An Insightful Message from Living Civil Rights Legend Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.
Wake up. Fight for truth. Rest. Repeat. For six decades, Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. awakens ready to doggedly pursue equality on the battlefield of injustice. The legendary foot soldier in the Civil Rights Movement, tirelessly moves forward armed with a sword of truth, a shield of faith, and a courageous heart filled with hope.
As 2020 comes to a close, amid the anger, fear, hatred, confusion, division, and unrelenting grief that grips the nation, Jackson still stands on the side of hope. People are more inspired by hope than they are by fear; and they are inspired more by love than they are by hate, he insists.
“Anger would blind you,” said Jackson. “One must have the strength not to be angry, not bitter, because anger and bitterness can consume.”
Jackson granted UMOJA Magazine an exclusive interview the morning before national news outlets officially declared Joe Biden as the nation’s 46th president and Sen. Kamala Harris, his running mate, the first woman, the first Black person and the first person of South Asian descent to become vice president. “Hands that once picked cotton will now pick a president,” he said, lauding the momentous victory and progress of Black voters.
Harris’ historic win is a direct fulfillment in the lineage of the struggle. Something Jackson said we must remember and appreciate.
“Those who recently gained the vote after 1965, the rejected stones, will be the corner stones of the victory.”
“Those who recently gained the vote after 1965, the rejected stones, will be the corner stones of the victory,” said Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity) Coalition, which campaigns for social change.
The 2020 Election set a record for voter turnout and Jackson couldn’t be more pleased. He wondered if Black voters hadn’t cast their ballots in droves, especially in Georgia, whether the two would be serving the highest seats in the land.
“The Biden-Harris team takes the top seats in the country at a time when the country is deeply divided. Jackson believes the timing is right, adding, “Once more, hope is reborn.”
At 79, Jackson is charming and oozing a sense of purpose. Getting past the awed delight knowing civil rights royalty is sitting right there takes a moment. It’s his strong shoulders many stand on. The living legend sacrificed countless things so Black Americans could receive respect, dignity and equality.
During the hour-long Zoom meeting, from his Presidential Conference room, Jackson’s voice is soft but deliberate. It’s easy getting lost in his intense gaze and empowering words. The Baptist minister who turned political oratory into an art, can pull historic dates and facts from an impressive steel-trap memory one right after another and another.
The conversation reveals a deeper reverence and understanding on how Jackson has established himself as one of the most dynamic forces for social and political action in both the national and international arenas. Enveloped in a cascade of awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Jackson who is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, shows no signs of slowing down.
“Our votes made the day in this election and we should feel good about that, and learn from it,” said Jackson, who is a doting grandfather.
The Greenville 8
Run down the list of key moments in social justice, and there is a good chance that Jackson was there marching, picketing, speaking, organizing, and registering people to vote. He has campaigned for economic justice, human rights, world peace, and the United States presidency.
That pick-up-the torch and make-way-for-change attitude began at home. Segregation was the way of life in Greenville, South Carolina, where Jackson was born on Oct. 8, 1941. Black people couldn’t drink from the same water fountains as their white neighbors. They couldn’t use the same restrooms or swimming pools. They had to sit on the back of the bus and didn’t have the right to vote.
Jackson was an outstanding student-athlete who graduated from a public school, but later turned down a contract to play baseball for the Chicago White Sox. Instead, he enrolled in the Big10 football powerhouse, the University of Illinois on a football scholarship.
At 19, Jackson came home on school break the Christmas of 1959, needing to conduct research for a college paper. He tried to go to Greeneville’s downtown main public library because its colored branch didn’t have the books he needed. He was shocked to learn that Black citizens were barred from using that library only because of the color of their skin. He vowed to return and help end that racist policy.
He kept that promise, and the young Jackson returned and united with seven other students, nicknamed the Greenville 8, during his 1960 summer school break. They protested by sitting in at the whites-only library and reading books. After peacefully refusing to leave, police arrived and quickly arrested the youth. The newspaper published the students’ names and home addresses. Death threats and hate calls followed.
Two months later, the library was integrated, sparking desegregation demonstrations at lunch counters, parks and swimming pools. It was part of a growing student activist movement in that era. The story of the Greenville 8 never reached national prominence like the Birmingham bus boycott, the Little Rock Nine, or the Greensboro Four’s Woolworth’s lunch counter arrests. But their stance for dignity and equal treatment, with Jackson leading the way, were crucial in desegregating public libraries.
“Once the flame was lit, it caught fire.”
The courageous moment chartered Jackson’s path toward becoming one of the most renowned pioneers in the history of the Civil Rights movement and a disciple of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Once the flame was lit, it caught fire,” Jackson said in an interview with The Guardian.
This past summer marked 60 years since the Greenville 8 bravely fought for equal access to public libraries.
Mrs. Helen Burns-Jackson
The drive to help others is in his blood. Jackson said his mother, Helen Burns, had two scholarships to attend college, but when she became pregnant with him, she chose not to go. Jackson, who was born at home, is the offspring of an affair between his teenage mother and Noah Robinson, a married neighbor and former boxer. The three-room home had no hot or cold running water. Slop jars were used for waste and wallpaper helped keep the house protect from the elements.
A couple of years later, Burns married Charles Henry Jackson who formally adopted her son in 1957. His mother became a cosmetologist, foregoing payment from women in need. She’d also assist others who couldn’t read or write fill out government paperwork, Jackson said.
Crediting her with giving him “a sense of self-worth and self-respect,” Jackson’s mother supported him becoming his number one cheerleader, watching him grow in prominence. Jackson married Jacqueline Lavinia Brown and on New Year’s Eve in 1962, and together they have five children, known as “the First Family of Black America.”
He forged ahead with his mission to right the wrongs of the world, guided by King’s philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience. A member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led by Dr. King, Jackson participated in the March on Washington, fighting for voting rights, public accommodation equality, jobs, and to stem the tide of uncontested violence against African Americans and their supporters.
“We came with food baskets in the trunks of our cars,” Jackson recalls. “We had deviled eggs, chicken, potato pie and all of that. We couldn’t rent a room at the Howard Johnson or Holiday Inn. Our money was counterfeited to them.”
The realization that a majority of the more than 250,000 demonstrators who descended on the National Mall could not use a single public toilet. The racist law pained him. The gathering spurred reflection on the sacrifices his father made while serving in WW II. The humiliation he endured when forced to sit behind Nazi POW’s on trains coming home from war and on military bases. Nazi soldiers would also laugh and mock the Black American soldiers for positioning in foxholes.
“I dreamed for the day when all of this would be over,” Jackson said of bigotry and hate. “In a sense, I had aspirational dreams.
“I dreamed for the day when all of this would be over,” Jackson said of bigotry and hate. “In a sense, I had aspirational dreams.
In 1965, he participated in the Selma to Montgomery March in Alabama ꟷ a Southern state with deeply entrenched racist policies ꟷ to demand voting rights protection for Black Americans. He marched alongside John Lewis, a Freedom Rider he met a few years earlier in Greensboro, North Carolina, following the Woolworth’s sit-in.
Activists slept on the floor, recliners, in a bathtub and anywhere else where they could catch some shut eye, as they traveled state to state organizing and protesting for civil rights. Black people were beaten, jailed, and sometimes killed for standing up for their civil rights in that era. Fearless leadership provided the backbone of the movement.
Jackson teamed with Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Chicago. In 1968, Jackson was ordained a minister and in 2000 was awarded a Master of Divinity Degree. Always moving forward, Jackson sought to further his mission of change by running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988. Jackson was the second African American, after Shirley Chisholm, to mount a nationwide campaign for the presidency, and he was the first Black candidate to be a serious contender.
During his run for the White House, Jackson was still the Chicago-based leader of Operation PUSH. Defying all expectations in a campaign, Jackson won 13 primary election contests and millions of votes, making him the first viable African American candidate for U.S. president. Jackson’s mother appeared onstage with Jackson when he addressed the Democratic National Convention in 1988. Proudly she watched her son develop into a leader of millions of Americans—black and white—a “rainbow coalition” of the nation’s disenfranchised.
The moment radically expanded the role of Black voters in national politics. Jackson also acted many times as an international diplomat in sensitive situations and went to South Africa to speak out against apartheid. Known for bringing people together on common ground across lines of race, culture, class, gender and belief, Jackson earned the nickname “the Great Unifier.”
Burns-Jackson’s front-row seat to her son’s rise to prominence ended when she passed away in 2015 at the age of 92. Jackson described his mother as a lifelong advisor who kept him going back to Scriptures for guidance and the embodiment of Christian charity.
Choking back tears, the Civil Rights icon said making his mother happy was his greatest accomplishment to date.
“I marched and did some great political things, ran for president, … but making my mother happy, for me, was the real deal.”
“She endured scandal and shame. And, when her classmates were preparing to go off to college, she chose to have me. I made sure I got good grades to make her happy. I marched and did some great political things, ran for president, … but making my mother happy, for me, was the real deal,” said Jackson.
Kenosha, Wisconsin & BLM Movement
Jackson and fellow civil rights veteran Andrew Young are the last surviving crusaders of Martin Luther King. Both witnessed his death on April 4, 1968. The civil rights movement conquered the evils of Jim Crow. Forty years after King’s death, the torch had been passed to Barack Obama.
Yet, the path to racial harmony in America stubbornly remains. Progress is often painful or slow, but always moving in one direction: towards equality. Even so, the country feels more divided today than in some time.
“We’ve come a long way, but we’re not where we want to be,” said Jackson.
Amid the strain and tension of COVID-19, the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd on Memorial Day seemed to tip the scale in police brutality and senseless killings of unarmed Black Americans. It reopened the nation’s festering racial wounds of a half-century ago.
Floyd’s plea – “I can’t breathe” – gripped the conscious of many around the world. Yet, there are seldom indictments for police killings or for the routine police brutality. Systemic and institutionalized racism in this country has been the knee on the neck of Black Americans for centuries, he added.
“The difference between yesterday and today is we are more conscious, less afraid, and have the vote.”
“We’re in the season of killing Black people by police,” he said. “George Floyd’s murder brought it to a head. But the difference between yesterday and today are the cameras. … The difference between yesterday and today is we are more conscious, less afraid, and have the vote.”
He applauds the nonviolent efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement, despite evidence of alternative right groups purposefully seeking to sabotage the demonstrations. Peaceful demonstrators marched understanding that silence is no longer acceptable.
“These demonstrations are multiracial, multicultural, and multigenerational, young and old, black, white, brown, and yellow,” the reverend said. “We’ve never before witnessed so many white people marching to protest a Black man being lynched. These are the largest multiracial protests in the history of America. They are saying that they will not put up with this violence.”
Jackson, a witness to unbelievable changes, takes about a dozen phone calls before he even gets out of bed from those demanding change and seeking his counsel.
In August, the veteran activist donned his demonstration shoes once again. Jackson and his team left their Hyde Park headquarters in Illinois to join justice-seeking protestors in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The upheaval rose after Jacob S. Blake, who is Black, was shot seven times in the back by a white police officer during an altercation. The close-range shooting on Aug. 23 occurred as Blake reportedly opened the driver’s door to his SUV and leaned. Three of his young children where in the backseat, witnessing their father being loaded with bullets.
Jackson said he is still in touch with the Blake family.
Days later, Jackson called for the boycott of every nonessential service in Louisville, Kentucky, in September, following a grand jury decision in the fatal shooting case of Breonna Taylor. The 26-year-old emergency room technician, who is Black, was killed by officers in her own home during a no-knock warrant as part of a narcotics investigation. No drugs were found and her killers were never arrested.
Then, in October, Jackson and his team came to the aid of the family of Marcellis Stinnette, a 19-year-old Black man who allegedly did not receive medical assistance and bled out on the ground for eight minutes after he was shot by a Waukegan police officer. Stinnette was killed, and his girlfriend Tafara Williams, 20, was wounded when Williams allegedly reversed the car they were in toward an officer, who fired into the car, according to police. The police officer turned on his body camera after the shooting.
We’re Not Going Backwards
To witness white and Black Americas rise up and fight back represents progress for Jackson. Perseverance pays.
“The marchers are hopeful signs,” said Jackson, who coined the phrase, I Am Somebody. “They marched because they’re full of hope. They believe something can happen. … Progress has been made. There is an attempt to turn the clock back, but we’re not going back.”
America has experienced measurable progress since Jackson participated in his first sit-in.
“We have lifted the low-hanging ceiling of racial segregation. There was a time we couldn’t sit in a public park. We couldn’t ride horses. We could only clean the horses for the white kids. We changed all of that.”
“We have lifted the low-hanging ceiling of racial segregation. There was a time we couldn’t sit in a public park. We couldn’t ride horses. We could only clean the horses for the white kids. We changed all of that. Then we went after our voting rights,” the reverend said.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed the discriminatory voting practices adopted in many southern states after the Civil War. And now “voting is the key to our political kingdom,” Jackson said. Since then, Blacks have made gains in U.S. political leadership. Fifty-five years ago, there were no African Americans in the U.S. Senate, nor were there any Black governors. And only six members of the House of Representatives were Black.
Today, two Black governors have won recent elections, along with six senators since Reconstruction. And, more than one-third of America’s top-100 cities is governed by African Americans, many who have swept into southern city halls. Black women are also making strides including Mayor Elia Jones of Ferguson, Missouri, elected in the town which in August 2014 made the news when Michael Brown, a Black unarmed 18-year-old teenager, was shot several times and killed by a white police officer.
“We have Black mayors in Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, Richmond, and Atlanta. We have a stronghold all across Confederate states,” Jackson said. “Dr. King never saw a Black mayor in Atlanta or elected one in Washington, Houston or Dallas. The Voting Rights changed everything.
“Trump could have won if it were not for Milwaukee, Detroit, Atlanta and Philadelphia. Descendants of ex-slaves who were driven north to flee terror are now pulling their weight. … We’re coming across the finish line, now we must make sure we have a return on our investment,” he stressed.
Jackson’s life and work symbolize the quest for equality and nondiscrimination. He is the recipient of more than 40 honorary doctorate degrees for his work in human and civil rights and nonviolent social change. A member of the Divine 9, Jackson was awarded the 2020 Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. Lifetime Achievement Award at the Founders Day Banquet this summer.
In his latest book, Keeping Hope Alive, Jackson publishes his soul-stirring sermons and speeches he’s delivered both to the downtrodden and the powerful, from Senegal and Bangkok to Chicago. It’s an impressive look into his indelible legacy and how it continues impacting many lives today.
On his birthday in October, he handed out diapers and infant formula to mothers in need, an homage to his beloved mother. He stood in the cold pouring rain to protest the looming closure of Mercy Hospital in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, which would create a hospital desert for the city’s most vulnerable population. And recently, the Rainbow Coalition handed out over 500 hot meals Thanksgiving week.
Jackson leans on two biblical scriptures for continued strength: “For his anger endureth but a moment; in his favor is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning;” (Psalms 30:5) and, “If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14)
When asked what legacy left on the life of others would you like remembered most, Jackson said: “That I was there to help others in need. That I did my best to do God’s will. … It’s all about service. You cannot give without receiving and you cannot win without losing.”