The Rev. Jesse Jackson

Rev. Jesse Jackson

Civil rights leader and activist

Jesse Jackson was born Oct. 8, 1941, in Greenville, South Carolina. While an undergraduate Jackson became involved in the civil rights movement. In 1965 he went to Selma, Alabama, to march with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the 1980s he became a leading national spokesman for African-Americans. After being appointed special envoy to Africa, he was awarded the 2000 Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Civil Rights Activist, Minister. A pioneering and controversial civil rights leader, Jesse Jackson was born Jesse Burns on October 8, 1941, in Greenville, South Carolina. His parents, Helen Burns, a high school student at the time of her son's birth, and Noah Robinson, a 33-year-old married man who was her neighbor, never married.

A year after Jesse's birth, his mother married Charles Henry Jackson, a post office maintenance worker, who later adopted Jesse. In the small, black-and-white divided town of Greenville, a young Jackson learned early what segregation looked like. He and his mother had to sit in the back of the bus, while his black elementary school lacked the amenities the town's white elementary school had.

"There was no grass in the yard," Jackson later recalled. "I couldn't play, couldn't roll over because our school yard was full of sand. And if it rained, it turned into red dirt."

Jackson, though, showed promise and potential. His biological father would recall that he always seemed kind of special.

"Jesse was an unusual kind of fella, even when he was just learning to talk," Noah Robinson told The New York Times in 1984. "He would say he's going to be a preacher. He would say, 'I'm going to lead people through the rivers of the water.'"

In school Jackson was a good student and an exceptional athlete. He was elected class president and in the fall of 1959 attended the University of Illinois on a football scholarship. But Jackson spent just a year at the largely white school before transferring to North Carolina Agricultural & Technical College in Greensboro, where he got involved in the civil rights demonstrations in the town. It was during this time that he also met Jacqueline Lavinia Brown, whom he married in 1962. The couple has five children together.

In 1964 Jackson graduated from college with a degree in sociology. The next year he went to Selma, Alabama, to march with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., eventually becoming a worker in King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In 1966 he moved his young family to Chicago, where he did graduate work at the Chicago Theological Seminary. Jackson never finished his studies, but was later ordained by the minister of a Chicago church.

Jackson made the decision to leave school in order to work for King, who, impressed with the young leader's drive and passion, appointed him director of Operation Breadbasket, the economic arm of the SCLC.

But Jackson's tenure with the SCLC was not entirely smooth. While King, at first, was enamored with the brashness of the young leader, not everyone in the organization felt the same way. Many felt that Jackson acted too independently, and eventually King came to tire of him as well. Just five days before his assassination, King stormed out of a meeting after Jackson had repeatedly interrupted him.

Still, Jackson traveled with King to Memphis, where King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, while standing.

Rev. Jesse Jackson
Landon Lecture
Nov. 29, 1993