Jesse Louis Jackson, Sr. (born October 8, 1941) is an African-American civil rights activist and Baptist minister. He was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988 and served as shadow senator for the District of Columbia from 1991 to 1997. He was the founder of both entities that merged to form Rainbow/PUSH. Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr. is his eldest son. In an AP-AOL “Black Voices” poll in February 2006, Jackson was voted “the most important black leader.
Early life and education
Jackson was born Jesse Louis Burns in Greenville, South Carolina, to Helen Burns, a 16-year-old single mother. His biological father, Noah Louis Robinson, a former professional boxer and a prominent figure in the community, was married to another woman when Jesse was born. He was not involved in his son’s life, and died January 28, 1997 in Greenville, S.C. In 1943, two years after Jesse’s birth, his mother married Charles Henry Jackson, who would adopt Jesse 14 years later. Jesse went on to take the surname of his stepfather.
Jackson attended Sterling High School, a segregated high school in Greenville, where he was a student-athlete. Upon graduating in 1959, he rejected a contract from a professional baseball team so that he could attend the racially integrated University of Illinois on a football scholarship. One year later, Jackson transferred to North Carolina A&T located in Greensboro, North Carolina. There are differing accounts for the reasons behind this transfer. Jackson claims that the change was based on the school’s racial biases which included his being unable to play as a quarterback despite being a star quarterback at his high school. ESPN.com suggests that claims of racial discrimination on the football team may be exaggerated because Illinois’s starting quarterback that year was an African American, although it does not mention factors besides the quarterback’s race which may have contributed to this perception (such as team dynamics or interpersonal interactions with other players on the team). Jackson also mentions being demoted by his speech professor as an alternate in a public-speaking competition team despite the support of his teammates who elected him a place on the team for his superior abilities. Jackson left Illinois at the end of his second semester after being placed on academic probation.
Following his graduation from A&T, Jackson attended the Chicago Theological Seminary with the intent of becoming a minister, but dropped out in 1966 to focus full time on the civil rights movement. He was ordained in 1968, without a theological degree; awarded an honorary theological doctorate from Chicago in 1990; and received his Master of Divinity Degree based on his previous credits earned, plus his life experience and subsequent work, in 2000.
Civil rights activism
In 1965, he participated in the Selma to Montgomery marches organized by James Bevel, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders in Alabama. When Jackson returned from Selma, he threw himself into efforts by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to establish themselves a beachhead in Chicago.
In 1966, King and Bevel selected Jackson to be head of the SCLC’s Operation Breadbasket in Chicago, and SCLC promoted him to be the national director in 1967. Following the example of Reverend Leon Sullivan of Philadelphia, a key goal of the new group was to foster “selective buying” (boycotts) as a means to pressure white businesses to hire blacks and purchase goods and services from black contractors. One of Sullivan’s precursors was Dr. T.R.M. Howard, a wealthy South Side doctor and entrepreneur and key financial contributor to Operation Breadbasket. Before he moved to Chicago from Mississippi in 1956, Howard, as the head of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, had successfully organized a boycott against service stations that refused to provide restrooms for blacks.
When King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, the day after his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple, Jackson was in the parking lot one floor below. Jackson’s appearance on NBC’s Today Show, wearing the same blood-stained turtleneck that he had worn the day before, drew criticism from several King aides; some King associates also dispute Jackson’s description of his personal involvement and also of the sequence of events surrounding the assassination.
Jackson has been known for commanding public attention since he first started working for King in 1966. His primary goal for this attention has been to give blacks a sense of self-worth.
Beginning in 1968, Jackson increasingly clashed with Ralph Abernathy, King’s successor as chairman of SCLC. In December 1971, they had a complete falling out. Abernathy suspended Jackson for “administrative improprieties and repeated acts of violation of organizational policy.” Jackson resigned, called together his allies, and Operation PUSH was born during the same month. The new group was organized in the home of Dr. T.R.M. Howard, who also became a member of the board of directors and chair of the finance committee.
In 1984, Jackson organized the Rainbow Coalition, which later merged, in 1996, with Operation PUSH. The newly formed Rainbow PUSH organization brought his role as an important and effective organizer to the mainstream. Al Sharpton also left the SCLC in protest to follow Jackson and formed the National Youth Movement.
In March 2006, an African-American woman accused three white members of the Duke University men’s lacrosse team of raping her. During the ensuing controversy, Jackson stated that his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition would pay for the rest of her college tuition regardless of the outcome of the case. The case against the three men was later thrown out and the players were declared innocent by the North Carolina Attorney General.
Jackson took a key role in the scandal caused by comedic actor Michael Richards‘ racially charged comments in November 2006. Richards called Jackson a few days after the incident to apologize; Jackson accepted Richards’ apology and met with him publicly as a means of resolving the situation. Jackson also joined black leaders in a call for the elimination of the “N-word” throughout the entertainment industry.
On November 18, 1999, seven Decatur students were expelled for two years after participating in a brawl at a high school football game. The incident was caught on home video and became a national media event when CNN ran pictures of the fight. After the students were expelled, Jesse Jackson decided it was time to speak out. Jackson argued that the expulsions were unfair and racially biased. He called on the school board to reverse their decision.
During the 1980s, he achieved wide fame as an African American leader and as a politician, as well as becoming a well-known spokesman for civil rights issues. His influence extended to international matters in the 1980s and 1990s.
In 1983, Jackson traveled to Syria to secure the release of a captured American pilot, Navy Lt. Robert Goodman who was being held by the Syrian government. Goodman had been shot down over Lebanon while on a mission to bomb Syrian positions in that country. After a dramatic personal appeal that Jackson made to Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, Goodman was released. Initially, the Reagan administration was skeptical about Jackson’s trip to Syria. However, after Jackson secured Goodman’s release, United States President Ronald Reagan welcomed both Jackson and Goodman to the White House on January 4, 1984. This helped to boost Jackson’s popularity as an American patriot and served as a springboard for his 1984 presidential run. In June 1984, Jackson negotiated the release of twenty-two Americans being held in Cuba after an invitation by Cuban president Fidel Castro.
On the eve of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Jackson made a trip to Iraq, to plead to Saddam Hussein for the release of foreign nationals held there as the “human shield”, securing the release of several British and twenty American individuals.
He traveled to Kenya in 1997 to meet with Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi as United States President Bill Clinton‘s special envoy for democracy to promote free and fair elections. In April 1999, during the Kosovo War, Jackson traveled to Belgrade to negotiate the release of three U.S. POWs captured on the Macedonian border while patrolling with a UN peacekeeping unit. He met with the then-Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević, who later agreed to release the three men.
His international efforts continued into the 2000s (decade). On February 15, 2003, Jackson spoke in front of over an estimated one million people in Hyde Park, London at the culmination of the anti-war demonstration against the imminent invasion of Iraq by the U.S. and the United Kingdom. In November 2004, Jackson visited senior politicians and community activists in Northern Ireland in an effort to encourage better cross-community relations and rebuild the peace process and restore the governmental institutions of the Belfast Agreement. In August 2005, Jackson traveled to Venezuela to meet Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, following controversial remarks by televangelist Pat Robertson in which he implied that Chávez should be assassinated. Jackson condemned Robertson’s remarks as immoral. After meeting with Chávez and addressing the Venezuelan Parliament, Jackson said that there was no evidence that Venezuela posed a threat to the U.S. Jackson also met representatives from the Afro Venezuela and indigenous communities.
In 2005, he was enlisted as part of the United Kingdom’s “Operation Black Vote”, a campaign run by Simon Woolley to encourage more of Britain’s ethnic minorities to vote in political elections ahead of the May 2005 General Election.
Jackson inherited the title of the High Prince of the Agni people of Côte d’Ivoire from Michael Jackson. In August 2009, he was crowned Prince Côte Nana by Amon N’Douffou V, King of Krindjabo, who rules more than a million Agni tribespeople.
1984 presidential campaign
On November 3, 1983, he announced his campaign for presidency. In 1984, Jackson became the second African American (after Shirley Chisholm) to mount a nationwide campaign for President of the United States, running as a Democrat.
In the primaries, Jackson, who had been written off by pundits as a fringe candidate with little chance at winning the nomination, surprised many when he took third place behind Senator Gary Hart and former Vice President Walter Mondale, who eventually won the nomination. Jackson garnered 3,282,431 primary votes, or 18.2 percent of the total, in 1984, and won five primaries and caucuses, including Louisiana, the District of Columbia, South Carolina, Virginia, and one of two separate contests in Mississippi.
As he had gained 21% of the popular vote but only 8% of delegates, he afterwards complained that he had been handicapped by party rules. While Mondale (in the words of his aides) was determined to establish a precedent with his vice presidential candidate by picking a woman or visible minority, Jackson criticized the screening process as a “p.r. parade of personalities”. He also mocked Mondale, saying that Hubert Humphrey was the “last significant politician out of the St. Paul–Minneapolis” area.
Remarks about Jews
While talking with the Washington Post reporter Milton Coleman in January 1984, Jackson referred to New York City as “Hymietown”. Hymie is a pejorative term for Jews. Jackson first denied having the conversation and said Jews were conspiring against him. Later, he acknowledged Coleman’s account, indicated that he considered the conversation with the reporter private, and said he had been wrong to use the term. Jackson apologized during a speech before national Jewish leaders in a Manchester, New Hampshire synagogue, but continuing suspicions have led to an enduring split between Jackson and many in the Jewish community.
Among Jackson’s other remarks were that Richard Nixon was less attentive to poverty in the U.S. because “four out of five [of Nixon’s top advisors] are German Jews and their priorities are on Europe and Asia”; that he was “sick and tired of hearing about the Holocaust“; and that there are “very few Jewish reporters that have the capacity to be objective about Arab affairs”. In 1979, Jackson said on a trip to the Middle East that Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was a “terrorist,” and Israel was a “theocracy.” Jackson has since apologized for at least some of these remarks, but they badly damaged his campaign, as “Jackson was seen by many conservatives in the United States as hostile to Israel and far too close to Arab governments.”
1988 presidential campaign
Four years later, in 1988, Jackson once again offered himself as a candidate for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. This time, his successes in the past made him a more credible candidate, and he was both better financed and better organized. Although most people did not seem to believe he had a serious chance at winning, Jackson once again exceeded expectations as he more than doubled his previous results, prompting R.W. Apple of the New York Times to call 1988 “the Year of Jackson”.
He captured 6.9 million votes and won 11 contests; seven primaries (Alabama, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Puerto Rico and Virginia) and four caucuses (Delaware, Michigan, South Carolina and Vermont). Jackson also scored March victories in Alaska’s caucuses and Texas’s local conventions, despite losing the Texas primary. Briefly, after he won 55% of the vote in the Michigan Democratic caucus, he was considered the frontrunner for the nomination, as he surpassed all the other candidates in total number of pledged delegates.
In early 1988, Jackson organized a rally at the former American Motors assembly plant in Kenosha, Wisconsin, approximately two weeks after new owner Chrysler announced it would close the plant by the end of the year. In his speech, Jackson spoke out against Chrysler’s decision, stating “We have to put the focus on Kenosha, Wisconsin, as the place, here and now, where we draw the line to end economic violence!” and compared the workers’ fight to that of the civil rights movement in Selma, Alabama. As a result, the UAW Local 72 union voted to endorse his candidacy, even against the rules of the UAW. However, Jackson’s campaign suffered a significant setback less than two weeks later when he was defeated handily in the Wisconsin primary by Michael Dukakis. Jackson’s showing among white voters in Wisconsin was significantly higher than in his 1984 run, but was also noticeably lower than pre-primary polling had indicated it would be. The discrepancy has been cited as an example of the so-called “Bradley effect.”
Jackson’s campaign had also been interrupted by allegations regarding his half-brother Noah Robinson, Jr.’s criminal activity. Jackson had to answer frequent questions about his brother, who was often referred to as “the Billy Carter of the Jackson campaign”.
On the heels of Jackson’s narrow loss to Dukakis the day before in Colorado, Dukakis’ comfortable win in Wisconsin terminated Jackson’s momentum. The victory established Dukakis as the clear Democratic frontrunner, and he went on to claim the party’s nomination, but lost the general election in November.
In both races, Jackson ran on what many considered to be a very liberal platform. Declaring that he wanted to create a “Rainbow Coalition” of various minority groups, including African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Arab-Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, family farmers, the poor and working class, and homosexuals, as well as European American progressives who fit into none of those categories, Jackson ran on a platform that included:
- creating a Works Progress Administration-style program to rebuild America’s infrastructure and provide jobs to all Americans,
- reprioritizing the War on Drugs to focus less on mandatory minimum sentences for drug users (which he views as racially biased) and more on harsher punishments for money-laundering bankers and others who are part of the “supply” end of “supply and demand“
- reversing Reaganomics-inspired tax cuts for the richest ten percent of Americans and using the money to finance social welfare programs
- cutting the budget of the Department of Defense by as much as fifteen percent over the course of his administration
- declaring Apartheid-era South Africa to be a rogue nation
- instituting an immediate nuclear freeze and beginning disarmament negotiations with the Soviet Union
- supporting family farmers by reviving many of Roosevelt’s New Deal–era farm programs
- creating a single-payer system of universal health care
- ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment
- increasing federal funding for lower-level public education and providing free community college to all
- applying stricter enforcement of the Voting Rights Act and
- supporting the formation of a Palestinian state.
With the exception of a resolution to implement sanctions against South Africa for its apartheid policies, none of these positions made it into the party’s platform in either 1984 or 1988.
Stand on abortion
Although Jackson was one of the most liberal members of the Democratic Party, his position on abortion was originally more in line with pro-life views. In 1975, Jackson endorsed a plan for a constitutional amendment banning abortion. Jackson once endorsed the Hyde Amendment, which bars the funding of abortions through the federal Medicaid program. He wrote an article published in a 1977 National Right to Life Committee News report:
“There are those who argue that the right to privacy is of [a] higher order than the right to life…that was the premise of slavery. You could not protest the existence or treatment of slaves on the plantation because that was private and therefore outside your right to be concerned. What happens to the mind of a person, and the moral fabric of a nation, that accepts the aborting of the life of a baby without a pang of conscience? What kind of a person and what kind of a society will we have twenty years hence if life can be taken so casually? It is that question, the question of our attitude, our value system, and our mind-set with regard to the nature and worth of life itself that is the central question confronting mankind. Failure to answer that question affirmatively may leave us with a hell right here on earth.”
Later political activities
He ran for office as “shadow senator” for the District of Columbia when the position was created in 1991, and served as such through 1997, when he did not run for re-election. This unpaid position was primarily a post to lobby for statehood for the District of Columbia.
In the mid-1990s, he was approached about being the United States Ambassador to South Africa but declined the opportunity in favor of helping his son, Jesse Jackson, Jr., run for the United States House of Representatives.
Jackson was initially critical of the “Third Way” or more moderate policies of Bill Clinton, so much so that Clinton was “petrified about a primary challenge from” Jackson in the 1996 election. However, he became a key ally in gaining African American support for Clinton and eventually became a close advisor and friend of the Clinton family. Clinton awarded Jackson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor bestowed on civilians. His son, Jesse Jackson, Jr., also emerged as a political figure, becoming a member of the United States House of Representatives from Illinois.
In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Jesse Jackson on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans. In 2003, Jackson surprised many observers by declining to endorse the campaigns of either Al Sharpton or former Senator Carol Moseley Braun, the two African American candidates, in the race for the Democratic Party’s 2004 presidential nomination. Instead, Jackson remained largely silent about his preference in the race until late in the primary season, when he allowed Democratic Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, another presidential candidate, to speak at a Rainbow/PUSH forum on March 31, 2004. Although he did not explicitly voice an endorsement of Rep. Kucinich, Jackson described Kucinich as “assuming the burden of saying ‘you make the most sense, but you can’t win.'” He also writes for The Progressive Populist.
Jackson was a target of the 2002 white supremacist terror plot.
2004 presidential election
Jackson gathered information and support to investigate the 2004 U.S. presidential election controversy, particularly the voting results in Ohio and its recount. He called for a congressional debate on the matter, asking for a fair count and national voting standards, saying that the elections in the United States are each run with different standards by different states with partisan tricks, racial bias, and widespread incompetence and are an open scandal.
Jackson said that he held some hope that the election could be overturned, although he admitted that that was very doubtful. Jackson compared the voting irregularities of Ohio to that of the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election, saying that if Ohio were Ukraine, the U.S. presidential election would not have been certified by the international community. Jackson called Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell inappropriately partisan and said that Blackwell may have been pressured by President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney to deliver Ohio to the Republican Party.
Based on information obtained in hearings held by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) and discovered during a flawed recount of the Ohio presidential vote called for by Green Party candidate David Cobb and Libertarian Party candidate Michael Badnarik, Jackson suggested that the Ohio voting machines were “rigged” and that some African-Americans were forced to stand in line for six hours in the rain before voting. When asked for evidence, Jackson replied, “Based on distrusting the system, lack of paper trails, the anomaly of the exit polls.”
On January 6, 2005, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee Democratic staff released a 100 page report on the Ohio election. This challenge to the Ohio election was rejected by a vote of 74-1 by the United States Senate and 267-31 in the House. Many high-ranking Democrats chose to distance themselves from this debate, including John Kerry, despite Jesse Jackson personally asking Kerry for help. The call for election reform legislation and voting rights protection nonetheless continued.
Terri Schiavo case
Firearms protest and arrest
On June 23, 2007 Jackson was arrested in connection with a protest at a gun store in Riverdale, a poor suburb of Chicago, Illinois. Jackson and others were protesting due to allegations that the gun store had been selling firearms to local gang members and was contributing to the decay of the community. According to police reports, Jackson refused to stop blocking the front entrance of the store and let customers pass. He was charged with one count of criminal trespass to property.
2008 presidential election
In March 2007, Jackson declared his support for then-Senator Barack Obama in the 2008 democratic primaries. Jackson later criticized Obama in 2007 for “acting like he’s white,” in response to the Jena 6 beating case.
On July 6, 2008, during an interview with Fox News, a microphone picked up Jackson whispering to fellow guest Dr. Reed Tuckson: “See, Barack’s been, ahh, talking down to black people on this faith-based… I want to cut his nuts off.” Jackson was expressing his disappointment in Obama’s Father’s Day speech chastisement of black fathers. Only a portion of Jackson’s comments were released on video. A spokesman for Fox News stated that Jackson had “referred to blacks with the N-word” in his comments about Obama; Fox News did not release the entire video or a complete transcript of his comments. Subsequent to his Fox News interview, Jackson apologized and reiterated his support for Obama.