“I’m traumatized by the highs and lows of our struggle,” the Reverend Jesse Jackson told me during a recent conversation in his Chicago home. His wife of 61 years, Jacqueline, had prompted his confession with a critical assessment of the violence central to American history and the cultural inadequacies that inhibit political debate. “We often talk about ‘wounded warriors,’” she said, “but we don’t have the vocabulary to discuss those who served and who died in the domestic wars of our country—the wars to advance our country toward democracy.”
“I had a protective Chicago police detail outside my home and office for 30 years,” Jackson told me. The threat of death followed him no matter where he marched, spoke, or even slept. He watched his friend and mentor, Dr. Martin Luther King, die from an assassin’s bullet to the neck. In the speech that King gave the night before his death, he reflected on his own mortality and the escalating hatred and menace he confronted on a daily basis, testifying that “longevity has its place”—but confessing that he did not expect to experience it.
While America is not yet the “promised land,” it has undergone a profound transformation since King shared his mountaintop vision in 1968. Jackson played no small part in that progress. He has lived as a warrior and commanding general in many of the most critical battles for the realization of a multiracial democracy. He has enjoyed the very blessing that was so cruelly stolen from King, Malcom X, Medgar Evers, and many other civil rights veterans: longevity. He is now 81 years old and the father of six children, one of whom, Representative Jonathan Jackson, was elected to Congress in 2022.
Jesse Jackson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2017. With challenges to his mobility and speech, he is stepping back at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, the human rights and political advocacy organization he founded. At first, in the press announcement, he called it “retirement,” but now he prefers the word “pivot.” Frederick Haynes III, a Texas-based minister, was named the new president and CEO of the coalition.
Jackson’s announcement comes at a time—the primary campaign season—when he twice made his mark on U.S. election history, with racially unprecedented and groundbreaking primary campaigns for president. So he knows all about insurgent candidacies—and he is concerned at what he’s seeing on the Democratic side today. He supports Biden’s reelection but worries about the influence of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. “He’s wacky,” Jackson said. “He’s using the great legacy of his name to become Trump-lite.”
His assessment of Cornel West, who is running for president on the Green Party ticket, is kinder: “He is a man of substance. He has a contribution to make to the dialogue, but he should do that within the party, not against it. In the 1980s, I won millions of votes and raised millions of dollars. There were people who advised me to go third party. But I expanded the Democratic Party. I could have broken away, but I thought that would only help the right.”
The Republican Party, Jackson suggests, has become too dangerous for such electoral distractions. “We’ll win if we vote our numbers, but if we don’t, we risk losing our democracy,” he said. “Trump wants to pull us back into white supremacy. DeSantis is even worse. He’s a Harvard and Yale man. He knows better. There’s something more insidious about that.”
time in discussion with Jackson doubles as a vivid tour of American history and
engagement in the converging crises of the present. As he reflected on the
triumphs and devastation he’s experienced, he represented and articulated the ongoing urgency
of America’s long struggle for equality and justice. I detected worry that his life’s
work to help advance American democracy could be undone in an election or two.
The year was 1960. At home in Greenville, South Carolina, during a break in his first semester at North Carolina A&T University, he went to the “Black” library in town to check out a book he needed to write a term paper. The librarian told him that they didn’t have it in their collection but assured him that her friend, a librarian at the “white” library, would break policy and allow him to take the book. At the larger, more modern library across town, he was attempting to check out the book when a police officer forcibly ejected him from the library and threw him down on the curb. Jackson told me that he sat and cried. But he later joined with seven other students to form what historians call the “Greenville Eight,” which led an ultimately victorious movement to integrate library services in the city.
At North Carolina A&T, Jackson led protests against police brutality and organized with a local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE. In 1965, he interrupted his graduate studies at the University of Chicago to lead a delegation down to Alabama to participate in the Selma to Montgomery marches for voting rights. It was there that Jackson met Dr. Martin Luther King and earned a position on his staff. For the next half-century, despite the risks and pain associated with civil rights activism, Jackson led efforts to integrate an apartheid economy. His fight against redlining, hiring discrimination, and exclusion of racial minorities from trade unions earned him the nickname the “apostle of economics.” He led protests and boycotts against corporations like General Motors and Burger King and the giants of Silicon Valley, securing thousands of jobs for Black workers and millions of dollars of ancillary benefits for Black professionals and entrepreneurs.
In the 1980s, the Democratic Party was also in desperate need of reform. One might say that Jackson helped Democrats become “woke.” When party leaders, including Senators Edward Kennedy and Walter Mondale, endorsed white opponents of Harold Washington in the Democratic primary for Chicago mayor in 1983, Jackson searched for a Black leader to run for president as a challenge to the “indifference and mediocrity of the white establishment within the party.” When they all declined, Jackson himself ran. The mainstream press predicted Jackson would register as a mere asterisk in the 1984 race, but he defied expectations by winning nearly one out of every five votes. In 1988, he outperformed Joe Biden and Al Gore to take second place in the Democratic primary, ushering millions of new voters into the party. “We built a multiracial, multilingual, multigendered coalition,” Jackson said to me, flashing a smile.
The Jackson coalition was also international. Uniquely successful in American history as an unofficial diplomat, he has negotiated the release of hostages and political prisoners in Syria, Cuba, Iraq, Serbia, Gambia, and Algeria.
Many political observers, including Steve Kornacki and Bernie Sanders, attribute Democratic control of the Senate during the Reagan years, and subsequent victories for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, at least partially to new constituencies that Jackson brought to the party. He spoke directly to Latinos with Spanish translators, visited Asian immigrant neighborhoods in San Francisco and other cities, made campaign appearances on Native American reservations, and was the first presidential candidate to make gay rights central to his agenda.
Jackson’s vision of a “rainbow coalition” was 20 years ahead of its time. “We prevailed in changing the Democratic Party’s cultural power,” he said. “Now we must build a movement for economic power.” While he celebrates Democrats’ leftward shift on economic policy, Jackson yearns for a popular social welfare movement similar in size and strength to the labor movement of the 1930s that encouraged President Roosevelt to enact the New Deal. As in the 1980s, Jackson today advocates for universal health care, tuition-free community and state colleges, paid family leave, subsidized childcare, raising the minimum wage to a living wage.
While much of what he’s fought for remains a dream rather than reality, Jackson provided me with an appraisal of the quiet aspects of revolutionary change that many Americans now take for granted. “When Dr. King was leading us, there was only one Black elected official in the South,” he said. “Now, there are Black mayors, Black congressmen and women, Black senators, Black city council members. And whites are voting for progressive Blacks. Hundreds of thousands of white people—in Georgia—voted for [Senator Raphael] Warnock.”
Jackson pointed to the television, which was tuned to CNN. “We now have access to information,” he said. “Black, Latino, progressive scholars and journalists appear on television, write for major papers, teach in academia. Dr. King fought against a very hostile national press.”
When I asked what he considers his greatest achievement, he said, “We raised Black consciousness and enlarged the white conscience.”
He then told a story from his 1984 campaign. An antagonist of big agriculture, he was scheduled to speak to family farmers in a rural area on the outskirts of Columbia, Missouri. When he and his staff arrived, they paused in horror to find an audience of white men in hoods. His fear quickly morphed into shock and relief when he learned that they had disguised their faces to prevent the Bureau of Farmers, which set farmer insurance rates, from identifying them as supporters of the Jackson campaign. (They worried the bureau would penalize them.)
“We went into hotbeds of white nationalism and Black nationalism,” Jackson concluded, “from the fields of Iowa and Missouri to Harlem and the Black neighborhoods of Chicago and Detroit, and converted many people from nationalism to the rainbow.”
Even if he will no longer work out of the Rainbow/PUSH offices six days a week, as he did until recently, and even though will spend more time seeing to his health, Jackson is not yet ready to truly retire. “I plan to teach seminars for seminarians and young ministers on how to fight injustice,” he said. “I especially want to help Black and Latino ministers work together for social justice. We need to strive more toward a Black-brown alliance for social justice, because we’re in the same fight.”
I closed our conversation by asking Jackson about his personal battle with Parkinson’s disease, which also afflicted his father. Every day, he says, people with Parkinson’s write him to thank him for his example of perseverance. “I’m happy that I can inspire people,” he said.
“I used to speak at middle schools and high schools,” he added, “and I told them the same thing that I now tell people with Parkinson’s.” His words should guide anyone who still believes in the promise of American democracy, even as powerful forces gather to suffocate it: “You only drown if you stop kicking.”