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Phillip Jackson, founder of Black Star Project, former CHA CEO, has died at 68

Phillip Jackson, founder and chairman of the Black Star Project, died Sunday at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge. He was 68 and had cancer. He's seen here in June 2016.

Phillip Jackson, founder and chairman of the Black Star Project, died Sunday at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge. He was 68 and had cancer. He's seen here in June 2016. | Sun-Times files

Phillip Jackson was tireless, passionate and unafraid to ruffle feathers as he worked to improve educational opportunities for African-American children and close academic achievement gaps.

He viewed school as the link to jobs, investment, the reduction of violence and a permanent place in the middle and upper classes. To achieve his goals, he exhorted, prodded, lectured and scolded.

Some people joked that he must have had a twin brother because he worked so hard and was in so many places.

“Actually, I thought he was a quadruplet,” Paul Vallas said in 1999 when he was Mr. Jackson’s boss at the Chicago Board of Education.

Mr. Jackson, founder and chairman of the Black Star Project, died Sunday evening at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, according to Gloria Smith, executive director of the not-for-profit organization. He was 68 and had cancer.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson said on Twitter, “Phillip Jackson was a bright black star, who gave his all to educating the children of Chicago.”

“Phil always spoke truth to power,” mayoral candidate Amara Enyia tweeted.

“We have lost a great and passionate warrior,” the Rev. Michael Pfleger said on Facebook. “Phillip was not one of those pop-up folks who came for a minute and then disappeared. Phillip was a consistent voice for change and justice who spent his life demanding better for our children and was willing to pay the price it cost him.”

At the start of the school year, the Black Star Project encouraged fathers across the nation to accompany their children on their first day of school. The organization also promoted tutoring and mentoring programs and daddy-daughter dances.

He’d urge people to coordinate cookouts and cleanups on their blocks including weed-pulling and flower-planting, saying steps like these would help instill pride, inspire youth and discourage crime.

Some of his efforts fell flat, but that didn’t daunt him. In 2010, after his group put together a conference to encourage kids and parents to explore how to learn more about getting in to college and brought in college representatives, he lamented: “We promised a good turnout, screamed about the opportunity from the rafters, and do you know how many families came out? Not one person showed up.”

Also, he frequently castigated the news media for failing to cover positive stories about African-American achievement.

Prior to founding the Black Star Project in 1996, Mr. Jackson was Mayor Richard M. Daley’s top aide on education issues, a post he resigned from in 2001 to become chief executive officer of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago, saying, “You can’t let our young people go through life without mentors, role models and positive activities.”

Before working for the Chicago Public Schools, Mr. Jackson worked his way up from store clerk to executive with the old Kroch’s & Brentano’s bookstore chain and was chief executive officer of the Chicago Housing Authority. He was a sort of shock absorber for Daley during the agency’s switch from national to mayoral control. He sparred with federal authorities and caused controversy with moves to dismantle the CHA’s police force and to shut down high-rises in the winter.

He knew firsthand what it was like to live in public housing. He grew up in Block One of Altgeld Gardens and, as a teen, lived in a seventh-floor unit of the mammoth Robert Taylor Homes. According to his official biography, he “attended 11 Chicago public schools with varying levels of success” before getting a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Roosevelt University.

“Philip Jackson was one of those individuals who never gave up and was always ready to serve, and always had a positive disposition,” said Ald. Roderick T. Sawyer (6th). “He was intensely focused, dedicated and creative in developing new programs targeting the social problems facing our communities. He was one of a kind.”

At one time, Mr. Jackson taught martial arts in Hyde Park. And he once ran against U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Illinois, in a failed effort to represent the South Side in Congress.

Among various honors, Jackson was cited by the White House in 2013 as “a Champion of Change for his efforts in Educational Excellence for African Americans,” was named as one of the Chicago Defender’s “50 Men of Excellence” and received the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Community Empowerment Award.

He is survived by four sisters, according to the Black Star Project.

Contributing: Fran Spielman