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Jackson, Jesse Louis

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October 8, 1941

Jesse Jackson looks in the direction Dr. King is pointing
Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries

In 1966, Jesse Jackson began to lead Operation Breadbasket, a Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) program in Chicago. Often seen as Martin Luther King’s protégé, Jackson quickly earned a place among King’s inner circle. Although King found Jackson’s ambition troubling at times, SCLC executive vice president Andrew Young called Jackson “a natural-born leader” (Frontline, “Interview with Andrew Young”).

Jackson was born in Greenville, South Carolina, on 8 October 1941 to an unmarried, teenage mother. Jackson was both an honor student and class president in high school, and he received an athletic scholarship to the University of Illinois in 1959. He moved back to South Carolina after one year, however, transferring to Greensboro’s North Carolina A & T College. In Greensboro, he became active in the civil rights movement, joining the local Congress of Racial Equality chapter and participating in sit-ins and demonstrations.  Aware of SCLC’s work at the time, a precocious Jackson wrote King: “Dear Sir, I don’t think you’ll ever bring God to Albany, Georgia. For He’s wise enough to wait till E=MC² brings change there. Best of luck, though” (Jackson, 7 August 1962).

In 1964, Jackson graduated from college and moved to Chicago on a Rockefeller grant to study at Chicago Theological Seminary. In March 1965, he organized a group of fellow students to drive down to Selma, Alabama, answering King’s call for supporters of the local voting rights campaign. Before returning to Chicago, Jackson asked Ralph Abernathy for a staff position with SCLC in order to lay the groundwork for a Chicago Campaign.  Although King hardly knew Jackson, he took a chance and hired him.

In January 1966, King moved to Chicago to launch SCLC’s northern movement. Jackson soon dropped out of seminary to help King full time, becoming the Chicago coordinator of SCLC’s economic development and empowerment program, Operation Breadbasket.  King was impressed by Jackson’s ability to lead Breadbasket, saying, “We knew he was going to do a good job, but he’s done better than a good job.” Jackson was soon promoted to national leader of Operation Breadbasket. King told a Chicago audience that no one could be “more effective” than Jackson (King, 6 January 1968).

Despite King’s praises of Jackson’s work, a few days before King’s assassination he criticized Jackson for following his own agenda rather than supporting the group. Jackson, hurt by his mentor’s disapproval, told him, “Everything’s going to be all right” (Frady, 225). King angrily replied that everything was not going to be alright and that he needed Jackson and all of the SCLC staff to work toward a common vision for America. King and Jackson reconciled in Memphis, Tennessee, after King called Jackson in Chicago and asked him to join him. Jackson was talking with King from below the balcony of the Lorraine Motel when King was killed.

After King’s death in April 1968, Jackson continued to run Operation Breadbasket. Following in King’s footsteps, he was ordained a Baptist minister. Newspaper articles after King’s death called him “King’s successor,” and wrote of him as “the most persuasive black leader on the national scene” (“Emerging Rights Leader”). Despite tensions among the SCLC leadership, Jackson stayed with SCLC until 1971, when he formed his own organization, People United to Save Humanity (PUSH). In 1984, Jackson founded the National Rainbow Coalition, a social justice organization, and sought the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, winning 3.5 million votes and helping to register a million new voters. In his second bid for the nomination in 1988, Jackson won several primaries before being defeated by Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. In 1996, the National Rainbow Coalition merged with PUSH to form the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. Jackson’s latest organization, the Wall Street Project, continues Operation Breadbasket’s mission to create economic opportunity for minorities.


Branch, At Canaan’s Edge, 2006.

“Emerging Rights Leader Jesse Louis Jackson,” New York Times, 24 May 1968.

Frady, Jesse, 1996.

Frontline, “Interview with Andrew Young,” Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), 30 April 1996, (accessed June 28, 2017).

Jackson to King, 7 August 1962, CSKC.

King, “Prelude to Tomorrow,” Address at meeting of Operation Breadbasket, 6 January 1968, MLKJP-GAMK.

Landess and Quinn, Jesse Jackson and the Politics of Race, 1985.