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Rainbow PUSH Coalition Founder Still Fighting for Racial and Economic Equality

He was with Martin Luther King, Jr. on the day the civil rights leader was slain. He was the second black to launch a nationwide campaign for president of the United States. And Jesse Jackson continues to be one of the most prominent and outspoken leaders of the African-American community today.

Jesse Louis Burns was born in October of 1941 in the racially-segregated city of Greenville, South Carolina. In 1956, he took the last name of his stepfather, Charles Jackson, thus creating the alliterative name that was to become synonymous with the civil rights movement in America.

Throughout Jackson's childhood, blacks in South Carolina were not allowed to sit at the front of any city bus. They were confined to balcony seats in every movie theater and courtroom. And black children were barred by law from attending school with their white peers.

Reverend Jackson says he was about six years old when he started to understand that being black in America was not the same as being white. "My parents were saying I was going to school the next year, and I knew about four blocks from our house was a nice, brick schoolhouse with green grass," he recalls. "What attracted me about the school was it had green grass -- which our yard did not have -- and a merry-go-round and a sliding board."

Jackson remembers that he was excited by the idea of going to school. "Except I couldn't go to that school. And it pained me to have to go further away from home to a school with inferior facilities. I was very clear on being black at six."

But while he understood what he calls the "racial etiquette" of the South, Jesse Jackson did not accept it. The rules angered him when he was a teenager, and in a 1969 Life Magazine interview, he admitted he used to spit into the food of white customers while working as a waiter at a hotel in his hometown.

But at the age of 23, Jackson entered the Chicago Theological Seminary, and although his anger did not disappear, he says his studies of Christianity did have an impact on his understanding of racial prejudice and what needed to be done about it. "I went to seminary, and studied the gospel of liberation," he says. "So the struggle - and fighting for human rights around the world - is my calling. It's the area in which I find fulfillment."

Even before he entered seminary, Jackson was involved in the effort to end racial segregation. While still a college student, for instance, he joined the fight to desegregate lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina.

After a group of civil rights demonstrators were beaten in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, Jackson dropped out of divinity school and joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which at the time was led by Martin Luther King. Jackson concentrated specifically on King's burgeoning efforts to draw attention to the problem of black poverty in the North.

He used sports metaphors that he picked up while playing football in college, metaphors he continues to use today. "Why do blacks do so well on the football, basketball, baseball field?" he is fond of asking. "Because whenever the playing field is even, and the rules are public, and the goals are clear, we do well."

Jackson insists that although great strides have been made since the 1960s, the playing field in the United States is still not even. For that reason, he continues to devote his time and energy to the Rainbow/PUSH coalition, a human rights organization he founded.

Jackson says the fight for healthcare, education, and what he calls "economic security" is the greatest challenge facing civil rights advocates today. "(Blacks) work harder and make less. We live under stress and don't live as long. And so race is very real," he says. "Fifty million Americans have no health insurance. As you gut these cities, without a tax base, second-class schools become first-class jails. Half of all public housing (projects) built in the last ten years have been jail cells. And so we are locking up a generation of young people and blasting their dreams."

And yet, there is also wealth in the African-American community today - prosperity that black Americans in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s could only ever dream of. That reality is the cornerstone of Jesse Jackson's latest initiative, "The Wall Street Project," which seeks to increase minority involvement in corporate America's decision-making process. Jackson says he hopes to leverage that African-American wealth as part of the solution to the problem of black poverty in America.