Jesse Louis Jackson was born October 8, 1941, in Greenville, South Carolina. In 1959 Jackson left South Carolina to attend the University of Illinois. Dissatisfied with his treatment on campus, he decided to transfer to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College. After receiving his B.A. in sociology, Jackson attended the Chicago Theological Seminary. He was ordained a Baptist minister in 1968.
Jackson joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1965. In 1966 Jackson became involved with the SCLC's Operation Breadbasket, and from 1967 to 1971, he served as the program's executive director. Jackson resigned from the SCLC in 1971 to found his own organization, Operation 'PUSH' (People United to Save Humanity). Through PUSH Jackson continued to pursue the economic objectives of Operation Breadbasket and expanded into areas of social and political development.
Jackson soon became the most visible and sought-after civil rights leader in the country. His magnetic personality came across as appealing on television, and while he described himself as "a country preacher," his command of issues and his ability to reach the heart of matters marked him as an individual of intellectual depth. Of all the civil rights leaders, Jackson was the one who could relate best to the young. He was possessed with a gift of being able to summon out the best in them, in a phrase that became his trademark, "I am somebody."
Out of this came Jackson's program, PUSH-EXCEL, which sought to motivate young school children to do better academically. In 1981, Newsweek magazine credited Jackson with building a struggling community improvement organization into a nationwide campaign to revive pride, discipline, and the work ethic in inner-city schools. With funding from the Carter administration, the PUSH-EXCEL program was placed in five other cities.
The Jesse Jackson of the 1980s will be best remembered for his two runs for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. In 1983, many, but not all, black political leaders endorsed the idea of a black presidential candidate to create a "people's" platform, increase voter registration and have a power base from which there could be greater input into the political process. His 1984 campaign was launched under the aegis of the National Rainbow Coalition, Inc., an umbrella organization of minority groups. Black support was divided, however, between Jackson and former Vice President Walter Mondale. During this campaign, Jackson attracted considerable media coverage with controversial remarks and actions, demonstrating a lack of familiarity with national politics.
The 1988 campaign of Jackson showed enormous personal and political growth; his candidacy was no longer a symbolic gesture but was a real and compelling demonstration of his effectiveness as a candidate. By the time the Democratic convention rolled around, media pundits were seriously discussing the likelihood of Jackson's nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate, and "what to do about Jesse" became the focus of the entire Democratic leadership. At the end of the primary campaign, Jackson had finished a strong second to Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, and changed forever the notion that a black President in America was inconceivable. Jackson took his defeat in stride and continued to campaign for the Democratic ticket until the November election.
Since the 1988 election, Jackson has worked less publicly, but no less energetically. In 1989 he moved with his Rainbow Coalition from Chicago to Washington, DC; he believed that the coalition could be more effective in the nation's capital. Jackson continues to write, speak, and lead protests for social change. His primary concerns include crime, violence, drug use, and teenage pregnancy in inner-city neighborhoods; voter registration; health care; affirmative action; and baseball hiring practices. In 1993 Jackson was awarded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize.
Jackson has been active in foreign affairs as well. In 1991, he traveled to Iraq, and convinced Saddam Hussein to begin releasing Americans held hostage after Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. In 1994, Jackson met with Fidel Castro in Cuba and, later that year, President Clinton sent him on a peace mission to Nigeria. Although many expected him to run for president again in 1992 or 1996, Jackson decided against it, saying that he was too tired, and the strain on his family too severe. He did support his son, Jesse Jackson, Jr., who was elected to the House of Representatives (Chicago's 2nd Congressional District) on December 12, 1995.
African American Almanac, 7th ed., Gale, 1997.