After two presidential runs, international prisoner negotiations, freedom marches and local organizing, the Rev. Jesse Jackson is still fighting for what he believes is right as he turns 80.
At a birthday celebration at Rainbow/PUSH Friday, Jackson gave a call to action on a number of social justice issues he believes is threatening “all we’ve gained in the last 50 years.”
“We’re in a critical situation,” Jackson said. “We must now organize a different paradigm, a different disposition.”
Jackson, who only weeks ago finished treatment for COVID and Parkinson’s disease, was joined by pastors and leaders from around Chicago who said prayers for the civil rights icon and recalled his marked influence in civil rights history.
Jackson reflected on his 1984 talks with Fidel Castro, which led to the release of 48 political prisoners, as well as his 1990 meeting with Nelson Mandela after the world leader’s release from prison.
“The harder you work, the luckier you get,” he said. “I’ve never seen that fail.”
Two weeks ago, Jackson was released from a Chicago rehabilitation center after an intense battle with COVID and receiving treatment for Parkinson’s. Jackson, who was vaccinated at the time, said the vaccine saved his life and encouraged others in the Black community to get the jab.
“I could not walk nor talk for three weeks,” Jackson said. “I went to rehab so I could learn how to walk or talk again. You need to know that, God, the shots matter.”
Jackson also emphasized the importance of fighting for federal voting protections and decried how “state’s rights” has made it harder for many to vote in the South.
“Registration. Vaccination. Education,” Jackson repeated. “We must get registered to vote, and we must get vaccinated.”
He compared the recent anti-abortion measures to America’s own “taliban.”
The event was held at Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH organization, which he founded in 1971 after a falling out with fellow civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy during their work on Operation Breadbasket. Today the organization works to fight for social justice and provide economic support to minority communities.
Jackson’s son, Jonathan Jackson, said it’s imperative that his father’s work to fight for social justice continues today.
“My father says, ‘The struggle is then and the struggle is now,’” Jonathan said. “We must be more focused and exacting in our conversations.... It’s not the water fountain anymore. It’s not the segregated schools anymore.”
Theological students from Ghana, Kenya and India also gathered to thank the religious leader and civil rights paragon for his global influence.
“Your work is a great inspiration to the entire world,” said Christopher Rajkumar, from India. “Continue to inspire us.”