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Jesse Jackson

(b. 1941)


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(b. Greenville, South Carolina, 8 Oct. 1941)

US; civil rights leader Jackson was born out of wedlock but his natural mother later married and gave him his adoptive father's name. Jackson's athletic ability won him a scholarship to the University of Illinois. Poor academic progress and a desire to play quarterback made him transfer to an all-black college (North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State College) where he became a prominent quarterback and an active civil rights leader.

After graduation, Jackson worked briefly for North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford and then went to Chicago Theological Seminary. Jackson was more drawn to political activism than the ministry and he left to work for Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. (He was, however, ordained in 1968.)

In 1966 King, who took a personal interest in Jackson's career, appointed him to organize Operation Breadbasket (the economic arm of SCLC) in Chicago. Jackson displayed imaginative and dynamic leadership persuading many Chicago firms to improve their job opportunities for blacks. In 1967 he became National Director of Operation Breadbasket.

Jackson was with King when he was assassinated in 1968. Although Jackson saw himself as King's organizational heir, there was opposition to him inside the SCLC and Ralph Abernathy was appointed to succeed King. Organizational tensions heightened as Jackson increasingly developed his own approach to black politics. In 1971 Jackson was suspended from the SCLC and in the same year he founded PUSH (People United to Save Humanity). This initiative was followed in 1976 by PUSH-Excel, a campaign targeted at the problems of black youth, especially drugs and truancy.

His personal charisma and the high-profile organization (which was frequently criticized for administrative incompetence) made Jackson a major black leader and gave him a national reputation. He gained national exposure from high-profile international trips—for example those to South Africa and the Middle East in 1979. In 1983–4 he translated his growing celebrity status into a presidential election bid. The effort proved divisive not just within the Democratic Party but also in the black community as moderate blacks such as Tom Bradley and Andrew Young opposed him. He won 458 delegates and came way behind Walter Mondale and Gary Hart. He immediately began building a network of support for his next presidential bid. He founded the National Rainbow Coalition in 1986 in an attempt to broaden his political base beyond the black community and urged extended voter registration among blacks and delegate selection rule changes. Despite running well in the primaries, he came second to Michael Dukakis with 962 delegates or 23 per cent of the total. He had however shown that a black candidate could secure white votes at the national level and had made himself a major force in the Democratic Party.

In 1990 Jackson won the nomination for one of two shadow senator seats from the District of Columbia and served until 1996 (the District of Columbia has no senators and Washington City Council created these posts to lobby Congress for statehood). Jackson's enhanced political position was seen as potentially damaging to the Democratic Party. In 1992, Bill Clinton took care to distance himself from Jackson's style of minority politics and policies such as quotas likely to deter voters. He grew closer to Clinton, who appointed him a special envoy to Africa in 1997.

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Subjects: History — Politics.


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