Jackson, Jesse (1941-), Minister, Politician, and Civil Rights Activist

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Jackson, Jesse
(1941-), minister, politician, and civil rights activist.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson was born Jesse Burns in Greenville, South Carolina. He was raised as a Baptist. His mother, Helen Burns, was a domestic and beautician, while his father, Noah Robinson, was a married neighbor. Two years after Jesse was born, his mother married Charles Jackson, who adopted her son in 1957. Jackson later described his struggle to overcome the prejudice he faced because of his out-of-wedlock birth as an important motivating factor in his success.

A star high school athlete in Greenville, Jackson then attended North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State College in Greensboro on a football scholarship. During his years in Greensboro, Jackson became active in the civil rights movement and organized sit-ins at segregated local facilities.

After his graduation in 1964, Jackson entered the Chicago Theological Seminary, where he studied for two years. Meanwhile, he joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a nonviolent civil rights organization. His leadership talents attracted the notice of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., SCLC's leader, and in 1966 King selected Jackson to lead the Chicago branch of Operation Breadbasket, an SCLC program that used boycotts of various companies to secure better jobs and living conditions for African-Americans. Jackson succeeded so well that in 1967 he was made Operation Breadbasket's national director.

In June 1968, two months after King was assassinated in Jackson's presence in Memphis, Tennessee, Jackson was ordained as a Baptist minister in the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A. Although he did not take up a pulpit, his language and oratorical style borrowed heavily from black religious tradition. Similarly, his acute concern for social injustice and economic disparity was a direct outgrowth not only of his personal experiences but of that black church tradition of social reform. After Dr. King's death, Jackson's relationship with SCLC became strained, and in 1971 he left SCLC and founded Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity), which combined black economic empowerment with educational achievement and inculcation of self-esteem. He remained director of PUSH until 1984.

On October 30, 1983, Jackson, long a Democrat, took his religiously inspired social activism one step further by announcing his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States. Early in 1984, before the first primaries were held, Jackson gained national visibility when he personally negotiated the release of Robert Goodman, from Syria, a captured U.S. military pilot. As the presidential campaign went into full swing shortly thereafter, Jackson organized his campaign around what he called a "rainbow coalition" of progressive and disfranchised groups. Although his campaign was hindered by lack of funds, logistical troubles, and Jackson's much-publicized, seemingly anti-Semitic slur against New York City as "Hymietown," he finished a strong third for the nomination and boosted Democratic voter registration efforts. Four years later, Jackson again ran for president as a Democrat, even as the evangelical leader Pat Robertson was seeking the presidency as a Republican. Although Jackson failed to be nominated, he received seven million votes and over twelve hundred delegates and gained widespread praise for his oratory at the Democratic National Convention.

During the 1990s Jackson actively campaigned for jobs and equal rights for African-Americans. He pursued numerous other activities, including a television show in 1991 and an unsuccessful bid to assume leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1994. In 1999, a year after President Clinton selected Jackson as his spiritual adviser following revelations of Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, Jackson earned both praise and criticism when he met with Serbian dictator Radovan Milosevic to negotiate the release of three American soldiers captured during NATO air strikes in Yugoslavia.

See alsoAfrican-American Religions; Anti-Semitism; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Southern Christian Leadership Conference.


Frady, Marshall. Jesse Jackson: A Biography. 1996.

Hertzke, Allen D. Echoes of Discontent: Jesse Jackson,PatRobertson, and the Resurgence of Populism. 1993.

Jackson, Jesse. Straight from the Heart. 1987.

Reynolds, Barbara. Jesse Jackson: The Man, the Myth,theMovement. 1975.

White, Jack. "The Trouble with Jesse." Time (May 17, 1999).

Greg Robinson

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Jackson, Jesse (1941-), Minister, Politician, and Civil Rights Activist

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