Jesse Jackson: The Activist

Jesse Jackson, born Jesse Louis Burns, came into the world on October 8, 1941. Starting out as a Baptist minister, Jackson went on to be one of the greatest civil rights activists of his time. He founded the Rainbow and PUSH organizations, and was voted one of the most important leaders in 2006. In his political career he has served as a shadow senator for the District of Columbia and run for President of the United States twice. His passion for his community and love of his fellow man has made him one of the most well-known civil rights activists in the world.

The Early Years and Family

Helen Burns gave birth to Jackson at the age of 16 in South Carolina. His father was married at the time Jackson was conceived. Charles Henry Jackson, who married Helen when Jesse was 2 years old, adopted Jesse when the young man was 14 years old. Jesse later took his stepfather’s last name, going by Jesse Jackson for his entire adult life.

Jackson was an athlete in high school, playing baseball and football, and a member of the National Junior Honors Society. He graduated in 1959, after which Jesse decided to attend the University of Illinois, an integrated school, in order to play football. After his second semester at the school, Jackson decided to enroll in North Carolina A&T, stating that the racial bias at the University of Illinois limited his ability to play football to his fullest potential or succeed academically.  

After graduating from North Carolina A&T, Jackson decided to pursue his dream of ministering, enrolling in the Chicago Theological Seminary. Born into the height of the civil rights movement, Jesse dropped out of school in 1966, six months before he was set to graduate, to work with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and other leaders, in gaining equality for all citizens. Despite leaving the seminary, Jackson was ordained as a minister in 1968. His work with the civil rights movement between 1966 and 1990 prompted the Chicago Theological Seminary to award Jackson with a two honorary degrees in 2000.

In 1962, Jackson married Jackie Brown. Between 1963 and 1975, Jackson and his wife had five children: Santita, Jesse Junior, Jonathan Luther, Yusef DuBois and Jacqueline Lavinia. Jesse Junior followed in his father’s political footsteps, eventually becoming a Representative in the United States Congress. In 1999, Jackson had another daughter, Ashley, with another woman.

Civil Rights Activism

Jesse Jackson began his civil rights activism in 1965, participating in several marches all over the country; this is where he first met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, after working on different operations Jackson was then promoted to the national director of the organization in 1967. He led the group in an effort to boycott segregated businesses.

Jackson’s ultimate goal was to instill a sense of self-worth in the black community, and Dr. King closely tutored him until his tragic assassination in 1968. When Ralph Abernathy suspended Jackson from the SCLC in 1971, Jesse went on to found Operation People United to Serve Humanity (PUSH) with T.R.M. Howard. In 1984, Jackson also organized the Rainbow Coalition, combining the two organizations in 1996. This merge brought Jackson into the mainstream as a civil rights activist, causing Al Sharpton to leave the SCLC and form the National Youth Movement, a separate organization, with Jackson. Jackson and other members of the coalitions worked tirelessly to raise the moral of the black community while protesting racism and segregation. Jackson, during one such rally, spoke to the men of the black community, stating "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." Through his coalitions, Jackson has positioned himself as a supporter of those without a voice, and his work has forced him into the spotlight on numerous national incidents.

During this time, Jackson also worked on civil rights issues outside of the United States. President Jimmy Carter approved a visit to South Africa for Jackson, where he held several rallies speaking out against the political system of the country that allowed apartheid. He made later trips to South Africa and countries in the Middle East, speaking out against human rights violations and encouraging civil rights for all.

In 1983, he traveled to Syria in an effort to aid in the release of American pilot Lt. Robert Goodman. The naval officer was being held by the Syrian government after his plane crashed during a shooting. Jackson made one of the most dramatic personal appeals in history to Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, convincing the leader to release Lt. Goodman. Following this incident, President Reagan received Jackson and Lt. Goodman at the White House, further cementing Jackson’s place in the public eye.

In 1991, Jackson made headlines by pleading with Dictator Saddam Hussein for the release of foreigners being used as a human shield, prompting Hussein to over twenty prisoners. From this point, Jackson traveled all over the world, talking with leaders of Kenya, Kosovo and Yugoslav, fighting for the rights and release of prisoners. In 2003, Jackson lead one of the largest anti-war demonstrations ever held on US soil, speaking out against the invasion of Iraq.

He continued to speak with foreign leaders on numerous topics, and was brought in by the United Kingdom to help with their project Operation Black Vote, meant to encourage ethnic minorities in the UK to vote in the 2005 general election. In 2009, Jackson was crowned a Prince of the Agni tribesmen and women by the King.

1984 Presidential Campaign

Jackson was the first African American man in United States history to have a nationwide campaign for Presidency in 1984. Running as a democrat, Jackson announced his campaign in late 1983. While other politicians and television talking heads initially viewed Jackson as incapable of winning a primary, let alone the election, they significantly underestimated his following. Jackson took third place in the democratic primaries, earning over eighteen percent of the vote. He also won five primaries and caucuses, including Louisiana, District of Columbia, Virginia, South Carolina and two different races in Mississippi. Jackson ended up gaining 21% of the popular vote and 8% of the delegates. According to some studies, an estimated one million new voters registered during the 1984 election with the sole purpose of voting for Jackson. As the first black man to ever run on a national level for President of the United States, this was a huge milestone for the civil rights movement and Jesse himself. In 1988, he went on to beat his own record.

1988 Presidential Campaign

Jackson attempted another campaign for president in 1988, again under the Democratic Party. With significantly more financing that his last campaign, Jackson won primaries in Alabama, Georgia, the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, Virginia and South Carolina. He also won four caucuses in Delaware, Vermont, South Carolina and Michigan. Despite initially losing the Texas primary, Jackson did take the Texas local convention and Alaska’s caucuses. Following these wins, Jackson was considered the front runner for the Democrats, gaining more pledged delegates than any other candidate. However, Jackson lost this status shortly after when he was defeated in the Wisconsin and Colorado primaries. Despite this loss, the studies of the 1988 election have shown that Jesse Jackson’s campaign encouraged nearly two million new voters to register, nearly double that of his first campaign.

While Jackson did not run in any further elections, he is often credited with the Democrats taking back the White House in 1992. His backing of democratic candidate Bill Clinton encouraged a large amount of African American and other minorities to vote for the candidate.

Jackson’s Politics

In both of Jackson’s campaigns for presidency, he ran on an incredibly left-wing platform. He planned to organize and administration to provide jobs to every single American and to switch away from the country’s focus on drugs to bankers who laundered money, stating that this would cut the drug dealers down at the knees. He also planned to increase taxes on the richest Americans, and using that money for social welfare programs. In the same vein, Jackson wanted to create a universal health care system in the United States and provide free community college to all high school graduates.

On the international front, Jackson believed that the budget for the Department of Defense should be cut by at least fifteen percent. Under his presidency, Jackson planned to disarm the Soviet Union and declare South Africa to be a rogue nation. He also supported the formation of a Palestine State, drastically distancing himself from Republicans.

Jackson has long been a huge proponent of education, encouraging increased federal money being given to public schools in low-income areas. He has worked tirelessly to close the gap between the quality of education in inner cities and the suburbs, believing that the only way to drastically reduce poverty in America is to significantly increase the amount and quality of education that young citizens receive.

After the Campaigns

Despite losing two bids for presidency, Jackson went on to further his political career. Between 1991 and 1997, Jackson served as a senator for the District of Columbia, working to lobby for statehood for the district. During the Presidency of Bill Clinton, Jackson worked as an advisor for the administration, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In October of 1997, Clinton appointed Jackson as the Special Envoy of the President and Secretary of State for the Promotion of Democracy in Africa. This position allowed Jackson to travel throughout Africa, promoting his vision of human and civil rights in the name of the US Government. This also allowed him to meet with several of the most prominent leaders of the area, including Nelson Mandela.

In 2004, Jackson spearheaded the investigation into the voting results in Ohio during the presidential election, calling for a fair count and an overhaul to the national voting standards. While the official challenge was rejected by the Senate, Jackson’s campaign for election reform prompted Congress to work towards voting rights legislation.

Famous Cases and Events

In 1985, Jackson led over 100,000 people in a demonstration against apartheid in South Africa, urging the country to free Nelson Mandela. The demonstration, held in London’s Trafalgar Square, led Jackson to the desk of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In the meeting, he urged Thatcher to drop her support of apartheid in South Africa, requesting she make an official statement on the behalf of Britain against the South African government.

Jackson has spent much of his career speaking up for those who seemingly cannot defend themselves. As a result, he has been involved in some of the most national events in the last several decades. In 1999, after seven students were expelled for two years from their high school after a fight during a football game, Jackson stepped in. When CNN began running a story on the incident, complete with a video, Jackson called on the school board to lessen the punishment, accusing the board of acting in a racially biased manner. When the board only agreed to lessening the punishment to one year, Jackson organized a march in the Illinois town.

The Terri Schiavo case of 2005, where a woman surviving on life support was caught in a battle between her parents, who wished to keep her alive, and her husband, who wanted to let her go, Jackson called even more attention to the issue. In his support of the parents, Jackson visited Terri and her family often. He issued a statement on the matter, urging American citizens to take a stand for life.

The following year, when a female student accused three members of the lacrosse team at Duke University of raping her, Jackson threw the support of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition to the cause. Jackson offered that, no matter what the outcome of the allegations, the Coalition would pay for the remainder of the young woman’s college tuition. This event is one of several that truly showed Jackson at his best; Jackson has worked his entire life to find a balance between helping individuals and helping a group as a whole. 

Following the scandal involving comedian Michael Richards’ making racists comments later in 2006, Jackson began calling on the black community to eliminate the use of the n-word. Specifically targeting the entertainment industry, Jackson urged Americans to put a stop to this racist term. Perhaps prompted by Jackson’s urging, the NCAA held a large mock funeral in 2007 to bury the word.

Public Speaking and Television

Jackson’s experience has led him to be a frequent speaker at many colleges, and receives hundreds of requests a year for his time. His most notable appearances have been at Hampton University, Stanford, Harvard, Morehouse, Princeton, Howard, Yale and Columbia.

He has also created a media personality for himself, hosting the CNN show Both Sides with Jesse Jackson and the WORD Network’s Up Front with Jesse Jackson. In 2004, Jackson began hosting a nationally-syndicated radio talk show, entitled Keep Hope Alive with Reverend Jesse Jackson. He has written two books, 1989 Keeping Hope Alive and 1987 Straight from the Heart. Jackson and his son, Representative Jackson Jr., have also written two books together: 1996 Legal Lynching: Racism, Injustice, and the Death Penalty and 2000 It’s About the Money!.


As the result of Jackson’s human rights work, he has had honor upon honor bestowed on him. He is one of only two living people to ever be placed on a pictorial cancellation postal stamp, and he has made numerous appearances on the Gallup List of the Ten Most Respected Americans. In addition to the hundreds of awards and honors he has received from community organizations, including over 40 honorary doctorate degrees, Jackson is the recipient of The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Spingarn Award.

Jesse Jackson has received recognition all over the world for his work, especially in Europe. Jackson received the honor of helping to unveil a statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square during the 2007 celebration of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Britain. In 2008 Jackson was afforded the honor of delivering the keynote address at an event in New Delhi, India. This ceremony, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s death, centered on the life and beliefs of the scholar. Jackson, along with others, urged the world community to walk in the footsteps of Gandhi, emphasizing that peaceful demonstrations are the only way to reach equality and peace with compromising one’s own soul or ethics. In 2009, the United Kingdom Prime Minister honored Jackson with the Global Diversity and Inclusion Award in a ceremony hosted at 10 Downing Street.

Jesse Jackson has also accomplished a lot of things away from the public eye. He routinely visits high schools and places of higher education to speak with students and tour facilities. When speaking at assemblies and graduations, Jackson pushes students to work hard and stay away from illegal activities, especially drugs. Jackson has also made several visits to correctional facilities, especially juvenile detention centers, with the goal of encouraging young men and women to turn their lives around.

Jackson has also earned the distinction of speaking at and walking with more picket lines than any other public figure. He has worked tirelessly in the support of unions, constantly supporting labor rights and aiding in organizing workers in the United States and in other countries, most notably Japan and Singapore. In this way and others, Jesse has always prided himself in working for the common good of everyone, not just one specific group.