Minister, civil and human rights activist. Jackson was born in Greenville on October 8, 1941, to Helen Burns, a beautician, and Noah Louis Robinson, who was married at the time to another woman and lived next door. His mother later married Charles Henry Jackson, a Greenville postal maintenance worker who became Jesse’s stepfather.
Jackson grew up in the segregated South. He graduated from Sterling High, Greenville’s all-black school, in 1959. A star athlete and honor student, he was awarded a football scholarship to the University of Illinois, but left after his freshman year. The following year, Jackson transferred to North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, where he became a star quarterback. There he became involved in civil rights activities. He helped lead a successful demonstration to end discrimination in downtown stores and was later elected president of the newly formed North Carolina Intercollegiate Council of Human Rights. In his senior year, he was elected student-body president and named southeastern director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). While he was at A&T, Jesse began dating Jacqueline Lavinia Brown, whom he married in 1964. They have five children and live in Chicago.
In 1963 Jackson graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. He then attended Chicago Theological Seminary, but dropped out after two years to be involved full-time in the civil rights struggle. He eventually earned a master’s degree in theology.
During the 1965 voting rights march in Selma, Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., offered Jackson a position with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Working with King also helped Jesse decide to become a preacher. In 1968 he was ordained a Baptist minister.
Jackson’s breakthrough came in 1967 when King put him in charge of Operation Breadbasket in Chicago. Jackson successfully organized black Chicagoans to boycott bakeries, milk companies, and grocery stores “having heavy minority patronage” to secure better service and more jobs. Afterwards he was directed to expand the project into a national program.
After King’s assassination in 1968, a power struggle within SCLC ended with Jackson’s resignation and his launching PUSH (People United to Save Humanity, later renamed to Serve Humanity). Several prominent African Americans, including Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin, Carl Stokes, and Richard Hatcher, were on hand when the new organization was announced in December 1971. The organization had similar goals as Operation Breadbasket: to increase minority employment and business ownership. PUSH later included an educational initiative; Jackson traveled to dozens of schools every year. He encouraged students to stay in school, study harder, and to pledge not to use drugs long before other leaders addressed drug problems. It was during this time he also started using the popular call and response ritual, “I am somebody,” in an effort to inspire those who might feel unimportant. Another motivational phase Jack son coined was “keep hope alive.” Although he was not the first, Jackson would popularize the term African American in redefining the nation’s largest minority group.
Under Jackson’s leadership, PUSH successfully negotiated and sometimes boycotted businesses in an effort to increase minority employment and opportunities. Jackson’s universal call for social justice helped generate awareness on behalf of minorities, women, labor issues, environmental issues, voting rights, and the poor. He became a tireless crusader of political inclusion, culminating with his most ambitious endeavor, his candidacy for the U.S. presidency.
In 1984 Jackson formed the National Rainbow Coalition of “left outs.” His energy and charismatic style created a groundswell of excitement as he sought the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988. Despite some primary victories, he did not get his party’s endorsement. The coalition especially energized Hispanic, Middle Eastern, and African American voters, whose support of other Democratic candidates between 1984 and 1992 had contributed to the party’s success.
While Jackson’s status grew at home he also began enjoying international respect. This allowed Jackson to negotiate the release of prisoners and hostages in Syria, Cuba, Iraq, Kuwait, Yugoslavia, and Sierra Leone. During the 1990s, he served as President Bill Clinton’s special envoy to Africa.
Despite his numerous accomplishments, Jackson has not been without controversy. He has been criticized for verbal misfires, embellishments, and grandstanding, and accused of benefiting personally as a civil rights leader. One of his lowest points in an otherwise phenomenal career came in early 2001, when he acknowledged having a child from an extramarital affair.
Regardless of the negative baggage, entering the twenty-first century Jesse Jackson remained an influential voice for economic equity and human rights.
Colton, Elizabeth O. The Jackson Phenomenon: The Man, The Power, The Message. New York: Doubleday, 1989.
Hertzke, Allen D. Echoes of Discontent: Jesse Jackson, Pat Robertson, and the Resurgence of Populism. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 1992.
Jackson, Jesse, Roger D. Hatch, and Frank E. Watkins. Straight from the Heart. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987.
Reynolds, Barbara A. Jesse Jackson, The Man, The Movement, The Myth. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1975.