The Rev. Jesse Jackson came into the world on Oct. 8, the anniversary date of the Great Chicago Fire, an event that would change the landscape and the way Chicago functioned from then on.
Jackson is a force and has been during his 80 years on this earth, a milestone that the civil rights leader will celebrate Friday. Stepping inside his office at Rainbow/PUSH Coalition headquarters on the South Side, you see those years in memorabilia and tchotchkes everywhere. A picture of a younger Jackson with the Jackson 5 rests near jerseys of the Harlem Globetrotters, Scottie Pippen and Dwyane Wade. Myriad pictures of Jackson posing with notable faces take up so much space, it’s hard to focus on any one spot.
You lose count of the images of Jackson that line the hallways. Framed, frameless, collages — all scenes of Jackson at work throughout the years, some numbered so people can connect the historical dots of what they see to a nearby placard that explains it.
When Jackson gives you a tour, he focuses on each image as if going through the files in his mind, taking stock of where he’s been. This includes the Lorraine Motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, where he, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Hosea Williams and Ralph Abernathy were captured by an Associated Press photographer the day before King was assassinated.
When asked about what he thinks of his own legacy, Jackson says he’s “a long-distance runner” who stepped into the world of civil rights 60 years ago as a teen in Greenville, South Carolina, where the lack of a proper book led to his help in desegregating the area’s public library.
Looking at the photos, you might also say Jackson hasn’t met a photo opportunity he didn’t like. Then again, 2021 has been a particularly photographic year with events such as the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Derek Chauvin’s verdict, the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa, Oklahoma, Race Massacre, Juneteenth becoming a national holiday and the treatment of Haitian migrants by U.S. Border Patrol. Jackson either showed up or spoke up about each event.
He applies the same attention to hyperlocal causes — like rallying the community to speak up about the deaths of two 15-year-old Simeon Career Academy students killed in shootings hours apart (“We need a full-court press, because somebody knows who killed those boys, and they must have the capacity to transmit that information without being jeopardized”) and residents of a South Side apartment complex frustrated with their living conditions in a privately owned but federally subsidized residence (“We’re a part of this process so people don’t feel alone”).
Jackson still writes a column for the Chicago Sun-Times, tapes a weekly segment for Rainbow/PUSH’s Saturday Morning Forum (a weekly dialogue on current events, entertainment, and church service), and sits in regularly on daughter Santita Jackson’s Sunday radio show. Which is all to say, Jackson can’t stop, won’t stop even though he’s been living with Parkinson’s disease since 2017.
“Times change, but some values don’t change. I’ve spent my time trying to build up, and I want God to be pleased with my work,” he said. “I walk down the street, and people’s hands wave and holler, and I appreciate that, but I want God to be pleased with my work.”
And work he has. After becoming a full-time organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1965, Jackson worked his way up the organization until King’s death in 1968, when Jackson continued King’s nonviolent movement of civil rights, and came into his own as manager of Resurrection City on the National Mall the same year. The tent city was erected as part of King’s Poor People’s Campaign to protest economic inequality; it was the place that Jackson’s famous “I Am Somebody” refrain was heard:
I Am — Somebody.
I may be poor, but I am — Somebody!
I may be uneducated, but I am — Somebody!
I am Black, Beautiful, proud.
I am God’s Child!
In the years that followed, Jackson would pick causes to put his mind and name to — local, national and international. Jackson’s faith led him to countries around the globe, freeing American hostages and prisoners, and Jackson would also serve as a special envoy for the promotion of democracy in Africa for President Bill Clinton.
The cause of economic empowerment serving as a force of change for the betterment of the Black community became a mainstay that took shape in Jackson’s founding of Operation PUSH, Chicago’s first Black Expo, and led to many boycotts over diversity, equal opportunity and inclusion.
“Nonviolence works for us, boycotts work for us, a lot of those reasons for a strong education works for us,” Jackson said. He would go on to found the National Rainbow Coalition, whose purpose is gaining civil rights by leveling the economic and educational playing fields.
His civil rights work segued into politics with two U.S. presidential bids in 1984 and 1988. His campaigns had extensive voter registration drives, which increased Black voter turnout, and many, including French President Emmanuel Macron, draw the line from his work then to Barack Obama’s election as the first Black president of the United States years later.
“2008 would definitely have been impossible without your fights and your contribution,” Macron said when giving Jackson the commander of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award, in a ceremony in Paris in August.
With the work came friends, admirers, fans and followers, those who continue to walk and work beside him in front of the cameras and off. U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters is one of those people. She commends him after his summer 2021 arrests in Washington, D.C., and Phoenix to end the legislative filibuster and pass voting rights legislation.
“I was so proud of him going back out there ... showing up and still having the will and desire to confront what he thought was an obstacle to providing opportunities for everybody,” she said.
The Rev. Al Sharpton met Jackson when he was 12 years old, and since then Jackson has been a big brother/father figure, mentoring and even helping him reconcile with his biological father. Learning civil disobedience from Jackson was akin to a trainer teaching a boxer. “He would call you at 6 o’clock every morning and expect you to have read the newspaper, know what’s going on with everything and question you,” Sharpton said.
Sharpton said Jackson changing rules in the Democratic Party that led to Obama’s election, bringing King’s movement to the North (urbanizing and sustaining it) and Jackson’s economic empowerment movement are the top three things that cement Jackson’s historical legacy. When asked how Jackson chooses the causes he focuses on, Sharpton says each one has the possibility of effecting legislative or policy-level change — movement tactics Jackson taught him.
“Dr. King used Rosa Parks getting arrested to break down Jim Crow’s practice of public accommodation. He used John Lewis’ getting beat on the bridge to do voter rights,” he said. “We used Eric Garner to make ‘stop-and-frisk’ and chokeholds illegal in New York.”
Corinne Betty Magness, the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition’s Illinois political director, has been volunteering for the organization since 1968, when it was still called Breadbasket. The retiree has been working for the coalition part-time since 2012. She says it’s the mission, the people and the reverend that keep her there.