Jackson, Jesse (1941—)

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Jackson, Jesse (1941—)

Baptist minister and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson was the leading advocate for racial equality in the United States by the 1980s, and his initial bid for the presidency marked the first serious attempt by an African American for a nationwide office in United States history and provided a great stimulus to black registration and voting.

Jackson was born to a single mother in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1941. Raised by his mother and stepfather in modest surroundings, Jackson also lived near his affluent father, witnessing and resenting the material well-being of his half-brother. These tensions fueled a lifelong determination in him to transcend his initial surroundings. Ambitious, charismatic, and intelligent, Jackson achieved success as a student and as an athlete in segregated Greensboro, earning a scholarship to the University of Illinois in 1959. When his dream of playing quarterback failed to materialize, Jackson left Illinois and transferred to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College where he met his future wife, Jacqueline Davis, in 1963. He later attended the Chicago Theological Seminary and was ordained a Baptist minister in 1968.

At first hesitant to engage in direct action, Jackson was increasingly drawn away from his studies by the mushrooming southern civil rights movement. After an initial stint with the Congress of Racial Equality, Jackson began to work with Martin Luther King, Jr.. in 1965 as a young staffer at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. While not especially close to King personally, Jackson's effective organizing skills did lead King to appoint him to head efforts to expand SCLC operations in Chicago. Jackson's work in Chicago formed the basis for King's unsuccessful 1966 Chicago Campaign for Freedom. Following the Chicago campaign, Jackson was placed in charge of Operation Breadbasket, the economic arm of the SCLC. On April 3, 1968, Jackson stood beside King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, when an assassin's bullet ended King's life. In a controversial episode following the murder, Jackson appeared on national television and before a rally the next morning still wearing his bloodstained olive turtleneck. Some perceived his actions as a disrespectful attempt to manipulate King's death for personal gain.

Following King's assassination, Jackson sought to counter growing white reaction to civil rights gains nationally by focusing on economic empowerment rather than traditional civil rights issues. After breaking with SCLC in 1971, Jackson founded Operation PUSH, People United to Save Humanity (later changed to Serve Humanity), to press the business and financial community for jobs and increased economic opportunity for African Americans and other people of color. As director of PUSH and self-appointed black ambassador to the white business community, Jackson gently threatened to boycott selected firms that did not move toward greater racial equality in their dealings. In 1981, the Coca-Cola Company became the first corporation to sign an agreement to increase business with African American vendors and expand management opportunities for black people. Similar agreements were reached with Kentucky Fried Chicken, Anheuser-Busch, Seven-Up, and Burger King. Operation PUSH ultimately grew to include seventy chapters and more than eighty thousand members. Jackson also began his foray into international politics at this time. In 1979, despite substantial criticism and pressure from the American government, he met with Yasir Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization to discuss the prospects for a peaceful settlement to the PLO/Israeli conflict in the Middle East. Similarly, in 1983, again to considerable negative press at home, Jackson met with the head of Syria and came away with the release of captured navy pilot Lt. Robert Goodman.

By the early 1980s, Jackson had become the black leader most capable of mounting a presidential bid. In October 1983, Jackson announced his candidacy for president, emphasizing economic empowerment for minorities and increased voter registration among black citizens. Jackson sought to stir a grassroots opposition movement and confront both the Republican and Democratic establishments as a populist insurgent. His rousing oratory, combining elements of uplift ("I am somebody!") and militancy ("It's Nationtime!"), began to attract a large popular following. In the antiphonal style he had learned from Afro-Christianity, Jackson would chant, "There is a freedom train a comin'. But you got to register to ride, so get on board and get on with it." In response, his audience would yell, "Run, Jesse run! Run, Jesse run!" Jackson's bid was hurt, though, after a journalist reported an off-the-record derogatory reference to New York City as "Hymie Town." Despite denials and numerous apologies, the incident continued to dog Jackson throughout the campaign. Nevertheless, he ran a surprisingly strong third in the Democratic primaries, polling more than three million votes.

In 1988, Jackson recast himself from a race leader to a multi-racial, progressive populist. He sought to "Keep Hope Alive" with an alliance between people of color and white workers, appealing to inner-city churchgoers, the urban poor, Midwestern farmers, Rust Belt auto workers, and even some of the old George Wallace constituency. In the end, Jackson garnered 6.7 million votes in the primaries and produced a full third of the convention delegates, forcing significant concessions in the platform from the eventual nominee, Michael Dukakis. While he did not capture the Democratic nomination, Jackson's successful showing in 1988 made him one of the country's most prominent African American leaders as well as a significant force on the Democratic left.

Following the 1988 election, though, Jackson struggled to define a coherent new course of action. He hoped to build on his electoral successes by forming the Rainbow Coalition, a multiracial, progressive countermovement emphasizing economic and racial justice for all Americans and an end to the sexual exploitation of women. Some members hoped the Rainbow Coalition would serve as the foundation for a new third party, while others envisioned the coalition as a liberal-left pressure group working from within the Democratic Party. In 1989, though, Jackson undercut the potential of the new group when he demanded that he alone make appointments to state chapter chairs. By centralizing control at the national level and, thus, curtailing local independence and autonomy, Jackson severely crippled the Rainbow Coalition as a mass membership and activist organization. In addition to his attempts to build an effective progressive political coalition, Jackson served as "shadow senator" for Washington, D.C., in the early 1990s and hosted a national television talk show, "Both Sides," on the Cable News Network.

The mid-1990s found Jackson more at ease with the Democratic Party and the Clinton presidency. Initially a gadfly, hoping to cajole the administration toward more progressive positions, Jackson settled into an established political role as advisor and minister to the president. In what may be the precursor to a third presidential bid in 2000, Jackson began to reorient himself in the late 1990s toward issues of economic justice, appearing with poor white workers and their families in Appalachia as well as with poor people of color in cities across the country. In 1997, Jackson founded the Wall Street Project, aimed at bringing capital into the inner city and more minorities into brokerages.

—Patrick D. Jones

Further Reading:

Barker, Lucius. Our Time Has Come: A Delegate's Diary of Jesse Jackson's 1984 Presidential Campaign. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Clemente, Frank. Keep Hope Alive: Jesse Jackson's 1988 Presidential Campaign. Boston, South End Press, 1988.

Frady, Marshall. Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson. New York, Random House, 1996.

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