Black History

Jesse Jackson

Jesse Jackson

Also known as: Jesse Louis Jackson, Jesse L. Jackson, Rev. Jesse Louis Jackson

Birth: October 8, 1941 in Greenville, South Carolina, United States
Nationality: American
Ethnicity: African American
Occupation: civil rights leader, politician, minister (religion)
Source: Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 27. Edited by Ashyia Henderson. Gale Group, 2001.


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Jesse Jackson has firmly established himself as one of the most dynamic forces for social and political action in both the national and international arenas. He has campaigned for economic justice, human rights, world peace, and the United States presidency. An inspirational speaker, committed activist, and tireless and confident campaigner, Jackson began his career as a foot soldier in the Civil Rights movement of the 196Os and has developed into a leader of millions of Americans--black and white--a "rainbow coalition" of the nation's dispossessed and disenfranchised.

Jackson has drawn upon his own early experience in Greenville, South Carolina, to relate to his constituency. He was born on October 8, 1941, to a seventeen-year-old unwed high school student and her older, comfortably middle-class neighbor, a married man. Jackson's ancestry includes black slaves, a Cherokee, and a white plantation owner. Although the young Jackson was quite aware of poverty and illegitimacy, his mother, grandmother, and stepfather were always able to attend to family needs. Even so, his knowledge of social inequities and of his more privileged half brothers affected him. As Barbara Reynolds wrote in her biography Jesse Jackson: America's David: "Every teacher Jesse came into contact with took note of his insecurities, masked by a stoic sense of superiority. They never perceived him as brilliant, but rather each saw him as a charmer, a spirited, fierce competitor with an almost uncanny drive to prove himself by always winning, always being number one in everything." At Sterling High School Jackson was elected president of his class, the honor society, and the student council, was named state officer of the Future Teachers of America, finished tenth in his class, and lettered in football, basketball, and baseball.

In 1959 Jackson left the South to attend the University of Illinois on an athletic scholarship. During his first year, however, he became dissatisfied with his treatment on campus and on the gridiron and decided to transfer to Greensboro's North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, a predominantly black institution. There he was quarterback, honor student, fraternity officer, and president of the student body. After receiving his B.A. in sociology he accepted a Rockefeller grant to attend the Chicago Theological Seminary, where he planned to train for the ministry. Jackson was ordained a Baptist minister in 1968, though he had not finished his course work at CTS, having instead left in 1966 to commit himself full-time to the Civil Rights movement.

Jackson first became involved in the Civil Rights movement while a student at North Carolina A&T. There he joined the Greensboro chapter of the Council on Racial Equality (CORE), an organization that had led early sit-ins to protest segregated lunch counters. In 1963 Jackson organized numerous marches, sit-ins, and mass arrests to press for the desegregation of local restaurants and theaters. His leadership in these events earned him recognition within the regional movement; he was chosen president of the North Carolina Intercollegiate Council on Human Rights, field director of CORE's southeastern operations, and in 1964 served as delegate to the Young Democrats National Convention. In Chicago in 1965 Jackson was a volunteer for the Coordinating Committee of Community Organizations and organized regular meetings of local black ministers and the faculty of the Chicago Theological Seminary.

Joined King and the SCLC in 1965

Jackson joined Martin Luther King, Jr., and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1965 during demonstrations in Selma, Alabama, pushing for expanded voting rights for blacks. When the SCLC launched the Chicago Freedom movement in 1966, Jackson was there to put his knowledge of the city and contacts within the black community to work for King. He organized local ministers to support the movement, marched through all-white neighborhoods to push for open housing, and began work on the SCLC's economic program, Operation Breadbasket. Drawing from successful campaigns in other cities, Operation Breadbasket organized the black community to use selective buying and boycotts to support black manufacturers and retailers and to pressure white-owned businesses to stock more of their products and hire more black workers. Jackson served as Operation Breadbasket's Chicago coordinator for one year and was then named its national director. Under Jackson's leadership the Chicago group won concessions from local dairies and supermarkets to hire more blacks and stock more products from black businesses. It encouraged deposits from businesses and the government for black-owned banks and organized a Black Christmas and a Black Expo to promote black-owned manufacturers.

In addition to his SCLC activities, Jackson led a number of other campaigns in his adopted home city and state. In 1969 and 1970 he gathered Illinois's malnourished and led them on a march to the state capital to raise consciousness of hunger. He led a similar event in Chicago. The state responded by increasing funding to school lunch programs, but Mayor Richard Daley's machine in Chicago was less cooperative. The mayor's power and resistance to change, as well as an Illinois law that raised difficult barriers to independent candidates, prompted Jackson to run for mayor of Chicago in 1971. He was not successful; some believe, however, that his efforts laid the foundation for Harold Washington's successful bid to become Chicago's first black mayor in 1983.

In 1971 Jackson resigned from the SCLC to found his own organization, People United to Save Humanity (PUSH). Because of his aggressive, impatient, and commanding personality, Jackson had long irritated SCLC leadership; and, in the three and a half years after King's assassination, he had offended others with his public antics to secure a role as leader of the Civil Rights movement and his feuds with Ralph D. Abernathy, King's successor as president of the SCLC, over leadership, policy, and funding.

Through PUSH Jackson continued to pursue the economic objectives of Operation Breadbasket and expand into areas of social and political development for blacks in Chicago and across the nation. The 197Os saw direct action campaigns, weekly radio broadcasts, and awards through which Jackson protected black homeowners, workers, and businesses, and honored prominent blacks in the U.S. and abroad. He also promoted education through

PUSH-Excel, a spin-off program that focused on keeping inner-city youths in school and providing them with job placement.

Ran for President

Jackson launched his first campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984. His appeals for social programs, voting rights, and affirmative action for those neglected by Reaganomics earned him strong showings in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, New York, Louisiana, and Washington, D.C. He received 3.5 million votes, enough to secure a measure of power and respect at the Democratic convention.

Jackson's 1988 campaign for the Democratic nomination was characterized by more organization and funding than his previous attempt. With the experience he gained from 1984 and new resources, Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition surprised the media and the political pundits. Initially written off as unelectable, Jackson emerged in the primary/caucus season as a serious contender for the nomination. He attracted over 6.9 million votes--from urban blacks and Hispanics, poor rural whites, farmers and factory workers, feminists and homosexuals, and from white progressives wanting to be part of a historic change. In his platform he called for homes for the homeless, comparable worth and day care for working women, a higher minimum wage, a commitment to the family farm, and an all-out war on drugs. "When we form a great quilt of unity and common ground" he told delegates at the party convention on July 19, 1988, "we'll have the power to bring about health care and housing and jobs and education and hope to our nation.

After early respectable losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, he won five southern states on Super Tuesday, March 8, 1988. On March 12 he won the caucus in his birth state of South Carolina and three days later finished second in his home state of Illinois. On March 26, 1988 Jackson stunned Dukakis and the rest of the nation in the Michigan caucus: Having won that northern industrial state with 55 percent of the vote, Jackson became the Democratic front-runner. Dukakis later recaptured the lead and the eventual nomination with strong showings in the second half of the primary season.

Jackson then exercised the power of his second-place finish to force his consideration as a vice-presidential running mate and to influence the nature of the Democratic Convention and the issues included on its platform. Although Jackson was not chosen as the vice-presidential running mate, he had succeeded in bringing Americans of all colors to consider a black man for the presidency and vice-presidency.

After the 1988 elections Jackson moved his home from Chicago to Washington, D.C. There he has campaigned against homelessness in the nation's capital. He was considered one of the top contenders to take over as the capital's mayor after Marion Berry was forced out of office by a drug scandal, but Jackson refused to run. Instead, he announced in July of 1990 that he would seek election as the District of Columbia's "statehood senator," a position recently established by the city government to push Congress to grant statehood to the district. He was elected in November and sworn into office in January of 1991. Jackson did not seek re-election after his six-year term as statehood senator ended in 1996, although he continued to advocate statehood for the nation's capital.

From D.C. to Wall Street

In 1997, Jackson shifted his focus from the nation's political capital to its financial capital. Seeing a need for a stronger minority presence on New York's Wall Street, Jackson founded the Wall Street Project. The organization lobbied companies to provide more business and employment opportunities for minorities. The Wall Street Project promoted conscientiousness among African American stockholders who may not realize the influence that they have as shareholders. As Jackson explained to Black Enterprise, "When you go into a meeting as a shareholder, you now have the right to the floor. Now you can walk into a board meeting and say 'Mr. Chairman, I'd like to see a list of our Board of Directors...a list of our employees so we can see where they fit into this company horizontally and vertically." A stockholder has the power to promote greater employment and business opportunities for African Americans.

Prior to founding the Wall Street Project, Jackson's strategy for influencing corporate behavior had been to organize protests. However, a pivotal event occurred in 1996 which helped Jackson decide to change his tactics. When charges had surfaced that Texaco employees had made racist comments, Jackson called New York State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, asking him to join him in picketing Texaco. McCall told Black Enterprise that he responded, "'Jesse, when you own a million shares you don't have to picket.'" Because McCall controlled New York state's investments, he had a great deal of influence with the companies the state had invested in.

With the Wall Street Project, Jackson hopes to give minorities the same influence McCall had with Texaco. Jackson told Black Enterprise. "We empower politically with our vote. Now we must empower economically with our dollar." But not just anyone can vote. Only stockholders have a real say in corporate operations. The purchase of just ten shares of stock, Jackson said, provides a shareholder with enough leverage to promote business opportunities for African Americans. As the stock's value increases, so too does the amount of influence a shareholder has. Jackson told Ebony, "So we have gone from sharecroppers to shareholders. We say to corporate America: We don't want to be just consumers and workers, but investors and partners."

Diplomatic Efforts

Throughout his career as a political and social activist, Jackson has also been a prominent figure in international diplomacy. In 1979 he traveled to South Africa to speak out against apartheid and to the Middle East to try to establish relations between Israel and the Palestinians. In January of 1984 he returned to the Middle East to negotiate the release of Lieutenant Robert Goodman, a black Navy pilot who had been shot down and taken hostage in the region. Later that year he traveled to Cuba to negotiate the release of several political prisoners held there and to Central America, where he spoke out for regional peace. In 1990 Jackson was the first American to bring hostages out of Iraq and Kuwait.

When three U.S. soldiers serving as part of NATO's forces in Yugoslavia were captured by the Yugoslav army in March of 1999, Jackson, along with an interfaith delegation, embarked on a diplomatic mission to negotiate their release. U.S. national security advisor Sandy Berger warned Jackson, as a private citizen, he did not have the authority to offer Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosovic any concessions on behalf of the United States. Berger also warned that Jackson's safety could not be guaranteed. Despite these warnings, Jackson, confident that he could persuade Milsocovic to release the prisoners as a gesture of goodwill, set off on his diplomatic mission. Jackson's confidence was not unfounded and when Jackson returned it was with the three soldiers at his side. The U.S. Senate recognized Jackson's efforts with a commendation.

In May of 1999, Jackson traveled to war-torn Sierra Leone, where he negotiated a cease-fire agreement between Tejan Kabbah, the country's president, and rebel Foday Sankoh. Jackson also negotiated for the release of more than two thousand prisoners of war. One year later, he returned to Sierra Leone to assist once more in the country's peace process.

Sought Answers in Suspicious Hanging Death

When teenager Raynard Johnson was found hanging by a belt from the pecan tree in front of his home in Kokomo Mississippi in 2000, suspicions arose immediately that his death may have been a lynching. Although medical examiners found no evidence of struggle, Johnson's parents could not believe that their son had committed suicide. Jackson did not believe the boy's death was a suicide either. He told Jet, "He had just gotten a computer. He was outgoing. He was in the Top 5 percentile on his test scores. He was very bright....A lot of signs point upwards. He was excited about life."

Jackson's Rainbow Coalition/PUSH launched its own investigation into Johnson's death. Jackson's investigators identified several people who could have been involved in the teenager's death and said that someone may have been angered by Johnson's friendship with two white girls. Authorities, however, said that Johnson's girlfriend had broken up with him shortly before his death and contended that all the evidence was consistent with suicide.

In 2000, Jackson, along with his son, Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., published It's About the Money!: How You Can Get Out of Debt, Build Wealth, and Achieve Your Financial Dreams! The book is a how-to guide for financial independence and security. Jackson explained to Mother Jones that economic self-sufficiency is a vital base for the struggle for freedom. "It costs to send children to college," Jackson said. "It costs to have health insurance." Yet, in a culture of credit card debt, so many Americans do not understand basic economics. With his book, Jackson hoped to change that.

Never Far From Controversy

Jackson has stirred both admiration and criticism. His behavior in the hours immediately following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., was a subject of controversy: Jackson claimed that he had held the dying leader, heard his last words, and had his shirt stained by King's blood. Other SCLC officers present at the murder have disputed those claims. As an organizer Jackson often overstepped his authority in SCLC matters and violated organization policy in a number of his Chicago campaigns. His economic boycotts were criticized by some businessmen as extortion and by some reformers for lacking follow-through. The management of PUSH's people and finances were the subject of close scrutiny and the freewheeling nature of the organization was regularly called into question. Jackson offended some Americans by negotiating with the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization), Fidel Castro, and the Marxist Sandinista govenrment of Nicaragua. Jackson's connection with the Black Muslim leader and outspoken anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan, as well as the candidate's reference to New York City as "Hymietown", outraged Jews.

However, the same driving ambition to achieve success that is the root of Jackson's weaknesses is also the source of his strength. He is a tireless worker who is fiercely committed to his causes, even when bedridden--Jackson suffers from sickle-cell trait. He is an intelligent, creative, and charismatic leader, and an inspirational speaker capable of archiving numerous details, then using them to encapsulate his agenda along with the aspirations of many Americans. He has a flair for the dramatic that infuses an increasingly tedious political process with life. And finally, Jackson acts while others talk of action. He has become the leading spokesman for Americans forgotten by the power brokers of the political process, especially blacks. In a 1996 speech, Jackson said, "If you go along and get along, you're a coward. Only by principled engagement can you be a force for change and hope." Jackson's life has been one of principled engagement.


Full name, Jesse Louis Jackson; original name, Jesse Louis Burns; born on October 8, 1941, in Greenville, SC; son of Noah Robinson (a cotton grader) and Helen Burns Jackson (a hairdresser); adopted by stepfather, Charles Henry Jackson (a postal worker), 1957; married Jacqueline Lavinia Davis, 1964; children: Santita, Jesse Louis, Jr., Jonathan Luther, Yusef Du Bois, Jacqueline Lavinia; grandchildren: Jessica and Jonathan. Education: Attended University of Illinois, 1959-60; North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, B.A., 1964; attended Chicago Theological Seminary, 1964-66; M.Div., Chicago Theological Seminary, 2000. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Baptist. Addresses: Office—National Rainbow Coalition Inc., 30 West Washington, Suite 300, Chicago, IL 60602.


Rockefeller grant, c. mid-1960s, Presidential Award, National Medical Association, 1969; Humanitarian Father of the Year, National Father's Day Committee, 1971; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2000; numerous honorary degrees from colleges and universities, including Pepperdine University, Oberlin College, Oral Roberts Univ, Howard, and Georgetown.


Field rep for CORE, 1964; SCLC demonstrator, Selma, 1965; Chicago coordinator of Operation Breadbasket, 1966-67, national dir, 1967-71; founder, Operation PUSH, 1971, executive director, 1971-86, founder, PUSH-Excel, PUSH for Economic Justice; candidate for Democratic presidential candidate, 1983-84, 1987-88; National Rainbow Coalition Inc., Chicago, founder, 1986, national president, 1986-; senator, District of Columbia, 1991-96; TV host, Voices of America with Jesse Jackson; Chicago radio host; columnist, Los Angeles Times Syndicate; founder, the Wall Street Project, 1997; co-author, It's About Money, 2000.



  • Abernathy, Ralph David, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, Harper, 1989.
  • Colton, Elizabeth O., The Jackson Phenomenon: The Man, the Power, the Message, Doubleday, 1989.
  • Reynolds, Barbara A., Jesse Jackson: America's David, JFJ Associates, 1985.


  • Africa News Service, May 24, 1999; May 17, 2000.
  • Black Enterprise, October 1998.
  • Business Wire, January 5, 2000.
  • Christian Science Monitor, August 15, 1989.
  • Commonweal, November 7, 1986.
  • Ebony, February 1999.
  • Harper's Magazine, March 1969.
  • Jet, July 22, 1996; May 24, 1999; December 27, 1999; June 19, 2000; July, 17, 2000; August 28, 2000; September 4, 2000.
  • Mother Jones, March 2000.
  • Newsweek, April 4, 1988; October 16, 1989; January 29, 1990; May 10, 1999.
  • United Press International, May 4, 1999; May 10, 1999.
  • Vanity Fair, January 1988.
  • Vital Speeches, September 15, 1996.


"Jesse Jackson." Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 27. Edited by Ashyia Henderson. Gale Group, 2001.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group. 2004.

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