Reconsidering Jesse Jackson: The Caricature, The Person, The Politician-Part 2

This post, written by Tim Lacy, was originally published on the Society for U.S. Intellectual History’s blog and is reprinted here with permission.

Jesse Jackson, July 1983

Today’s post is the second in a four-part argument about the history and significance of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr., as a political activist and thinker. The first installment is here. My thesis is this: A full reconsideration of the politics, ideology, and political philosophy of the 1970-2000 period must involve a new, long, and serious study of Jesse Jackson. Last week’s post began with some personal anecdotes and a conversation regarding how Jackson has been caricatured. Today I move on to Jackson’s biography and activism. Next week I will begin coverage of his national political endeavors.

II. The Person

What of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., himself? Who was he? From where did he come?

Jackson’s career as a political figure began in the mid-1960s. Born Jesse Louis Burns in Greenville, North Carolina in October 1941, he most often first appears in history textbooks, or general histories, as an activist in the Civil Rights Movement (CRM). He had earned a prominent spot in the movement right after college. His undergraduate career began at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a scholarship football player. For reasons unknown to this author, he left Illinois and transferred to the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina in Greensboro (now North Carolina A&T State University), where in 1964 he received a B.A. in sociology. Between 1964 and 1966 he would march in Selma with Martin Luther King, Jr. and work in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In 1966, at the age of 25, he helped found the Chicago branch of SCLC’s “Operation Breadbasket” and began attending Chicago Theological Seminary, where he’d be ordained a Baptist minister in 1968. Jackson was national director of Operation Breadbasket from 1966-1971. As a sad bookend to his CRM activities, Jackson was with King in Memphis when the latter was assassinated.1

My sense is that the meatiest intellectual history of Jackson, his work, and his community of discourse would come from a deep dive into Operation Breadbasket, or the 1964-1971 period generally. Who exactly were his colleagues in the field with SCLC members? Who did he learn the most from? I’m sure Jackson’s memoirs give us clues, but did those encounters fit into the larger ideological and intellectual context of the period? Perhaps answers to these questions already exist in other works, such as Adolph Reed’s The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon: The Crisis of Purpose in Afro-American Politics (1986)? Even if Reed did some of that spadework, I would be surprised if it weren’t polemical and dated (i.e. not a secondary source, lacking in historical perspective). I’d love to hear more from readers on other Jackson historiography. In addition to work on Operation Breadbasket, some objective study of Jackson’s time in higher education would likely be productive. A recounting of his academic work at the University of Illinois and NCA&T would likely yield fruit about his encounters with important thinkers and activists. And what did Jackson learn during his time at the Chicago Theological Seminary? 2

After his CRM work, Jackson might appear again in history texts when, at the 1972 Democratic Convention, he led the Illinois delegation–the same delegation that excluded Mayor Richard J. Daley and other white supporters of George McGovern. That was the same disastrous convention wherein McGovern selected Thomas Eagleton has his running mate. Just prior, in the 1971, Jackson had made a name for himself, as a transitional figure in the post-CRM period, when he resigned from Operation Breadbasket and broke from the SCLC to form Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity). Based in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, Operation PUSH fostered, according to one scholar, local and national activism as a multi-racial human rights organization.3

No definitive history of Operation PUSH exists, but its own website (all caveats about sourcing apply here) forwards a slightly different narrative about its past. It describes itself, in a few paragraphs, as “an organization dedicated to improving the economic conditions of black communities across the United States.” As the 1970s developed, PUSH claims to have “expanded into areas of social and political development using direct action campaigns, a weekly radio broadcast, and awards that honored prominent blacks in the U.S. and abroad.” This homegrown narrative (no offense meant) claims that Jackson sought, with Operation PUSH, to protect black homeowners and businesses, but also to engage in literacy programs for youth. The main thrust of the site’s narrative is economics. It foregrounds Operation PUSH as good for businesses and workers. The organization gives itself credit for promoting black contractors and pushing for workers rights. PUSH recognizes itself for “compelling major corporations with a presence in the black community to adopt affirmative action programs which committed the companies to hire more black and minority executives and supervisors.” Tactics included “prayer vigils and boycotts,” as well as using the information network mentioned above. 4 Saving humanity, in sum, meant finding and following the money.

On Operation PUSH’s self-published history, everyone should be skeptical of its glowing narrative of seeming success. Failures are not mentioned (because why would they in their promotional history?), but conflict and failure matter in that, when absent, the historical narrative smooths over internal differences in the black community (gender, sexuality, urban-rural, age). The absence of conflict makes it seem as if explosive cultural issues (racial violence, stereotypes, racism) were entirely secondary to economic initiatives within Operation PUSH. In cutting out cultural conflict, both external relations with the white community and internal diversity in the “black experience” are necessarily made to seem secondary. Whatever the precise emphases among its major themes and topics, the extent of Operation PUSH’s success could be researched, more objectively, through mentions and citations of the organization in newspaper articles and books from the period. But the focus of this USIH series is on what Operation PUSH did for its primary spokesperson, Jesse Jackson.

In Age of Fracture, Daniel Rodgers reminds us that Jackson, while active with Operation PUSH, focused on racial parity in his 1970s rhetoric. He “talked tirelessly of the gap between whites and African Americans in speeches stuffed with a virtual encyclopedia of data on on the national racial disparities in its law schools, its doctors’ ranks, its car dealerships, the attention of its news media, the ranks of its corporate managers and business owners.” Speaking for all African Americans, Jackson relayed (in Rodgers’ text) that they wanted “‘our fair share’–‘parity’ for our votes, ‘reparations’, ‘reciprocity’, and ‘repair’ for 250 years of slavery and 100 years of apartheid.” 5 This accounting of Jackson’s rhetoric and its ideology seems at odds with Operation PUSH’s self-published history of practical endeavors—further underscoring the need for a better history of Operation PUSH.

As the 1970s moved into the 1980s, Jackson began to have higher aspirations. His grassroots activism moved to election maneuvering and political office—i.e. the highest office of the presidency. If the historical record on Jackson stopped around 1980, he might be remembered with the rest of the CRM’s lions and heroes. His work on black economic issues would be seen as of a piece with the late-life shift in King’s work toward the same. We might now place Jackson among the spectrum of black activists and intellectuals that continued a more forceful and practical legacy of empowerment. Opportunities for caricaturing Jackson would still likely have existed, but they might’ve been minimized. There would have been no need for Adolph Reed to write a critical analysis of Jackson in the mid-1980s. As it is, the public memory of Jackson seemingly rests on his actions after 1980—during the height of Stahl’s “right turn” in political ideology and regarding Jackson’s place in the Culture Wars. Next week I’ll continue this series with a closer look at Jackson in the 1980s.

Tim Lacy is an educator and historian whose scholarly specialties are intellectual history, cultural history, and the history of education. He recently finished a book titled The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2013, and is working on a second manuscript about ‘great books cosmopolitanism’ before embarking on a larger project about ignorance and anti-intellectualism. Follow him on Twitter @t_lacy.

  1. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “Jesse Jackson”, accessed August 07, 2016. If Britannica’s biography is trustworthy, Jesse Louis Burns changed his name to Jesse Jackson, taking his stepfather’s surname, around 1956.
  2. Adolph Reed, The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon: The Crisis of Purpose in Afro-American Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986). I did not have time to acquire Reed’s book in time to scan it before this post. On other source material, in scanning several articles on Jackson I think I observed that a campaign-style political biography may have been published in 1988?
  3. James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 759-760; James Ralph, “Operation PUSH,” Encyclopedia of Chicago online, accessed August 7, 2016
  4. “Brief History,” Rainbow PUSH Coalition website, accessed 8/14/2016.
  5. Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture (Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard Press, 2011), 114.
Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.