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The NAACP has fought for a century to bring equal and civil rights to blacks, but the Rev. Jesse Jackson believes the organization’s current battle is to help the troubled U.S. economy and struggling domestic auto industry.

“We must now save the entire industry from itself,” Jackson said as part of the keynote address Sunday night at the Detroit NAACP’s 54th Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner at Cobo Center.

“We cannot have joy while Chrysler is in bankruptcy and GM is in line. There is a sense of joy because it’s high noon in our politics, but it’s midnight in our economy.”

The civil rights activist and Operation PUSH founder had said earlier at a media gathering that the employment picture in Detroit, among the cities hardest hit by withering economy, has shifted from “the Big Three to gambling casinos.”

“Detroit is not just your city,” Jackson later told the crowd during his speech. “It is the soul of industrial America.

“We must fight back to save GM, Ford and Chrysler. That’s our lifeline.”

Chrysler, the nation’s third-largest automaker behind General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Thursday after months of surviving on government loans. All three car companies have laid off thousands of workers and closed a number of factories in the Detroit area and across the country.

Detroit has mirrored their failures. The city’s poverty and unemployment are among the highest in the country, as is its home foreclosure rate.

The city’s population is more than 80 percent black. Detroit’s black residential base began swelling decades ago as blacks from the south moved north to find jobs in manufacturing and in the auto industry, still the lifeblood of the city.

Those jobs must be saved, Jackson said in his 25-minute speech.

“The cause of the workers is a moral cause,” he said. “It’s time for a righteous rebellion, civil disobedience.”

Jackson also criticized federal bailouts to banks, who in turn gave million-dollar bonuses to executives while urban neighborhoods continue to suffer and jobs are being lost.

His message came at the right time, said 27-year-old Jonathan Guest of Detroit.

“We need to stand behind them and fight for them,” he said of the auto industry and its workers.

It all made sense, said Doris Jordan-Smith of Detroit.

The auto industry’s jobs crisis has affected others outside the car companies, said the 65-year-old insurance company marketer.

“We fought to get those jobs. We’ve got to fight to keep them,” she said.

Detroit NAACP president Wendell Anthony attributed the rise of the black middle class to the auto industry, which was honored at the dinner.

“Detroit is still the motor city capitol of the world,” Anthony said. “Standards have been set and innovations have been met.”

The United Auto Workers union and its president Ron Gettelfinger also were honored. Gettelfinger thanked the NAACP for its support for America’s auto workers.

GM Chief Executive Fritz Henderson spoke on behalf of GM, Ford and Chrysler.

“We recognize that most of us derived our livelihood from the auto industry, directly or indirectly,” Henderson said. “We’re all in this together.”

Singer Aretha Franklin, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Detroit pastor the Rev. Edwin Rowe also were honored for contributions to the civil rights movement.

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