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Wed, 10.08.1941

Jesse Jackson, Activist born

Jesse Jackson

On this date in 1941, Jesse Jackson was born.  He is a Black civil rights leader, minister, and retired politician.

Born in Greenville, SC. to Helen Burns, an unwed teenage mother who was herself the child of an unwed teenage mother, Jesse Louis Jackson's as a child felt isolated and different, according to his biographers. His biological father, Noah Robinson, was one of Greenville's most prosperous Black citizens, while Jackson, along with his mother and grandmother, lived in relative poverty.  Jesse took that name when his stepfather, Charles H. Jackson, adopted him in 1957.  Robinson's refusal to acknowledge Jackson changed as he became a talented athlete and scholar.

A football scholarship to the University of Illinois brought Jackson north in 1959. Still, after being denied the coveted quarterback position, he returned south to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State College. There he served as student body president and quarterback of the football team. Also during this time, Jackson became involved in the American Civil Rights Movement, first by protesting the whites-only local library system, then later by leading demonstrations against segregated restaurants, theaters, and hotels. By the time Jackson graduated in 1964, he had decided to become a minister.

Accepting a scholarship from the Chicago Theological Seminary, Jackson returned to Illinois, this time with a family — he had married Jacqueline Brown the same year. In Chicago, Jackson worked hard at his studies and kept his distance from the local civil rights organizations, many of which were trying to recruit him as a potential leader. All that changed when Jackson went to Selma, AL, in March 1965 to participate in a march led by Martin Luther King Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Leading a group of fellow divinity students, Jackson arrived in Selma, met King, and made himself noticed as much for his apparent ambition as for his leadership skills. Before long, Jackson was working for SCLC.

By 1966, he had left the seminary to head the Chicago branch of Operation Breadbasket, an organization dedicated to improving the financial position of the Black community; in 1967, he became its national chairman. Blessed with charm, energy, and a fiery oratorical style, Jackson soon found success and local fame as the man who pressured several large Chicago organizations into hiring more Blacks.

Relations between Jackson and the SCLC leadership, which had been stormy at times due to competition among strong personalities, deteriorated further after King's assassination in April 1968. Accused by some of exaggerating his closeness to the slain civil rights hero, Jackson quickly became a national figure, assumed by some to be King's natural heir. After the SCLC board selected Ralph David Abernathy as its next president, Jackson continued with the organization, even serving as mayor of the ill-fated antipoverty demonstration, Resurrection City.

In 1971. he left to begin a new project called Operation PUSH. PUSH, which stands for People United to Serve Humanity, grew out of Operation Breadbasket and continued many of its themes, especially economic empowerment. Embellishing a line from one of King's speeches, Jackson provided PUSH with a catchy and compelling motto: "I Am Somebody." Jackson began attracting large and enthusiastic crowds to his weekly PUSH prayer meetings.

His influence and fame grew, as did his family, including five children. With the addition of PUSH-Excel, a branch devoted to educational issues, and a new emphasis on voter registration drives, Jackson became a powerful voice for minorities and the poor, often appearing in the national media and speaking on behalf of political candidates. In 1983, Jackson declared himself a candidate for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. Emphasizing his compassion and fervor for the poor, the marginalized, and the downtrodden, he pledged to build a "rainbow coalition." Jackson had already been criticized for supporting the Palestinian Liberation Organization during a trip to North Africa and the Middle East in 1979.

During the race for the 1984 election, he faced renewed charges of antisemitism for his association with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and his reference to New York City as "Hymietown." Jackson apologized for this remark and emphasized his distaste for all forms of bigotry, but the stigma remains. Caught between the black community's high expectations and the white mainstream's fear and indifference, Jackson did not win the nomination in 1984. Nevertheless, he did amass far more delegates than anyone had predicted. In his speech before the Democratic convention, Jackson's dramatic call to "Keep Hope Alive" electrified the crowd, and some commentators later called it the best political speech of the century.

In 1986, Jackson founded the National Rainbow Coalition. Two years later, he again sought the presidency and failed to be nominated, although this time, he won several major primaries and, for a while, was the front-runner. Jackson worked hard to support the Democratic ticket, which eventually lost to George Bush and Dan Quayle. Beyond their simple success or failure, Jackson's presidential runs were significant: through them, he galvanized Black voters, millions of whom he had helped to register prior to the election. He raised important social and racial issues on the national level, and, for the first time, he introduced the possibility that an African American could win the nation's highest office.

In the decade following the 1988 election, Jackson continued in leadership roles, although he has passed the political torch to his son, Jesse Jr., who is a congressman from Illinois. Despite the urging of supporters, Jackson chose not to run for mayor of Washington, D.C., where he and his family had moved in 1989. He left PUSH the same year.

In 1990, Jackson began serving as "statehood senator," a position created to lobby for statehood for the District of Columbia. Jackson also resumed the unaligned diplomacy he had begun in 1979 and continued in 1983 when he had won the release of a Black prisoner of war detained in Syria.

In 1991, Jackson's intervention was responsible for the release of hundreds of hostages being held by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In 1996, he returned to Chicago to resume the leadership of PUSH. Jackson continues to advocate various diplomatic causes worldwide.

2012 he commended Barack Obama's 2012 decision to support gay marriage. He compared the fight for same-sex marriage to the fight against slavery and the anti-miscegenation laws that once prevented interracial marriage.  He favored federal legislation extending marriage rights to gays.  In the 2016 United States presidential election, he endorsed Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.  In the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primaries, he endorsed Bernie Sanders.

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Operation PUSH
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930 East 50th Street
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