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The Reader's Companion to American History


(1941-�), political and civil rights leader. Once a follower and associate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackson emerged during the 1970s and 1980s as the most dynamic African-American leader of the post-King era. Born to an unwed mother in Greenville, South Carolina, he was raised in modest circumstances with his stepfather and lived near his more affluent father, witnessing and resenting the privileged circumstances of his half brother. Jackson's success as a student and an athlete led to a scholarship to the University of Illinois, but when he was not allowed to play quarterback, he transferred to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College. Jackson then attended Chicago Theological Seminary and was ordained a Baptist minister in 1968.

Jackson met his future wife, Jacqueline Davis, at A&T in 1963, and both became active in the civil rights protests that spread throughout the South. In 1965, Jackson began working with King, and he demonstrated his effectiveness as an organizer when King assigned him to expand the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's (sclc) operations in Chicago. He was present when King was assassinated in April 1968. Jackson later became active in numerous efforts, serving as national director of Operation Breadbasket and then leading his own organization, Operation push (People United to Serve Humanity), formed in 1971 to pressure large corporations to provide jobs and economic opportunities for blacks and other minorities.

Responding to the increasing shift to the right in American politics, Jackson began to emphasize economic empowerment rather than traditional civil rights issues. During the late 1970s, he started push-Excel, designed to motivate black students. His rousing oratory, which combined elements of uplift ("I am somebody!") and militancy ("It's nationtime!"), attracted a large popular following. He also made several controversial ventures into international politics, including a meeting in 1979 with the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization. In 1983 he secured the release of a captured navy pilot during a trip to Syria.

By the early 1980s, he had become the black leader most capable of staging an effective campaign for the presidency. In his campaign, Jackson sought to appeal to all races and helped form the Rainbow Coalition, which became a base for his 1984 campaign. Hurt politically when a journalist overheard and reported his use of the term Hymies to refer to Jews (he later apologized for the slur), he nevertheless surprised observers when he ran a strong third in the Democratic primaries, garnering over 3 million votes. In 1988, he staged an even more successful campaign, winning 6.7 million votes in the primaries. Although he failed in his quest to gain the vice-presidential nomination, he remained the nation's most prominent black political leader.

Roger D. Hatch and Frank E. Watkins, eds., Reverend Jesse L. Jackson: Straight from the Heart (1987); Adolph L. Reed, The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon (1987).

See also Civil Rights Movement; Democratic Party.

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