Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. lifts up the next generation

Jesse Jackson’s passing of the civil rights torch is an example of unselfish leadership.

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The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. on July 14 at a reunion of campaign staffers from his 1984 and 1988 presidential bids. Jackson, 81, announced last week that he would step down as president of Rainbow PUSH Coalition, an organization that he founded and is based on the South Side.

Owen Ziliak/Sun-Times

It’s not easy passing the baton, especially when your work is your calling.

So the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.'s announcement that he is stepping down as the president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition doesn’t come as a shock given his medical condition, yet it is a reminder that the role of a leader is to lift the next generation.

Aging is a blessing that too many young Black men do not see.

Their misfortune appears in neighborhoods where able-bodied men are scarce and positive examples of manhood are few.


Gov. J.B. Pritzker shakes hands with the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. at Mayor Brandon Johnson’s inaugural address May 15, 2023, in Chicago.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

These thoughts crossed my mind as I waited for my brother to find a parking space near the Green Lake Forest Preserve on Saturday, where legions of Simeon alums flooded the area with blue and gold. The “all classes” reunion was such a draw that the entry to the parking lot was blocked off.

Jackson was the commencement speaker for Simeon’s class of 1973.

I still remember the ceremony at the Arie Crown Theater. Jackson was at the height of his popularity.

In my home, Jackson was as revered as an esteemed family member.

My father often cited Jackson’s efforts that forced the A&P (the only grocery store in our neighborhood) to hire Black workers.

There was great reverence for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as the leader of the civil rights movement, but Jackson was seen as the champion of those laboring up North in an often unwelcoming, even hostile environment.

A gifted orator, Jackson’s message of empowerment attracted working-class Black men and women to his side to get out the vote, push for fair wages, employment opportunities and decent housing in a city once described as the most segregated in America.

Despite developing a national reputation, Jackson remained accessible — not just at civil rights marches and political gatherings.

You would see his towering figure at galas, galleries, local restaurants and just about anywhere and everywhere Black folks gathered in protest or celebration.

After 50 years, I don’t remember the theme of his speech. Still, I remember the graduating class, standing in jubilation and loudly reciting Jackson’s signature affirmation: “I may be poor, but I am somebody” repeatedly until the audience erupted in thunderous applause.

Jackson, who ran for president twice in the 1980s, is celebrated as the first Black person to be taken seriously in pursuing the Democratic nomination.

He was also one of the last Black leaders with King in Memphis, Tenn., when the civil rights leader was assassinated.

My relationship with Jackson has always been touchy.

He came to prominence when it was inappropriate for a Black writer to criticize Black leadership publicly. In contrast, I went into the newsroom determined to hold all leadership accountable.

We often bumped heads.

Looking back, I realize that when it came to getting media coverage of an issue important to him, Jackson was way ahead of his time. His strategy was to engage, regardless.

If he thought reporters didn’t cover his press conferences fairly, he’d call us up and seek to educate us on the point of disagreement.

And he didn’t hold a grudge.

As we used to say, “He could take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’.”

Despite his disappointments (no one gets out of this life without setbacks), Jackson continued to press on, advocating for those without a voice or access to power.

I recently ran into him at a private event. He was in a wheelchair, and it was clear that his health was rapidly deteriorating.

Guests lined up to shake his hand and take selfies with him.

I thought how difficult it must be for him to be in this predicament — but maybe not.

He’s run his race. He’s passed the baton.

Thank you, Jesse.

Well done.

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