and enlistment of world-class musical talent as advocates and spokespersons as Executive Director of Amnesty International USA for 12 years. Today, the 85-year old provides 'a voice for the voiceless' through The Human Rights Action Center (HRAC).

Meet Mr. Human rights

At 85 years old, everyone should have their stories ready to tell. By then you should know how to talk about your life. You should know how  you want to measure it: by years, by loves, by mistakes, by phases of all the people you have been…

At 85 years old, Jack Healey measures his life by all the things he fought for. 

Healy´s life´s  dedication has been  to Human Rights. From priesthood to working in the Peace Corps, to advocating for the civil rights movement Black Panthers, revolutionising Amnesty International and bringing the most prominent musicians of the 80s to go on a tour for Human Rights- Mr. Human Rights has surely made justice to his nickname. 

 Jack Healey has known the stiffness of negotiating with the government from his project to put the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in passports and the unpredictability of politicians from campaigning for  Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi.Movements can go static. Movements can turn against you. Or they can reshape the status quo. Healey has seen it all.

At 85 years old, here is the story Mr Human Rights had to tell.

Q: What do you think makes an effective movement? Is it the leader or the idea?

Jack: I think you gotta have a good simple idea. And I define that by saying, you gotta be able to put that on a T-shirt. (...) And if you can do that (...) I think leaders will show up. (...)  I think an idea can work if you have real passion and distrust the answers and trust your doubts. [But] you can't jump too fast into a movement, it has to have some kind of natural growth. 

Q: How important are the leaders of a movement? Do you think it is dangerous to focus on just one person?

Jack: It is dangerous. We did it with  Aung San Suu Kyi and she screwed it up. On the other hand,  Mandela and Dr. King never failed us. (...) I have happened to be in both movements. And they were our symbols of hope and it worked. Mandela [changed] a whole nation on his personality. And Dr. King understood the constitution and tried to tell Americans about it.(...)  but there is bad leadership, no question. We were only warned by one Burmese guy that didn't trust her [Suu Kyi] at all, even in the good days. And he just said “she's all about herself and she belongs to the Burma majority”. We were warned and we basically didn't believe it. And turned out she's either racist or supporting people in racism, and we're still struggling with that one. [But again] we still build [movements] around Dr. King's name…

Q: What was your experience working with such a controversial movement like Black Panther?

Jack: I worked with Dick Gregory, in the black community and he was one of the great workers for civil rights in the United States in 73 to 76. (...) I was with him so I got to be a little more of an insider than normal. (...) The Black Panthers really had the FBI on their back. (...)  [they] had an immense pressure upon them from the beginning so they never got to mature naturally without that overhang of police power, but they did an awful lot of good. (...) They awoke their own people.(...) And I think the fruits are coming now from that movement. 

Q:  Why should the Declaration of Human rights be put into passports?

Jack:  I believe that the UDHR is the best document to read for everybody in the world. It sets the vision based upon what had happened in World War Two. So in some ways, it's outdated. But with things that are written, especially at the United Nations, you almost can't redo them, because they will never get done arguing. [So]  we have [this] document, let's use it to mind. (...) I think the Universal Declaration is a movement waiting to occur in the world. (...) Harry Truman quickly walked away from [this idea]. So I tried in 1988, to do a world tour with a number of famous musicians. And we gave it a bright shining moment [but] it  didn't work.(...) [Still, I think] that's the document  we ought to pass around, see whether we get it in passports and get it in young people's minds. (...)I'm hoping one day that young people in the world discover the document and build a movement around it.

Q: What are your thoughts on the overruling of Roe v. Wade?

Jack: It's a  big mistake by the Supreme Court because the people in the United States do believe in that right.(...) Our country is in a deep turmoil of major questions. (...)I think if there was one thing that we could correct in the Universal Declaration, it would be to put women's rights at the front of the movement. If we do that, and get that done in a significant way, it lifts everybody else's boats behind it.

Interviewer: How do you find your role in a movement?

Jack: That's a good question. And I think the one thing I need to tell you is almost every job I've ever had, they wanted to fire me. Honest to God, they wanted to get rid of me in no time. Because when you bring change, you're a threat.(...)  when I left the priesthood, I couldn't get a job for nine months. I used to have to sit in a tub of warm water to feel better. It was so hard to make the transition. (...) I stepped into a job of national leadership of directing kids to walk 32 miles to raise money for world hunger. And we raised 50 million during the Nixon period.I was chosen to do that, which was luck, because the other guy who was supposed to get the job didn't show up… So yeah, showing up is probably the best advice you can give to people(...) You know, I went to the March on Washington, where I heard Dr. King giving that great speech “I have a dream”. I was over his left shoulder about 2-300 yards out. And now I'm one of the few people in the world that  was at that event. And I went there just with my classmates because we were supporting the civil rights movement. We could have not done that... But we went down [there] and we joined and we were all broken by the speech.

Jack Healey Interview - Jack with Matti, Echo and Romy

KEEPER OF THE FLAME Documentary - Out Now!

Playing now across the US on PBS - Click Here to Watch 

"Keeper of the Flame" is a feature-length documentary about the life and work of human rights activist Jack Healey. Tracking his activism from the Civil Rights Movement into his later role as the director of Amnesty International USA, the film shows how Healey played a major role in bringing human rights to a televised national and international public by fusing popular music and activism.

Jack's 10 Lessons:


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