bob fitch photo archive, © stanford university libraries
in 1966, jesse jackson began directing operation barn, a program of the southern christian leaders conference (sclc) in chicago. Often seen as Martin Luther King’s protégé, Jackson quickly earned a place among King’s inner circle. Although King was concerned about Jackson’s ambition at times, SCLC Executive Vice President Andrew Young called Jackson “a born leader” (front line, “Interview with Andrew Young”). p>
Jackson was born in Greenville, South Carolina, on October 8, 1941 to a teenage single mother. Jackson was an honor student and class president in high school, receiving an athletic scholarship to the University of Illinois in 1959. He returned to South Carolina after one year, however, transferring to North Carolina from Greensboro to & university at greensboro, he was active in the civil rights movement, joining the local chapter of the congress of racial equality and participating in sit-ins and demonstrations. Mindful of SCLC’s work at the time, a precocious Jackson wrote to King: “Dear sir, I don’t believe you’ll ever bring God to Albany, Georgia. because it’s wise enough to wait until e=mc² brings changes there. best of luck, however” (jackson, august 7, 1962).
in 1964, jackson graduated from college and moved to chicago on a rockefeller scholarship to study at chicago theological seminary. in march 1965, he organized a group of fellow students to go to selma , alabama, answering the king’s call to support the local campaign for voting rights. Before returning to Chicago, Jackson asked Ralph Abernathy for a staff position at SCLC to lay the groundwork for a Chicago campaign. Although King barely knew Jackson, he took a chance and hired him.
in january 1966, king moved to chicago to launch the sclc northern movement. jackson soon left seminary to help king full-time, becoming the chicago coordinator of sclc’s economic development and empowerment program, operation barn. King was impressed by Jackson’s ability to lead the barn, 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 Barnboard. King told a Chicago audience that no one could be “more effective” than Jackson (King, January 6, 1968).
Despite King’s praise of Jackson’s work, a few days before King’s murder, he criticized Jackson for following his own agenda rather than supporting the group. Jackson, stung by his mentor’s disapproval, told him, “Everything is going to be okay” (Frady, 225). King angrily responded that all was not going to be alright and that he needed Jackson and the entire 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 her to join him. Jackson was talking to King from under the balcony of the Lorraine Motel when King was assassinated.
After King’s death in April 1968, Jackson continued to run Operation Breadbasket. Following in the king’s footsteps, he was ordained a Baptist minister. newspaper articles after the king’s death called him “the king’s successor” and wrote of him as “the most persuasive black leader on the national scene” (“leader of emerging rights”). Despite tensions among SCLC leaders, 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 one million new voters. In his second bid for the nomination in 1988, Jackson won multiple 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 Barn’s mission of creating economic opportunity for minorities.