Jesse Jackson -- Minister, Civil Rights Activist, Author
The life of Jesse Jackson has always been associated with a strong belief in the Christian faith. His activism in the Civil Rights Movement -- like that of his mentor, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. -- was based not just on social / racial justice, but in a powerful belief that God intended for all his children to be free, to have a chance at a good and decent life, and that heaven awaits those who fight for justice and fairness and live wholesome, productive lives. Among his many accolades, awards, and appointments, he was appointed "Special Envoy to Africa" by President Bill Clinton, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000 (Gale Biography). This paper sheds light on Jackson's career, his faith, his ministry and the impact he has had on American society.
Jackson's Early Life and Times
Reverend Jesse Jackson was born on October 18, 1941, in Greenville, South Carolina, a city that was in the midst of serious social struggles due to the existence of Jim Crow-related racism and institutionally promoted racial segregation. He faced discrimination for his very launch as a human, according to the Encyclopedia of World Biography (EWB). The fact is that his young mother had become pregnant through a relationship with a married next-door neighbor named Noah Robinson. Besides the fact that he was an African-American in a city that was segregated (public drinking fountains said "Colored" and "white"), Jackson was "shunned and taunted by his neighbors and school classmates" for being a "nobody who had no daddy" (EWB).
According to the authors of the EWB, Jackson used the taunts and the heckling directed at him as motivation to become an understanding, helpful person to others that had been (or were) oppressed by racist institutions. In time, his mother married, became a hairdresser (enjoying financial security) and Jackson's stepfather, who worked for the U.S. Post Office, adopted Jackson in 1957. His emotional insecurities now behind him, he became a good football player, winning an athletic scholarship to the University of Illinois in Chicago. Anxious to get out of the Deep South and its racial tensions, Jackson looked forward to living in Chicago only to find that there was "…both open and covert discrimination" at the university, and in other parts of this big northern city.
So in time (after several semesters) Jackson went back to the South and enrolled in a school for African-American students -- North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College (A&T). Obviously he did well there, performing well as an athlete and a student leader; he was popular on campus and won the office of student body president. By his senior year, he was involved in the Civil Rights Movement, the EWB reports.
In the spring of 1968, Jackson and other officers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), including Dr. King, went to Memphis to help the sanitation workers in their efforts to receive fair pay. It was there on April 4, 1968, that Dr. King was assassinated. That tragedy also opened the door to Jackson's recognition as a national Civil Rights leader. While claiming that he held Dr. King in his arms after the leader was wounded -- a fact that was declared false by others in King's party that night -- Jackson went on national television the next day wearing a bloodied turtleneck jersey, and that "…vaulted him into national prominence" (EWB).
After becoming active in Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity), the Rainbow coalition, and other civil rights activities, he received his master of divinity from the Chicago Theological Seminary on June 3, 2000.
Jackson's Christianity and Ministry
In the Public Broadcasting Service archives of biographies and personalities there is a section on many facets of Jackson's life. In the section called "Jesse and the Bible" a number of his former colleagues, advisors and friends discuss his Christianity and his love of the Bible. Eric Easter, who was a staff member of Jackson's campaign for President of the United States in 1984 and 1988, said Jackson didn't just try to live like Jesus, but he saw Jesus as "kind of the ultimate political strategist. Not just a religious figure," Easter remarked, but a person that provided guidance for political empowerment and political leadership (PBS.org).
Jackson's "…amazing study of the bible" and his "amazing knowledge" meant that he did not have to look up passages for his speeches. Jackson "…seemed to be able to match a passage in the bible with whatever situation was happening politically," Easter explained. Jackson assumed that all those around him would see the links between Jackson's choice of Scripture and the political situation at hand at that time, but Easter said those links didn't always connect for people.
Mark Steitz was a policy advisor for Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign. Steitz insists in the PBS story that Jackson always approaches questions of the day -- not from a "managerial perspective" but from a spiritual and moral perspective. Jackson believes that this is what the Bible teaches -- to approach life and life's challenges from a moral perspective. It is this belief that gives him "…a strength to endure the endless pettiness and problems"; and if Jackson did not hold tight to that belief, Steitz continues, he "…would have gone off and done something else" (PBS.org).
Hence, though it wasn't fashionable to have such a strong conviction rooted in the bible, and to act "out of strong political conviction rooted in a moral view," that's exactly how Jackson gets the work don't that he believes "…he has to get done," Steitz continues. When Jackson arises each morning he asks the question -- "Why am I doing this?" And "How am I getting this done?" -- and answers his own question: "…because it is part of something he deeply believes in and he believes that he is needed to do it by God," Steitz explains.
Richard Thomas began traveling with Jackson in 1968, and describes the many trips across country that he took with Rev. Jackson. As to the stops along the way -- between organizing meetings and speeches -- "the cornerstone for the trip were always churches… every Sunday he preached at someone's church," maybe Spokane, Tampa Florida or Washington D.C., Thomas explains.
Thomas and Jackson shared a hotel or motel room when they traveled. "…Every night he got on his knees and said his prayers. Every night, religiously, without fail he was on his knees and said his prayers and it made me uncomfortable because I had never shared my prayers with anybody… he'd say his prayers, get into bed and read the bible," Thomas recalls in the PBS report. He insisted that reading the Bible "soothed him" and it "prepared him for whatever he had to do next." Echoing what Easter said about Jackson and Biblical passages, Thomas remembers that Jackson was "…very capable of quoting passages that refer to what's going on in every day life that you were experienced at the moment" (PBS.org). He could "throw some passage from the Bible at you in a minute," Thomas concluded.
Another witness to Jackson's relationship with the bible was Vivian Taylor, a friend of the family and the daughter of the minister of Jackson's church, Rev. Sample. When Taylor's father was preparing his sermon on Thursday, no one was allowed to interrupt him -- no one that is except Jesse Jackson. Taylor recalls that once Jesse told her father that he had been to seminary in Chicago, and his father was sitting in a chair listening to Jackson, who plunked right down on the living room rug and allowed Rev. Sample to mentor him. It seems that Jackson was humble as well as passionate about his relationship to the community and to Christianity.
Not Every Image of Jackson is Positive
Marshall Frady wrote one of Jackson's biographies, and in an interview with PBS Frady describes how Jackson is perceived by the media and by a portion of the public. The interviewer asked Frady why the public has had something of a "viral resistance" to Jackson. Frady was asked if this antipathy to Jackson is racially motivated. Frady responded that part of the public's distaste for Jackson lies in the left-over racial schism since the 1960s. But moreover, the author said that to travel with Jackson "…it amazes you… to a degree Jackson has invited their allergy to him by his desperate eagerness to be recognized as who and what he feels, however histrionically, he is" (PBS.org). He has always wanted to be a "social apostle, prophet if you will," as Dr. King and even Gandhi were apostles. But because Jackson carries that "…kind of high and arrant moral-gospel obsession into the rather less spiritual commerce of politics… [he has] almost insured a dyspeptic reaction to him by journalists" (PBS.org).
Jackson is capable of "…at once of a breathtaking magnificence of spirit and effect," but on the other hand he is also capable…