Jesse Jackson Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Jesse Jackson became one of the most influential, eloquent, and widely known African American political leaders in the United States during the decades after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Early Life

Jesse Louis Jackson was born on October 8, 1941, in a six-room house in the textile-mill town of Greenville, South Carolina. His mother, Helen Burns, was a student at Greenville’s Sterling High School when she became pregnant with Jesse. His father, Noah Robinson, was married to another woman; the Robinsons lived next door to the Burns family. Two years after Jesse’s birth, on October 2, 1943, his mother married Charles Henry Jackson, who bestowed his last name on the boy and formally adopted him in 1957.

The young Jesse Jackson apparently learned the circumstances of his birth sometime during elementary school. Other children who had heard rumors of the small-town scandal taunted him. When Jesse was nine, Noah Robinson began seeing the boy standing in the Robinsons’ backyard, peering through a window. The hardships and insecurities did not, however, discourage Jesse. At any early age, he became a high achiever, determined to prove his own worth.

When he was nine, Jesse, whose mother and stepfather were devout Baptists, won election to the National Sunday School Convention in Charlotte, South Carolina. By the time he reached high school, his teachers knew him as a hardworking student, and he excelled at athletics. After he was graduated from Sterling High School in Greenville in 1959, Jackson won a football scholarship to the University of Illinois.

In Jackson’s freshman year, however, a white coach told him that blacks were not allowed to play quarterback for the University of Illinois team. Stung by this example of segregation outside the South, the young man transferred the next year to a black college, the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro, North Carolina. The decision to return to the South was fateful, since Greensboro was a center of the student sit-in movement to integrate lunch counters and other public facilities. Jackson threw himself into the movement and became known as an energetic and outspoken young civil rights activist.

Life’s Work

From his Greensboro years onward, Jackson’s life revolved around political struggles for civil rights. On June 6, 1963, he was arrested for the first time, on charges of inciting a riot while leading a demonstration in front of a municipal building. At one sit-in, he met his future wife, Jacqueline Lavinia Davis, whom he married after his graduation in 1964. He became active in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and during his last year at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, he was appointed field director of CORE’s southeastern operations.

At the same time that Jackson was deeply involved in protests and civil disobedience, he was also displaying an interest in mainstream politics. For a short time during his student days in Greensboro, he worked for North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford. Sanford, recognizing the young man’s promise, sponsored him as one of the first African American delegates to the Young Democrats National Convention in Las Vegas. Electoral politics absorbed Jackson to the point that he almost entered law school at Duke University, with the goal of using legal qualifications as a political springboard. Instead, however, he decided to enter the ministry.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in sociology, Jackson enrolled in the Chicago Theological Seminary. His stay in Chicago was brief, as the call to struggle for civil rights proved to be more compelling. In 1965, he left the seminary to return south. During the celebrated march in Selma, Alabama, Jackson came to know the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Most of Jackson’s biographers have concluded that King became a revered father figure for the young man who had looked longingly through his natural father’s window. King, in turn, was impressed with his follower’s abilities.

Jackson quickly became a part of the inner circle of the organization headed by King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In 1966, King asked him to take over the Chicago operations of Operation Breadbasket, an SCLC-sponsored organization designed to pressure businesses into hiring African Americans. A year later, King appointed him Operation Breadbasket’s national director.

Jackson was with King in Memphis, on April 4, 1968, the day that King was assassinated. Other close associates of King have cast doubt on Jackson’s claim to have been the last one to have spoken with the dying leader. Some were also critical of Jackson’s dramatic television appearance on the Today Show, wearing a sweater that had supposedly been stained with King’s blood, immediately after King’s death.

On June 30, 1968, still without a...

(The entire section is 2041 words.)