Jesse Louis Jackson

Civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Louis Jackson (born 1941), the most successful African American presidential candidate in U.S. history, received over three million votes in the 1984 election.

Jesse Louis Jackson was born on October 18, 1941, in Greenville, South Carolina, a city beset with the problems of racial segregation. From birth, Jackson faced his own personal brand of discrimination. As a young girl his mother, Helen Burns, became pregnant by her married next-door neighbor, Noah Robinson. The young boy was shunned and taunted by his neighbors and school classmates for being "a nobody who had no daddy." Instead of letting this adversity defeat him, Jackson developed his exceptional drive and understanding of those who are oppressed. His mother eventually married and became a successful hairdresser while his stepfather, a postal employee, adopted Jackson in 1957. With helpful advice from his maternal grandmother and his own desire to succeed, Jackson overcame his numerous childhood insecurities, finishing tenth in his high school class, even though he was actively involved in sports. His academic and athletic background earned Jackson a football scholarship at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Jackson, eager to get away from the Southern racial climate, traveled north only to find both open and covert discrimination at the university and in other parts of the city.

After several semesters Jackson decided to leave the University of Illinois, return to the South, and attend North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College (A&T) in Greensboro, an institution for African American students. Jackson again proved himself an able scholar and athlete. When his popularity on the campus led to his victory as student body president, Jackson did not take the responsibility lightly. As a college senior, he became a civil rights leader. Although he was not in Greensboro when the four African American freshman from A&T staged their famous Woolworth's sit-in in February 1960—the action which launched sit-down demonstrations throughout the South— Jackson actively encouraged his fellow students to continue their protests against racial injustice by staging repeated demonstrations and boycotts. Much of the open discrimination in the South fell before the onslaught of these student demonstrations.

Civil Rights Movement

In the spring of 1968 many of SCLC's officers— including Jackson—were drawn away from other civil rights protests by the Memphis, Tennessee, garbage collectors' strike. The situation in that city was especially tense because many African Americans who professed to be tired of passive resistance were willing and ready to fight. Tragically, King, in his attempt to prevent racial violence in that city, met a violent death by an assassin's bullet while standing on the balcony of his hotel room on April 4, 1968.

Some controversy surrounds the moments just after King was wounded. Jackson claimed on national television that he was the last person to talk to King and that he had held the dying leader in his arms, getting blood all over his shirt. The other men present unanimously agreed that this was not true, that Jackson had been in the parking lot facing King when he was shot and had neither climbed the steps to the balcony afterward nor gone to the hospital with King. Whatever the truth of the matter, Jackson's appearance on national television the next day with his bloodied turtleneck jersey vaulted him into national prominence. The image of Jackson and his bloody shirt brought the horror of the assassination into American homes. Jackson's ego, stirring oratory and charismatic presence caused the media to anoint him and not Ralph Abernathy, King's successor. Many observers believe that at this point, Jackson determined to become heir to King's position as the nation's foremost African American leader. In 1971, Jackson was suspended from the SCLC after its leaders claimed that he was using the organization to further his own personal agenda.

Operation PUSH

After his suspension from the SCLC, Jackson founded Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity), an organization which essentially continued the work of Operation Breadbasket without SCLC's sponsorship. Standing in front of a picture of Dr. King, Jackson promised to begin "a rainbow coalition of blacks and whites gathered together to push for a greater share of economic and political power for all poor people in America." Throughout the decade, Jackson relentlessly spoke out against racism, militarism and the class divisions in American. He became a household name throughout the nation with his slogan "I Am Somebody".

By the mid 1970's, Jackson was a national figure. He realized that many of the problems plaguing the African American community stemmed from drug abuse and teen pregnancy and not simply economic deprivation. In 1976, Jackson created the PUSH-Excel, a program aimed at motivating children and teens to succeed. A fiery orator, Jackson traveled from city to city delivering his message of personal responsibility and self-worth to students: "You're not a man because you can kill somebody. You are not a man because you can make a baby … You're a man only if you can raise a baby, protect a baby and provide for a baby."

Jackson's support in the African American community allowed him to influence both local and national elections. Possibly the most important campaign in which he was involved was the election victory of the first African American mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington, in 1983. Washington's victory was attributed in part to Jackson's ability to convince over 100,000 African Americans, many of them youths, to register to vote. Jackson would also use his charisma to garner new voters during his 1984 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The Rainbow Coalition

Jackson's debut on the international scene occurred when President Jimmy Carter approved his visit to South Africa. Jackson attracted huge crowds at his rallies where he denounced apartheid, South Africa's oppressive system that prevented the black majority population from enjoying the rights and privileges of the white minority. Later in 1979, he toured the Middle East where he embraced Yassar Arafat, the then-exiled Palestinian leader. Jackson's embrace of a man considered a terrorist by the American government created yet another controversy. The result of these international excursions caused Jackson's fame and popularity to grow within the African American community.

As the 1980's began, Jackson moderated many of his political positions. He was no longer the flamboyant young man wearing long hair and gold medallions, but a more conservative, mature figure seeking ways to reform the Democratic party from within. He continued to advocate his "rainbow coalition" as a way for all Americans to improve the country.

After growing increasingly disenchanted with the existing political scene, Jackson decided that he would campaign against Walter Mondale and Gary Hart in the 1984 Democratic presidential primaries. His campaign centered on a platform of social programs for the poor and the disabled, alleviation of taxes for the poor, increased voting rights, effective affirmative action initiatives for the hiring of women and minorities, and improved civil rights for African Americans, poor whites, immigrants, homosexuals, Native Americans, and women. Jackson also took a stand on many world issues. He called for increased aid to African nations and more consideration of the rights of Arabs. His support for Arab nations and African American Muslims provoked much criticism, especially from Jewish voters. In early 1984, Jackson used his popularity in the Arab world to obtain the release of an American pilot, Lt. Robert Goodman, who had been shot down over Lebanon.

When he returned home, Jackson concentrated on securing the African American vote for his candidacy. He did not receive support from most senior African American politicians, who felt that Jackson's candidacy would cause disunity within the Democratic camp and benefit the Republicans. However, many poor African Americans enthusiastically supported him. Jackson received 3.5 million votes, and possibly 2 million of those voters were newly registered. He carried 60 congressional districts on a budget of less than $3 million. Although many Americans, both black and white, were decidedly opposed to Jackson, he earned grudging respect because his campaign fared better than most people had expected. When Jackson conceded defeat at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, much of America listened respectfully to his address. Although his campaign was unsuccessful, Jackson's powerful presence had broken new ground and involved more African Americans in the political process.

After the 1984 election, Jackson devoted his time between working for Operation PUSH in Chicago and his new National Rainbow Coalition in Washington DC. This national coalition was designed to be a force for reform within the Democratic party. It also provided Jackson with a platform from which to mount his 1988 presidential bid. Jackson's campaign received a much broader base of support than in 1984. His polished delivery, quick wit, and campaign experience helped him to gain many new supporters. Among the seven serious contenders for the Democratic nomination, Jackson finished second to Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.

In 1990, Jackson was named one of two "shadow senators" to Congress from Washington DC to press for the district's statehood. Although the idea fizzled, it helped to keep Jackson in the public eye. In 1992, Jackson backed Democratic candidate Bill Clinton during the presidential campaign. He used his influence to urge African American voters to support Clinton. These efforts helped Clinton to win the election and return a Democrat to the White House for the first time in 12 years.

Critics often accuse Jackson of simply being a cheerleader of causes, a person who favors style over substance. Despite his unflagging energy and devotion to his causes, many felt that he was devoted only to his own self-aggrandizement. "This is the long-term pattern of Jackson's politics. He has always sought to operate and be recognized as a political insider, as a leader without portfolio or without accountability to any constituency that he claims to represent" wrote political critic Adolph Reed Jr. in the Progressive. "PUSH ran as a simple extension of his will and he has sought to ensure that the Rainbow Coalition would be the same kind of rubber stamp, a letterhead and front for his mercurial ambition."

Despite the criticism he has faced, Jackson continues to advocate for the rights of the downtrodden and challenge others to move beyond adversity. In 1995, Jackson wrote in Essence magazine, "People who are victimized may not be responsible for being down, but they must be responsible for getting up. Slave masters don't retire; people who are enslaved change their minds and choose to join the abolitionist struggle ….Change has always been led by those whose spirits were bigger than their circumstances … I do have hope. We have seen significant victories during the last 25 years."

Further Reading on Jesse Louis Jackson

Jackson's autobiography, Straight from the Heart, was published in 1987. There are a number of biographies of Jackson and several analytical studies of his presidential campaign. Two are Barbara A. Reynolds' sympathetic biography entitled Jesse Jackson: America's David (1985) and a critical work written by Thomas Landess and Richard Quinn, Jesse Jackson and the Politics of Race (1985). Several other biographies are Adolph L. Reed, The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon, a somewhat negative portrait (1986); Shield D. Collins, From Melting Pot to Rainbow Coalition (1986); and a children's book by Warren J. Halliburton, The Picture Life of Jesse Jackson (1984). Other works include Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson; James Haskins, I Am Somebody! A Biography of Jesse Jackson, and Political Parties and Elections in the United States Vol. 1, edited by L. Sandy Maisel.