Jackson, Jesse Louis

Jackson, Jesse Louis (1941- ), African American minister, founder of Operation PUSH and the National Rainbow Coalition, and twice candidate for president of the United States.

One of America's best-known and respected black leaders, Jesse Jackson appeared on the national scene following the 1968 assassination of his mentor, Martin Luther King Jr. In the years since, Jackson has continued to work for racial and economic justice, international peace, and empowerment of society's outsiders. With projects like Operation Breadbasket, Operation PUSH, and the Rainbow Coalition, as well as political action—particularly his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president in 1984 and 1988—Jackson has attracted fame, admiration, and criticism. For his work on behalf of racial and social justice, Jackson has been awarded at least 40 honorary degrees, and for ten years he has been listed among the top ten men most admired by Americans. Despite all of Jackson's achievements, however, some commentators and biographers admit to a sense of disappointment because of what he has not accomplished.

Born in Greenville, South Carolina, to Helen Burns, an unwed teenaged mother—who was herself the child of an unwed teenaged mother—Jackson's childhood was marked by feelings of isolation and difference, according to his biographers. His biological father, Noah Robinson, was one of Greenville's most prosperous black citizens, while Jackson, along with his mother and grandmother, lived in relative poverty. Robinson's initial refusal to acknowledge Jackson (who took the name of his stepfather, Charles H. Jackson, upon being adopted by him in 1957) changed as Jesse grew into a promising athlete and scholar. Despite the material and emotional deprivations of Jackson's early life, one of his friends told biographer Marshall Frady, "Not only does Jesse believe in God, but Jesse believes God believes in him."

This self-assurance and sense of destiny was first tested at college. A football scholarship to the University of Illinois brought Jackson north in 1959, but after being denied the coveted quarterback position he returned south, to the historically black North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State College. There he fulfilled his athletic and leadership potential, serving as the student body president as well as quarterback of the football team. It was also while he was at college that Jackson became involved in the Civil Rights Movement, first by protesting the whites-only local library system, then later by leading demonstrations against segregated restaurants, theaters, and hotels.

By the time Jackson graduated in 1964, he had decided to become a minister. Accepting a scholarship from the Chicago Theological Seminary, Jackson returned to Illinois, this time with a family—he had married Jacqueline Brown the same year. In Chicago, Jackson worked hard at his studies, and at first kept his distance from the local civil rights organizations, many of which were trying to recruit him as a potential leader. All that changed, according to Frady, when Jackson went to Selma, Alabama, in March, 1965, to take part in a historic civil rights march led by Martin Luther King Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Leading a group of fellow divinity students, Jackson arrived in Selma, met King, and made himself noticed—as much for his obvious ambition as for his leadership skills.

Before long, Jackson was working for SCLC. By 1966 he had left seminary to head the Chicago branch of Operation Breadbasket, an organization dedicated to improving the financial position of the black community; in 1967 he became its national chairman. Blessed with charm, energy, and a fiery oratorical style, Jackson soon found success and local fame as the man who pressured several large Chicago organizations into hiring more African Americans. Relations between Jackson and the SCLC leadership, which had been stormy at times due to competition among strong personalities, deteriorated further after King's assassination in April 1968. Accused by some of exaggerating his closeness to the slain civil rights hero, Jackson nevertheless quickly became a national figure, assumed by some to be King's natural heir. After the SCLC board selected Ralph David Abernathy as its next president, Jackson continued with the organization, even serving as mayor of the ill-fated antipoverty demonstration, Resurrection City. In 1971 he left in order to begin a new project called Operation PUSH.

PUSH, which stands for People United to Serve Humanity, grew out of Operation Breadbasket and continued many of its themes, especially that of economic empowerment. Embellishing a line from one of King's speeches, Jackson provided PUSH with a catchy and compelling motto: "I Am Somebody." Jackson began attracting large and enthusiastic crowds to his weekly PUSH prayer meetings. As his influence and celebrity grew, so did his family, which soon included five children. With the addition of PUSH-Excel, a branch devoted to educational issues, and with a new emphasis on voter registration drives, Jackson became a powerful voice for minorities and the poor, appearing often in the national media and speaking on behalf of political candidates.

In 1983 Jackson declared himself a candidate for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. Emphasizing his compassion and fervor on behalf of the poor, the marginalized, and the downtrodden, he pledged to build a "rainbow coalition." Jackson had already been criticized for his support of the Palestinian Liberation Organization during a trip to North Africa and the Middle East in 1979. During the race for the 1984 election he faced renewed charges of anti-Semitism—for his association with the controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and for his reference to New York City as "Hymietown." Jackson apologized repeatedly for this remark, and has since emphasized his distaste for all forms of bigotry, but the stigma remains.

Caught between the high expectations of the black community and the fear and indifference of the white mainstream, Jackson did not win the nomination in 1984. But he did amass far more delegates than anyone had predicted. In his speech before the Democratic convention, Jackson's dramatic call to "Keep Hope Alive" electrified the crowd, and some commentators later called it the best political speech of the century. In 1986 Jackson founded the National Rainbow Coalition. Two years later he again sought the presidency and failed to be nominated, although this time he won several major primaries and, for a while, was the front-runner. Although nominee Michael Dukakis did not ask him to be his running mate, despite that suggestion from several polls and advisers, Jackson worked hard to support the Democratic ticket, which eventually lost to George Bush and Dan Quayle. Beyond their simple success or failure, Jackson's presidential runs were significant: through them, he galvanized black voters, millions of whom he had helped to register prior to the election; he raised important social and racial issues on the national level; and, for the first time, he introduced the possibility that an African American could win the nation's highest office.

In the decade following the 1988 election, Jackson continued in leadership roles, although he has passed the political torch to his son, Jesse Jr., who is a Congressman from Illinois. Despite the urging of supporters, Jackson chose not to run for mayor of Washington, D.C., where he and his family had moved in 1989. He left PUSH the same year. In 1990 Jackson began serving as "statehood senator," a position created to lobby for statehood for the District of Columbia. Jackson also resumed the unaligned diplomacy he had begun in 1979, and that he had continued in 1983 when he had won the release of a black prisoner of war who was being detained in Syria. In 1991, Jackson's intervention was responsible for the release of hundreds of hostages being held by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In 1996, he returned to Chicago to resume leadership of PUSH. Jackson once again turned to wartime diplomacy in 1999 when he led a delegation that succeeded in obtaining the release of three American servicemen captured by Yugoslav forces during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) war to stop violence against ethnic Albanians in the Kosovo province of Serbia.


Contributed By:
Kate Tuttle