Jackson, Jesse (Louis)(1941– ) civil rights activist, Baptist minister, presidential candidate; born in Greenville, S.C. Son of an Alabama sharecropper (he adopted his stepfather's last name), he was a good enough athlete in high school to be offered a contract by the Chicago White Sox, but he turned it down because a white player was given so much more money; he also turned down an athletic scholarship at the University of Illinois when he was told that as a black he could not expect to play quarterback. He attended the mostly black Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina in Greensboro; in addition to being a standout athlete, student, and campus leader, he took a lead in protests that forced Greensboro, N.C., to integrate its restaurants and theaters. He trained for the ministry at Chicago Theological Seminary, and in 1965, having joined the protest movement led by Martin Luther King Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), he was named head of the Chicago branch of Operation Breadbasket, becoming its national head in 1967; Operation Breadbasket was the SCLC's program to persuade American businesses to hire blacks and to get companies to sell products made by blacks, and Jackson proved highly successful in this for several years. He also helped create the Chicago Freedom Movement (1966) to press for integrated schools and open housing. He was beside King when he was assassinated (1968) and although Jackson was viewed by some as the potential successor to King as the leader in the struggle for rights, he never quite gained the full support of all elements of the black community. Ordained a Baptist minister in 1968, he concentrated his fight for rights in Chicago, and after a falling-out with the SCLC removed him from Operation Breadbasket (1971), he founded his own organization, PUSH (People United to Save Humanity), which would continue to work for improving African-Americans' lives on a variety of fronts. Increasingly more active on the political scene, in 1972 he led a group that successfully challenged Mayor Richard J. Daley's slate of delegates at the Democratic national convention; and in 1984 and 1988, backed by yet another of his organizations, the Rainbow Coalition, he ran in the Democratic presidential primaries, gaining enough votes to make him a presence at the convention. And although his occasionally extreme rhetoric and sometimes angry demeanor seemed to frighten off the broadbased support he sought, he constantly won favor with surprising constituencies as he inserted himself into a variety of events—rushing off to Syria to gain the freedom of an American pilot, joining picket lines at all kinds of labor actions. As controversial as he was charismatic, he continued to be named whenever there was talk of the need for a new African-American leader—whether a mayor of Chicago or the first senator of Washington, D.C., if it became a state—and if this very omnipresence also suggested he might be diluting his energies and abilities, he undoubtedly remained one of the more striking figures in American public life in the late 20th century.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.