Amidst the turmoil of the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the mid 1960’s, Jesse Jackson emerged as a powerful force in the struggle for equality. Under the tutelage of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jackson strived to improve living conditions for all African-Americans through the means of non-violent protest. As an extraordinary leader, he was able to unite people in the fight for justice at time of great shift in American history.
Jesse Louis Burns was born to Helen Burns, who was only 16 years old at the time, and Noah Robinson on Oct. 8, 1941 in Greenville, S. Car. A year after Jesse’s birth, his mother married Charles Henry Jackson. While Jesse would later take on his step-father’s last name, he maintained a relationship with Noah Robinson throughout his childhood and considered both men to be his fathers.
Jackson’s first experience with civil rights activism came in 1964 while he was still an undergraduate at North Carolina A&T. He participated in the protest against white-only libraries, theaters, and restaurants. A year later, Jackson captured the attention of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was impressed by his passion and organizational abilities.
In 1966, King appointed Jackson as the head of the Chicago branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Following King’s assassination in April of 1968, Jackson was widely viewed as his successor, continuing to advocate for racial equality.
In the political arena, Jackson became the second African-American to launch a presidential campaign in 1984, and, to the surprise of many, would finish third in the Democratic primaries. Jackson would run again four years later, this time capturing 6.9 million votes and winning 11 contests, but again failing to achieve the nomination.
Jesse Jackson was a man who did more than hope for change: he worked for it. The progress made by the SCLC has improved the lives of millions of African Americans and made way for more organizations of its kind. His work was recognized publicly by President Bill Clinton in 2000 when he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor bestowed on civilians.
Joshua Shapiro is a second-year student majoring in both English and education. He can be reached at JS762110@wcupa.edu.