For over five decades, the Rev. Jesse Jackson remains on of the civil rights movement’s most notable figures. Today is the activist and organizer’s birthday.
Born Jesse Louis Burns to his teen mother, Helen Burns, and father Noah Robinson who was married to another woman, he was later adopted by his mother’s husband, Charles Jackson and reportedly had a close relationship with both men. In high school, Jackson was a sharp student and multi-sport athlete who lettered in football and baseball.
Jackson reportedly turned down a minor league baseball contract in order to play college football at the University of Illinois, but transferred to North Carolina A&T University, graduating from the school in 1964. He was attending the Chicago Theological Seminary when he dropped just short of graduating to focus on civil rights activism. He began working with the SCLC and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965 and was named head of the SCLC’s Operation Breadbasket, which focused on economics.
The pair were said to have bumped heads as Jackson’s brash tone was first attractive to SCLC leadership but patience grew thin. After King’s assassination in 1968, Jackson’s profile grew and he claimed to have been holding King as he died from his wounds which was shot down by the SCLC. He was later suspended then resigned from the group in 1971.
That same year, Jackson established Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) as a Black self-help organization. In 1984, he established the National Rainbow Coalition, which focused on human, gay and women’s rights. The two groups are now merged and known as Rainbow/PUSH.
In 1984 and 1988, Jackson attempted to run for president of the United States, using his skills as an activist and orator to focus on a wide variety of issues. He remained active in the political space and served as a “shadow senator” for the District of Columbia, an unpaid position to lobby for statehood, from 1991 to 1997.
In 1999, an affair with a staffer led to the birth of his daughter, Ashley, which was later revealed in 2001. Jackson has been married to his wife Jacqueline, and their pair had five children together, including former congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.
Jackson is still active as a champion for justice and rights, although it was revealed in 2017 that he is battling Parkinson’s Disease.