Civil rights trailblazer, mentor, friend: Rev. Jesse Jackson is all of those

Jackson has retired, but his longtime fight for voting rights, economic justice and racial equality have left an indelible mark on our nation, Marc Morial writes.

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Vice President Kamala Harris and Rev. Jesse Jackson at the Apostolic Church of God in Woodlawn during a service dedicated to Jackson as he steps down from Rainbow Push.

Vice President Kamala Harris and Rev. Jesse Jackson at the Apostolic Church of God in Woodlawn during a service dedicated to Jackson as he steps down from Rainbow Push.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

It was the repeated refrain of a poem composed in the 1940s by Atlanta pastor and civil rights activist Rev. William Holmes Borders Sr. But Rev. Jesse Jackson’s call-and-response with a multi-racial group of children on Sesame Street in 1972 made it an anthem for a generation.

“I am — somebody.”

Jackson, who recently announced his retirement from the organization he founded, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, is not just a beacon of hope or a pillar of strength. He is a trailblazer, a mentor, a friend and an inspiration to me and countless others.

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As a teen-aged protégé of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jackson was an eyewitness to some of the most pivotal moments in civil rights history, including King’s tragic assassination 1968.

“It’s a hurtful, painful thought,” he said, “that a man of love is killed by hate; that a man of peace should be killed by violence; a man who cared is killed by the careless.”

Jackson’s tireless fight for voting rights, economic justice, and racial equality have left an indelible mark on our nation and have been a guiding force for the National Urban League’s work.

Of that generation who picked up the torch directly from King, only Jackson and Andrew Young remain, carrying it forward to illuminate the path toward justice and equality. When the assassin’s bullet stilled King’s voice, it was Jackson’s that thundered forth, resonating the clarion call for justice well into the 21st century.

In 1984 and again in 1988, I proudly traveled as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention to cast my vote for Jackson. His keynote address at the 1984 convention inspired a generation of young leaders — myself included — and continues to resonate today:

“This is not a perfect party. We are not a perfect people. Yet, we are called to a perfect mission,” he said. “Our mission: to feed the hungry; to clothe the naked; to house the homeless; to teach the illiterate; to provide jobs for the jobless; and to choose the human race over the nuclear race.”

His historic presidential runs were not mere campaigns — they were seismic shifts in the political landscape. Jackson ran with purpose, passion and an unyielding belief in the possibility of change. Finishing third in 1984 and second in 1988, Jackson shattered the glass ceiling for future leaders such as Barack Obama.

The National Urban League and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition share a common mission: to empower African Americans and other marginalized communities, promote economic and social justice and fight for equal opportunities for all. Our organizations have long been intertwined. in this shared mission.

Jackson founded People United to Serve Humanity, Operation PUSH, in Chicago in 1971 to promote the employment of Black Americans by companies operating in their communities, and to nurture Black-owned businesses. The National Rainbow Coalition was a political movement that grew from Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign. Jackson merged the two organizations in 1996.

For more than five decades, Rainbow PUSH has served as a blueprint for multicultural coalition-building. Jackson advanced the idea that elected office was not just a position of power, but a platform to advance social and economic justice. He gave voice to progressive issues and served as a relentless catalyst for change, creating productive tension that spurred action.

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In his retirement statement, Jackson said, “I have been doing this stuff for 64 years. ... I’ve had a good run.” Indeed, he has. His life’s work has brought about significant change and progress, and his legacy will continue to inspire and guide us.

As we navigate this transition, we welcome his successor, Rev. Frederick Douglass Haynes III, a man of equal passion and commitment. Haynes, a longtime civil rights activist and former president of the National Baptist Convention USA, is poised to carry the torch forward.

Haynes has pledged to work tirelessly to build on the legacy of Jackson and to ensure that the Rainbow PUSH Coalition remains a powerful force for justice and equality. The National Urban League is proud to support him in this mission.

In the spirit of Jackson, let us continue to carry the torch of justice, to push for a world where everyone, regardless of their race or background, has an equal opportunity to thrive. Because, as Jackson has shown us, when we fight for justice and equality, we don’t just change the world, we create a new one.

Marc H. Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League and former mayor of New Orleans from 1994 to 2002.

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