U.S. Intellectual History Blog

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

Jesse Jackson with Operation PUSH staff, no exact date.

Jesse Jackson with Operation PUSH staff, no exact date.

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.

Jackson with presidential candidate Ronald Reagan in August 1980 at Operation PUSH headquarters.

Jackson with presidential candidate Ronald Reagan in August 1980 at Operation PUSH headquarters.

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. – TL


[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.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Fascinating stuff here, Tim. I wonder if in transferring from UI-Urbana Champaign to UNC Jackson’s desire was to be closer to the South. Not only was he born in North Carolina, where he might have had family, but for many the South was seen as the center of black rights’s issues in the U.S. There is definitely an important role for the South in the early trajectory of Jackson: he joins the SCLC, but then breaks away from it in part because, according to what I read online, the leader of the SCLC, Ralph Abernathy, wanted the national headquarters of Operation Breadbasket to be moved from Chicago to Atlanta. The power struggle that leads to the creation of PUSH might offer us a significant glimpse into the conflicts within Black political activism at the time.

    I can’t help but bring Adolph Reed again into the equation. For Reed, the racial and political negotiations that were articulated in Hyde Park and consequently PUSH represent a key moment in the history of Black politics, where in stressing only racial parity Black leaders supposedly became silent about the problem of class, becoming thus assimilated into the Democratic elite and what came to be known as its neoliberal politics. Reed spoke recently about this shift in an interview in Black Scholar, saying that “There’s an old joke about Hyde Park in Chicago that captures my point. Hyde Park is the place where Black and white join hands against the poor.” I am not sure to what extent this critique is on point–there’s a whiff of overgeneralization and reductiveness in some of Reed’s statements–but one should not dismiss his analysis, as many folks do, because he is too “polemical” or too much of an “orthodox” Marxist (as if what passes today as orthodox U.S. history did not have its own limitations!). Btw, I am not saying that you are doing this here, Tim; I am just addressing a broader issue in how folks engage “polemical” figures like Reed and how that engagement speaks to ideological divides within the field of African American studies and US history in general.

    • Kahlil,

      First things first, thanks so much for following this series. And your comments are *always* appreciated.

      I think you could be right in viewing Jackson’s move to North Carolina as a kind of inspiration—the kind that young people experience when awakened to something larger about the world or themselves. The geographical move often follows an ideological or intellectual move. So something important happened in Illinois.

      Thanks for that tip about Abernathy and the desire to move Operation Breadbasket. I had no idea. But Jackson’s reluctance or refusal to move indicates an affection or attachment to Chicago. Something else inspired him—a new kind of activism, personal attachment (significant other?), or train of thought.

      On your last paragraph, regarding Reed, I appreciate your final sentences. I definitely do not want to dismiss Reed’s criticism or commitments as merely polemical, especially when I personally share so much with those who try to understand, critique, and be active about the pernicious influences of class in American society. It is clear that any full reconsideration of Jackson (mine here is partial) will absolutely involve an engagement with Reed’s thought. And I happen to agree with that anecdote about Hyde Park, despite personal affection for the neighborhood and its university.

      Best, TL

  2. Just to add, there are at least three biographies of Jackson, that might provide context on his early life: Marshall Frady’s Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson; Barbara Reynolds’ updated edition of her 1975 bio, Jesse Jackson: America’s David; and Roger Bruns’ Jesse Jackson: A Biography. I happen to be writing now on his campaigns. There are many accounts of the 1984 campaign, fewer of the 1988 one. Of them, the work of Ron Walters is key to understanding Jackson’s political work during the decade. Both he and Charles Henry offer useful counters to Reed’s seminal work. There are also studies on Jackson’s ideas: Roger Hatch’s Beyond Opportunity comes to mind. Finally, there is a monograph on the Push/EXCEL programs, entitled, Jesse Jackson and the Politics of Charisma, by Eddie House. Look forward to parts 3-4.

    • Josh: Thanks so much for these suggestions! Can you speak about the quality of work in the biographies by Frady, Reynolds, and Bruns? Meanwhile, it sounds like you have your work cut out for you on 1984 and 1988 campaigns. I think 1980 is a key year for Jackson. I’m guessing his thoughts and 84 and 88 derive directly from his perspective on Carter’s loss. – TL

      • Sure. Reynolds was a journalist that covered Jackson closely during the post SCLC years. As a Black woman, she has the most interesting and controversial of the three. She deals with Jackson’s persona using Weber’s idea of charisma. Frady spent s couple years with Jackson. Fills in a lot of the personal details–and covers the campaign years that Reynolds could not because she was writing in 1975 (although the 1985 edition includes a glowing endorsement of Jackson’s 1984 efforts). Bruns’ work is part of the Greenwood Press biography series so it is straightforward and short! Good for the basics without much of the digressions that Frady and Reynolds frequently employ. A good place to start on the Carter years going into Reagan years is Chappell’s Waking from the Dream. There’s a chapter on Jackson there. I actually would recommend that entire text, as it does a good job of showing how MLK’s economic justice programs were transmuted into symbolic politics in the decades after his assassination. Covers the Carter years, fight for Humphrey Hawkins, and the plight of the National Black Politcal Assembly. All of these would have ramifications for the plot oval options available in 1980. Most consequentially, independent Black politics and the National Black Independent Political Party, an option Jackson had championed in Gary. Also The Black Scholar did a good job of covering these years. Jackson’s speeches were republished there a few times. Things with Carter were so bad, Jackson forces often threatened to bolt to the GOP (and others endorsed Reagan). So you’re right, this was a critical moment. Obviously, when Reagan’s project became the order of the day, any notion of doing so was quickly scrapped. Clearly, there’s a lot here. Sorry for the ramble!

      • Josh: I love your ramble! Thanks so much for sharing some of your findings. It’s now clear to me that both I could’ve done more spadework for these posts, but also that more integrative and synthetic work is available to intellectual historians. – TL

  3. Josh Myers beat me to most of those suggestions! But that’s a great list to get started with. I’ve got a few more to add:

    1) I’m just digging into a 1993 book titled “Echoes of Discontent: Jesse Jackson, Pat Robertson, and the Resurgence of Populism.” Can’t say enough about it yet, so I’m interested to see how Allen Hertzke compares the two. The critique of Jackson as a populist in the 1980s was one that I’ve seen several times.

    2)”Jesse Jackson and the Politics of Race” by Thomas Landess and Richard Quinn. It contains an intriguing foreword by Ralph Albernathy, which includes passages where he’s critical of embracing “charisma” over “character” and critiques politics of personality. Take that for what you will.

    3)”The Tribes of America” includes an essay on Jesse Jackson from the late 1970s. Tim, you might have already come across this on FB–I can’t remember who it was who was posting about it a few weeks ago.

    • Gotcha! I’ll second his recommendation then. It delves into Jackson as an economic populist and a social conservative. Spends a good bit of time on Jackson’s opposition to abortion rights, for example.

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