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From the Transformative Justice Coalition and the Voting Rights Alliance

The Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. (1941-present)

This article was authored by  Caitlyn Arnwine (formerly Caitlyn Cobb) in 2017 and updated in 2018. You can also watch Caitlyn read this article on video via Facebook Live and Periscope, as a part of the 2018 #VRABlackHistoryLIVE series. View past article-readings by searching the #VRABlackHistoryLIVE.

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The Transformative Justice Coalition and the Voting Rights Alliance, in honor of Black History Month, are reviving the daily special series devoted to sharing the legacies and stories of the sheroes, heroes, and events in the fight for Black suffrage. This series was created in 2017 and will add 13 NEW articles this year. In addition to these daily newsletters all February long, this series also incorporates daily social media posts; an interactive calendar; and, website blog posts to spread the word broadly.


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Note from the author: This article is comprised of quotes from many different articles in order to provide a more comprehensive view of the life, legacy, and impact of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr.’s continued fight for civil and equal rights and African-American suffrage and general advancement. All sources are linked in green throughout the article. Sources linked throughout the article in green. This article was updated in 2019 with more information about the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr.’s 1988 Presidential bid.


Today, February 26th, 2024, we honor the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. “The Reverend Jesse Louis Jackson, Sr., founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, is one of America’s foremost civil rights, religious and political figures. Over the past forty years, he has played a pivotal role in virtually every movement for empowerment, peace, civil rights, gender equality, and economic and social justice.” The Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. marched in Selma with Martin Luther King, Jr.; was a major-party presidential candidate twice; and, still advocates for many of the original causes on which he campaigned. 



Early Life

“Jesse Louis Jackson was born on October 18, 1941, in Greenville, South Carolina. He was the son of Helen Burns and her married next-door neighbor, Noah Robinson. Jackson was teased by his neighbors and classmates for being ‘a nobody who had no daddy.’ Jackson developed a strong desire to succeed and an understanding of the oppressed (those who are treated unjustly).” “A year after Jesse’s birth, his mother married Charles Henry Jackson, a post office maintenance worker, who later adopted Jesse. In the small, black-and-white divided town of Greenville, a young Jackson learned early what segregation looked like. He and his mother had to sit in the back of the bus, while his black elementary school lacked the amenities the town’s white elementary school had.


‘There was no grass in the yard,’ Jackson later recalled. ‘I couldn’t play, couldn’t roll over because our school yard was full of sand. And if it rained, it turned into red dirt.’” 


“With advice from his grandmother, Jackson overcame his childhood problems, finishing tenth in his high-school class. He earned a football scholarship to attend the University of Illinois in Chicago. Jackson, eager to get away from the prejudice (dislike of people based on their race) and segregation (separation based on race) of the South, traveled north only to find both open and hidden discrimination (unequal treatment) at the university and in other parts of the city. After several semesters Jackson decided to leave the University of Illinois. He returned to the South and enrolled at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College (A&T) in Greensboro, North Carolina, an institution for African American students, where he was elected student body president. As a college senior he became a leader in the civil rights movement. Jackson actively encouraged his fellow students to protest against racial injustice by staging repeated demonstrations and boycotts (protests in which, for example, organizers refuse to shop at a certain store in an attempt to get the store to change an unjust policy or position). Jackson graduated in 1964 with a degree in sociology and economics. After graduation Jackson decided to attend the Chicago Theological Seminary. After two and a half years at the school, Jackson left the seminary (a place for religious education) in 1966 before completing his divinity degree (a degree in the study of religion).”



Jesse Jackson’s Early Work in the Civil Rights Movement


“While in Greensboro Jackson had joined the Congress of Racial Equality and participated in marches and sit-ins. After graduation, he began divinity studies at the Chicago Theological Seminary and worked to organize student support for Martin Luther King Jr.“Jackson joined Martin Luther King, Jr., and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1965 during demonstrations in Selma, Alabama, pushing for expanded voting rights for blacks.”


“[Jackson] organized local ministers to support the movement, marched through all-white neighborhoods to push for open housing, and began work on SCLC’s economic program, Operation Breadbasket. Drawing from successful campaigns in other cities, Operation Breadbasket organized the black community to use selective buying and boycotts to support black manufacturers and retailers and to pressure white-owned businesses to stock more of their products and hire more black workers. Jackson served as Operation Breadbasket’s Chicago coordinator for one year and was then named its national director. Under Jackson’s leadership the Chicago group won concessions from local dairies and supermarkets to hire more blacks and stock more products from black businesses. It encouraged deposits from businesses and the government for black-owned banks and organized a Black Christmas and a Black Expo to promote black-owned manufacturers.”


“In April 1968 many of SCLC’s officers—including Jackson—were drawn away from other civil rights protests by a garbage collectors’ strike in Memphis, Tennessee.” While in Memphis, Tennessee during this strike , Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel. Jesse Jackson said that he was there with King, holding him, when he was shot. Jackson also said that he heard King’s last words and had his shirt stained with King’s blood.”


Other leaders within the SCLC who had also been in the area where King was shot said that Jackson’s claims weren’t true and that Jackson has been in the parking lot when it happened. Jackson then appeared on national television telling his side of the story again, wearing a blood-stained shirt that “brought the horror of the assassination into American homes”. Because of this publicity, many garnered Jackson as the new leader of the civil rights movement; however, “Ralph Abernathy was chosen to succeed King as the SCLC’s leader”, which caused friction between Jackson and Abernathy. The other leaders of the SCLC also thought Jackson was using the SCLC for his own personal gain.        


“In 1971 Jackson resigned from the SCLC to found his own organization, People United to Save Humanity (PUSH)… “Through PUSH Jackson continued to pursue the economic objectives of Operation Breadbasket and expand into areas of social and political development for blacks in Chicago and across the nation. The 1970s saw direct action campaigns, weekly radio broadcasts, and awards through which Jackson protected black homeowners, workers, and businesses, and honored prominent blacks in the U.S. and abroad. He also promoted education through PUSH-Excel, a spin-off program that focused on keeping inner-city youths in school and providing them with job placement.”



Jesse Jackson’s International Exploits


“Since 1979 Jackson has repeatedly asserted himself as a prominent figure in national and international politics. In that year he traveled to South Africa to speak out against apartheid and to the Middle East to try to establish relations between Israel and the Palestinians [campaigning ‘to give Palestinians their own state’]. In January of 1984 he returned to the Middle East to negotiate the release of Lieutenant Robert Goodman, a black Navy pilot who had been shot down and taken hostage in the region. Later that year he traveled to Cuba to negotiate the release of several political prisoners held there and to Central America, where he spoke out for regional peace.” “While some observers and government officials frowned on his diplomatic missions as meddlesome and self-aggrandizing, Jackson nonetheless won praise for negotiating the release of U.S. soldiers and civilians around the world, including in Syria (1984), Iraq (1990), and Yugoslavia (1999).”



Jesse Jackson’s Role in Electing Chicago’s First African-American Mayor


“In the 1980s Jackson became a leading national spokesman and advocate for African Americans. His voter-registration drive was a key factor in the election of Chicago’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington, in April 1983.” “Jackson’s ability to convince over one hundred thousand African Americans, many of them youths, to register to vote played a large part in Washington’s victory.”



Paving the way: Jesse Jackson’s Presidential Bids


“Nineteen eighty-four was also the year of Jackson’s first campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. His appeals for social programs, voting rights, and affirmative action for those neglected by Reaganomics earned him strong showings in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, New York, Louisiana, and Washington, D.C. He received 3.5 million votes, enough to secure a measure of power and respect at the Democratic convention.” “His campaign focused on social programs for the poor and disabled, reduced taxes for the poor, increased voting rights, effective programs to improve the job opportunities of women and minorities, and improved civil rights. He called for increased aid to African nations and more consideration of the rights of Arabs. Many senior African American politicians refused to support Jackson, believing that his candidacy would disrupt the Democratic Party and benefit the Republicans. However, many poor African Americans supported him.” “During the [1984] campaign he drew criticism for his relationship with Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam and for making a disparaging remark about New York’s Jewish community; Jackson later apologized for his comments and distanced himself from Farrakhan. In what was then the strongest showing ever by an African American candidate, Jackson placed third in the primary voting.”


“In 1988 he staged another bid for the Democratic nomination”. “Jackson’s 1988 campaign for the Democratic nomination was characterized by more organization and funding than his previous attempt. With the experience he gained from 1984 and new resources, Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition surprised the media and the political pundits. Initially written off as unelectable, Jackson emerged in the primary/caucus season as a serious contender for the nomination. After early respectable losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, he won five southern states on Super Tuesday, March 8, 1988. On March 12 he won the caucus in his birth state of South Carolina and three days later finished second in his home state of Illinois. On March 26 Jackson stunned Dukakis and the rest of the nation in the Michigan caucus: Having won that northern industrial state with 55 percent of the vote, Jackson became the Democratic front-runner.” “Jackson usually refused to attack his opponents [during his 1988 campaign], preferring instead to debate the issues. Many whites attracted to the campaign saw it as a way to focus attention on issue such as peace, the family farm, and gay rights. Jackson spoke forcefully on these issues. He stayed overnight with a farm family in the Midwest and a Latino family in the West. He participated in labor strikes and gay rights demonstrations.”


“Jackson’s 1988 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination attracted over 6.9 million votes—from urban blacks and Hispanics, poor rural whites, farmers and factory workers, feminists and homosexuals, and from white progressives wanting to be part of a historic change. He finished behind Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in the primaries, but exercised the power of his second-place finish to force his consideration as a vice-presidential running mate and to influence the nature of the Democratic Convention and the issues included on its platform. He called for homes for the homeless, comparable worth and day care for working women, a higher minimum wage, a commitment to the family farm, and an all-out war on drugs.” “Jackson’s increasing influence within the Democratic Party ensured that African American issues were an important part of the party’s platform. Jackson, a dynamic orator, made memorable speeches at later Democratic conventions but declined to run again for the presidency.”

Click Here to read a 1987 New York Times article of when Jackson announced his 1988 bid for President

Click the video to watch Jesse Jackson’s full

speech to 1988 Democratic National Convention

Jesse Jackson’s Post-1988 through 1999 Activism

“After the 1988 elections Jackson moved his home from Chicago to Washington, D.C. There he has campaigned against homelessness in the nation’s capital. He was considered one of the top contenders to take over as the capital’s mayor after Marion Barry was forced out of office by a drug scandal, but Jackson refused to run. Instead, he announced in July of 1990 that he would seek election as the District of Columbia’s ‘statehood senator,’ a position recently established by the city government to push Congress to grant statehood to the district. He was elected in November and sworn into office in January of 1991.” This was Jackson’s first elective office.

“In November 1999 Jackson came to the defense of six high-school students expelled for fighting in Decatur, Illinois. The Decatur school board expelled the students for two years for their involvement in a brawl during a football game in September 1999. Jackson met with the board to try to reach a compromise that would allow the students to return to regular classes, but the board would only agree to reduce the punishment to one year and to allow the students to attend a different school. As a result, Jackson led a protest march at the school, where he was arrested for criminal trespassing.

Jackson received his master of divinity degree from the Chicago Theological Seminary on June 3, 2000. He had been only three courses short of earning his degree when he left the school more than three decades earlier.”

“In 1997 President Bill Clinton named him a special envoy to Africa, where he traveled to promote human rights and democracy. That year Jackson also founded the Wall Street Project, which sought to increase minority opportunities in corporate America. During the impeachment hearings against Clinton in 1998, Jackson counseled the president, and in 2000 Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. That year Jackson also received a Master of Divinity degree from the Chicago Theological Seminary.”

Click Here to read more about the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr.’s current work and accomplishments


“[Jackson] is a tireless worker who is fiercely committed to his causes, even when bedridden—Jackson suffers from sickle-cell trait…He has become the leading spokesman for Americans forgotten by the power brokers of the political process, especially blacks. In his speeches Jackson often relates his vision of hope for these Americans: ‘We have come from the slaveship to the championship, from the guttermost to the uttermost, from the outhouse to the courthouse, and from the statehouse to the White House.’”

Click Here to learn more about the life of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr.

Fun Facts:

  • “In 1969 and 1970 [Jesse Jackson] gathered Illinois’s malnourished and led them on a march to the state capital to raise consciousness of hunger. He led a similar event in Chicago. The state responded by increasing funding to school lunch programs, but Mayor Richard Daley’s machine in Chicago was less cooperative. The mayor’s power and resistance to change, as well as an Illinois law that raised difficult barriers to independent candidates, prompted Jackson to run for mayor of Chicago in 1971. He was not successful; some believe, however, that his efforts laid the foundation for Harold Washington’s successful bid to become Chicago’s first black mayor in 1983.”
  • “Jesse Jackson was the third African-American candidate for president from a major political party. Shirley Chisholm had sought the Democratic nomination in 1972, and Frederick Douglass received a single roll call vote at the 1888 Republican National Convention.”
  • “A Time poll taken in 1988 discovered that 49% of voters said they would not vote Democratic if Jackson were on the ticket as the nominee and 40% would not vote Democratic if he were the vice presidential nominee. When these respondents were asked why, 39% cited his ‘lack of government experience,’ 32% replied ‘his race’ & 12% said his ‘position on the issues’…The history of polling on racial questions tells us that if 32% are willing to admit their racism, the number who oppose him on racial grounds is higher.”
  • Jackson’s “books include Straight from the Heart (1987; ed. by Roger D. Hatch and Frank E. Watkins) and Legal Lynching: Racism, Injustice, and the Death Penalty (1995).”
  • Jesse Jackson is still politically active today, in his Rainbow/Push organization and as an outspoken and internationally recognized civil rights leader. “Rev. Jesse Jackson linked the disenfranchisement [on Nov. 7 2000] of Florida blacks to the civil rights struggle. ‘45 years ago this week,’ he thundered, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Ala. It’s all about ‘one-person, one-vote,’ he extrapolated, and about ‘every disenfranchised vote in Florida.’ He ticked off a series of electoral miscues and official acts that he alleged resulted in a persistent and pervasive pattern of discrimination against minority voters… ‘They still keep these chains,’ local voting officials operated under the nostrum of ‘your pain, my gain,’ contended the rhyming preacher. ‘We deserve better than that. We will never surrender’… The Rev. Jesse Jackson, claiming ‘a clear pattern of voter suppression of African-American votes,’ want[ed] the Justice Department to begin a formal investigation in Florida. ‘African-Americans were targeted to be disenfranchised,’ he said [in 2000] at a news conference.”
  • “Jackson was an early supporter of [Barack] Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign, though he later became a critic of certain Obama policies. On the night of Obama’s election, Jackson was photographed on stage at the victory celebration, tears streaming down his face as he recalled Martin Luther King and others who had died in the struggle for civil rights.”
  • “Seven current national civil rights leaders vowed [in November of 2016] to oppose policies of the Trump administration that they said would “turn back the clock on hard-fought gains…In a wide-ranging conversation, [Jesse] Jackson laid out his priorities to protect civil rights advances. ‘The first issue is protecting the right to vote,’ said Jackson, who, like other leaders, has said the 2016 presidential election was marked by voter suppression efforts in several states. He also said affordable health care for poor Americans of all races needs to be preserved and that student loan debt for college graduates reduced.”
  • “[Jackson’s] son Jesse Jackson, Jr., served in the U.S. House of Representatives (1995–2012).” “Congressman Jesse L. Jackson, Jr. – believing in democracy and that VOTING IS A HUMAN RIGHT – has proposed to add a voting rights amendment to the U.S. Constitution based on the individual RIGHT of all Americans to vote.”
  • Jesse Jackson envisioned, founded, and is honorary co-chair of the National Commission for Voter Justice, which was launched in January of 2018. Learn More: NationalCVJ.org.
Click on the video below to learn more about the life and work of Civil Rights activist and two-time presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. 
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