jesse jackson
Kathy Willens/AP

Happy Birthday, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Minister and Civil Rights Activist

January 18, 2009
by findingDulcinea Staff
Controversial mediator, Baptist minister, civil rights activist, presidential candidate: Jesse Jackson assumed these roles and more during a long career that stemmed from a humble start in Greenville, South Carolina in 1941, and included crucible years as a protégé of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


Jackson’s later career is firmly rooted in his activism during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Visit a biography of Jackson and a timeline of the movement for details.

A football star in high school and college, Jackson grew up in the segregated South, graduating from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. There he began volunteering and marching for desegregation and civil rights. Soon he was recruited by Dr. King to head the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) Operation Breadbasket in Chicago. The operation organized boycotts against white-owned businesses that did not employ or buy goods from blacks.

Jackson was at Dr. King’s side when he was assassinated in 1968. A few years later, Jackson clashed with Ralph Abernathy, King’s successor at the SCLC, and moved to continue the Operation Breadbasket mission at his own organization, PUSH (People United to Save Humanity).

Another of Jackson’s organizations, and one that grew out of his failed 1984 presidential bid, is the Rainbow Coalition, which advocates for social programs and affirmative action. (His organizations have since merged and are known as Rainbow/PUSH.)

Presidential Bids

In 1984, Rev. Jackson became the second African-American in U.S. history to run for president. He did not receive the nomination, but he surprised political experts by taking 21 percent of the popular vote, and demonstrated an ability to make unusual political allies.

Jackson returned in 1988 to helm another failed—though better organized and funded—bid for the nomination. Read and listen to his 1988 Democratic National Convention address. In a tight race with opponent Michael Dukakis, Jackson’s platform focused on the poor and dispossessed, promising a rebuilding of the national infrastructure and reversing Reagan’s tax breaks for the rich. Gary Wills’ 1988 profile of Jackson in Time magazine shows why Jackson, though a polarizing figure, doubled his previous election votes and swept nearly seven million ballots during the primaries and other contests.


In recent years, Jackson has become the go-to negotiator for international standoffs. Back in 1983, against White House wishes, Jackson had traveled to Damascus, Syria, to negotiate for the release of U.S. Navy pilot Lt. Robert Goodman, who was being held after being shot down while on a mission to bomb the country’s military positions. Jackson returned home with the pilot and became a hero.  (In 2000, Jackson was awarded the Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton for his efforts.)

The following year, Jackson traveled to Cuba and arranged for the release of 21 Americans being held there. Later, he went to Kenya to ensure fair election practices; negotiated the release of American POWs in Belgrade  and met with opposing factions in Northern Ireland.

In 2004, he spearheaded an investigation into the Ohio voting results in the 2004 U.S. presidential election.


Despite his achievements, Jackson’s seemingly contradictory stances—along with an eyebrow-raising personal life—have made him an easy target for opponents. He’s been accused of, among other things, anti-Semitism, grandstanding, and use of nonprofit funds for personal expenses. In 1999, he fathered a child out of wedlock; in 2001 he admitted paternity and asked for the public’s forgiveness.

Though typically serious, Jackson is also capable of self-parody. In 1991, he famously deadpanned a preacher’s rendition of Dr. Seuss’s “Green Eggs and Ham” on the season opener of Saturday Night Live.

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