Rev. Jesse Jackson stepping down as president of Rainbow PUSH

Jackson founded Operation PUSH in 1971. The Rainbow Coalition, which grew out of his 1984 presidential campaign, merged with PUSH in 1996.

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Days after his 81st birthday, Rev. Jesse Jackson sits at his desk at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition at 930 E. 50th St. on the South Side, Tuesday morning, Oct. 11, 2022.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2017, has appointed a successor to lead Rainbow PUSH, one of his sons said Friday.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

WASHINGTON — The Rev. Jesse Jackson, civil rights leader and two-time presidential candidate, will step down as president of Rainbow PUSH Coalition, an organization he founded and whose national headquarters is on Chicago’s South Side.

One of his sons, Rep. Jonathan Jackson, D-Ill., said Friday there “is a determination made that in his current health and condition that he has appointed a successor and will formally announce it Sunday.”

In a statement, the Rainbow PUSH coalition said Jackson, 81, will remain connected to the organization. “His commitment is unwavering, and he will elevate his life’s work by teaching ministers how to fight for social justice and continue the freedom movement. Rev. Jackson’s global impact and civil rights career will be celebrated this weekend at the 57th annual Rainbow PUSH Coalition convention, where his successor will be introduced.”

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Jackson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2017 and his son — a former Rainbow PUSH Coalition director — said “it is progressive” and his father often uses a wheelchair.

The announcement will come at the Rainbow PUSH Sunday session of its annual national convention at the Apostolic Church of God, 6320 S. Dorchester Ave. On Sunday, Vice President Kamala Harris will deliver remarks to the civil rights organization at the church. Her address, at 2:45 p.m. Chicago time, will be streamed at WhiteHouse.gov/live.

The convention will include a tribute to Jackson to mark the 35th anniversary of his 1988 Democratic presidential primary bid. He also ran in 1984.

Jonathan Jackson said his father “has forever been on the scene of justice and has never stopped fighting for civil rights.” That, he said, will be “his mark upon history.”

Illinois Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton said in a statement that Jackson “answered the call to serve and dedicated his work to letting it ring true, through decades of advocacy for the rights of our communities. As he steps down as president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, may we take this time to reflect on his legacy in the journey for civil rights and liberty that have forever shaped our nation. I stand on the shoulders of leaders like Rev. Jackson, as a trailblazer and a powerful voice for a better tomorrow, and I wish him the best as he embarks on this new chapter. The state of Illinois will continue to cherish and preserve his passion in advocacy for justice for all.”

Mayor Brandon Johnson — who was backed by Jackson in this year’s election — also issued a statement, calling Jackson “an architect of the soul of Chicago.”

“Through decades of service, he has led the Rainbow PUSH Coalition at the forefront of the struggle for civil rights and social justice,” Johnson’s statement continued. “His faith, his perseverance, his love, and his relentless dedication to people inspire all of us to keep pushing for a better tomorrow.

“The reverend is a mentor, and a friend, and I thank him for all he has done for the people of our city, and our country.”

Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. greets people attending a reunion Friday of people who worked on his 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns. The event was held at Rainbow PUSH Coalition in Chicago.

Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. greets people attending a reunion Friday of people who worked on his 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns. The event was held at Rainbow PUSH Coalition in Chicago.

Owen Ziliak/Sun-Times

Rev. Al Sharpton, who leads a civil rights organization based in New York, called Jackson a “mentor” in a tweet, and “one of the most productive, prophetic, & dominant figures in the struggle for social justice. It was my honor, since 12 to serve as the youth director for NY Operation Breadbasket, to becoming a student of his.”

Jackson’s decision to step down was first reported by The Crusader in an article written by Chinta Strausberg, a former Rainbow PUSH spokeswoman.

Jackson was born Oct. 8, 1941, in Greenville, South Carolina, eventually becoming an ordained Baptist minister.

Last year, shortly after celebrating his 81st birthday, Jackson told the Chicago Sun-Times he had no plans to slow down.

Jackson pointed to Nelson Mandela, a “senior citizen as a freedom fighter,” and President Joe Biden as public figures who also did not pump the brakes despite their age.

“I find fulfillment in my work. It’s my sense of purpose,” he said at the time. “I do everything with a sense of purpose.”

Jackson’s public activism began decades ago, as one of the “Greenville Eight,” a group of Black students (Jackson was a college freshman at North Carolina A&T) protesting at the whites-only public library in his hometown.

Over his life, he has remained active in the movement, forming Operation PUSH in 1971, running for president twice and, multiple times, successfully negotiating the release of U.S. citizens being held hostage abroad. The Rainbow Coalition, which grew out of his 1984 presidential campaign, merged with PUSH in 1996.

In recent years, he’s continued publicly advocating for civil rights and various political campaigns while leading Rainbow PUSH, headquartered at 930 E. 50th St., once the KAM Synagogue. Jackson’s regular Saturday morning session at his headquarters was for years a must-stop for local, state and national political figures. Jackson helped lead a 1983 voter registration drive that ultimately resulted in the election of Harold Washington as Chicago’s first Black mayor.

Jackson has been based in Chicago except for a break of a few years when he moved to Washington, where Rainbow PUSH had offices. There, he ran for and won a seat as one of the District of Columbia’s “shadow senators,” part of his drive for voting rights and statehood. On the media side, Jackson hosted a CNN show for eight years starting in 1992 and wrote a column for the Sun-Times.

As for a successor to lead a group so strongly identified with one man, in September, Bishop Tavis Grant was appointed acting national executive director of Rainbow PUSH. That post had been vacant since 2017.

The appointment put Grant in charge of the organization, along with its affiliates around the country.

Grant has served in the organization in several capacities, including as a volunteer and national field director. He is the pastor of Greater First Baptist Church in East Chicago, Indiana.

Contributing: Stefano Esposito

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