The Rev. Jesse Jackson and the late U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit) in 1988. | Glenda Gill
Earlier this month, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, now 81, officially retired from the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the civil rights organization that he founded in 1971.
Known as the “Conscience of the Nation” and “the Great Unifier,” Jackson was awarded in 2000 the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian honor — by then- President Bill Clinton.
A South Carolina native, Jackson was an organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in the 1960s and was an assistant to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and present at the time of the civil rights icon’s 1968 fatal shooting.
In a statement, the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition said Jackson will remain connected to the organization.
“His commitment is unwavering, and he will elevate his life’s work by teaching ministers how to fight for social justice and continue the freedom movement,” a portion of the statement read.
The Advance interviewed several Michiganders this week about Jackson’s lifelong dedication to racial justice and strong connection with the state.
The Rev. Jim Holley, retired pastor of Detroit’s Historic Little Rock Baptist Church and former Michigan head of Jackson’s Operation PUSH organization (the predecessor to Rainbow/PUSH Coalition), praised his friend during a Wednesday interview with the Advance.
“I just have some much respect for him,” said Holley, who has known Jackson for more than 50 years going back to their days at Chicago Theological Seminary. “Right after the Rev. Martin Luther King is Jesse Jackson. He helped to pave the way for [former President] Barack Obama.”
Jackson has been in declining health in recent years. He announced in 2017 that he had begun outpatient care for Parkinson’s disease two years earlier. In early 2021, he endured gallbladder surgery and later that year was treated for COVID-19 including a stint at a physical therapy-focused facility.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told the Advance on Friday that Jackson is “an American icon who has fought for values of justice, equality and freedom for decades.
“His work at Rainbow/PUSH has informed local, state, and national policy on a wide range of issues that make a real difference in people’s lives, from jobs and education to housing and voting rights. Rev. Jackson’s ties to Michigan run deep. He led marches for equal rights in Detroit, fought for clean water in Flint, and traversed the state during his campaign for president. The mark he has left on our story will be etched in his history and the impact he had on families and communities will be felt for generations to come. Thank you, Rev. Jackson.”
Jackson’s place in American politics, including Michigan, is also felt by Garlin Gilchrist, Michigan’s first African-American lieutenant governor.
“Rev. Jesse Jackson is a tireless leader and fighter for justice who was uniquely and particularly beloved and connected to the people of the State of Michigan. Alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he marched for civil rights, justice, and equality. At Rainbow/PUSH, he pioneered community organizing and worked to make peoples’ lives better in communities across our state and nation,” said Gilchrist, who was a toddler during Jackson’s first run for president in 1984.
“As a presidential candidate, he spoke with clarity about the challenges we faced and urged us to take collective action for economic justice. In his actions, indomitable spirit, and commitment to making a difference, he has served as an example and mentor to countless public officials, including myself. As we celebrate Rev. Jackson’s storied career, let us recommit ourselves to carrying forward his mission and building a brighter, more equitable, and more just future for generations to come,” Gilchrist added.
A ‘significant figure’ in the 1984 and 1988 national elections
Beginning in the 1970s, Jackson traveled to Detroit often, speaking at homes of worship and attending rallies geared toward economic empowerment as well as events designed to end violence in Detroit communities among other topics.
During a 1985 rally at Cobo Arena, Jackson told 10,000 city high school students to pick “hope over dope.” At the time, Detroit Public Schools Superintendent Arthur Jefferson and Mayor Coleman A. Young backed the use of metal detectors in high schools as a way to curb school violence.
“You have a chance to say: ‘I want to be sane. I will not let drugs turn my dreams into nightmares,’” Jackson said that day.
Jackson carried out two runs for president as a Democrat in 1984 and 1988.
Political stalwarts, like the late U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit), Detroit City Council Member Clyde Cleveland, future 36th District Court Judge and television personality Greg Mathis, as well as Lansing businessman and former Michigan State University Trustee Joel Ferguson, backed Jackson’s runs for president.
Ferguson was the Michigan chair of Jackson’s 1988 campaign. Conyers was a Jackson Democratic National Convention delegate in 1984 and 1988.
However, Young, Detroit’s first African American mayor didn’t support either of Jackson’s presidential campaigns.
Young, who called himself a “political pragmatist,” backed Vice President Walter Mondale in 1984 and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988, both of whom won the Democratic Party nomination.
Young questioned whether an African American could be elected president.
“I’ve always considered him a friend, and our goals were similar but we’ve taken different roads to reach them. When Jesse ran for president in 1988, I had a tough call to make and ended up supporting Michael Dukakis for pragmatic reasons,” Young wrote in his 1994 memoir, “Hard Stuff: The Autobiography of Coleman Young.”
However, Jackson would win the 1988 Michigan Democratic Caucus election on March 26 of that year. The Detroit Free Press published a headline the following day titled, “Michigan Democrats give Jesse Jackson a landslide.”
“We proved that Jesse Jackson is not an inner city candidate, but a candidate for the length and breadth of Michigan,” Ferguson said at the time in a story published by the same Detroit daily newspaper.
Rick Wiener, who was the Michigan Democratic Party chair at the time, agreed with Ferguson.
“Jesse Jackson was a significant figure in 1984 and 1988 national elections,” Wiener told the Advance on Thursday.
Dukakis, ultimately, became the Democratic Party nominee for president. However, he lost in the November general election to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.
Detroit radio personality Mildred Gaddis, who has interviewed Jackson for nearly 40 years, arrived in Detroit after a stint in St. Louis six weeks before the election. At the time, she worked for the Motor City’s leading urban radio station, WJLB-FM 98, as news director and a weekend talk show host.
She told the Advance on Wednesday that the “energy” for Jackson in 1988 was significant.
“People in Detroit were excited,” Gaddis recalled. “It was a different energy.”
Other noted Jackson political supporters over the years have included Detroit-area business leader Marilyn French Hubbard; political activists Annette Rainwater and Stevetta Johnson; Glenda Gill, who worked with Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition; John Graves, a public relations professional; and Lavonia Perryman, who is also active in the Michigan Democratic Party.
In addition, the Rainbow/PUSH Automotive Project launched in Detroit in October 1998 with Bobby Jenkins as its first director. Gill then led the office from 1999 to 2016. Its role was to review, monitor and assess the global diversity initiatives of the automotive industry, Gill told the Advance.
Johnson told the Advance on Saturday that she was a Young supporter who was disappointed that the former mayor didn’t back Jackson’s political runs.
“I was upset,” recalled Johnson. “I was very upset.”
Amina Fakir, an actress and Detroit native, has a friendship with Jackson goes back to the 1980s when she was crowned Miss Black Metro Detroit and later Miss Black America in 1985. She described Jackson as an important figure who has continually supported African-American economic, political and social empowerment for decades.
“He was a mentor to me,” Fakir told the Advance on Saturday, describing her professional bond with him in the 1980s, in particular.
Hubbard, who was a National Association of Black Women Entrepreneurs founder and leader at the time, agreed with Fakir.
“Working with the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson over the years certainly deepened my consciousness, my commitment, my vision for a better life for ‘The Rainbow’ [referring to white America recognizing people of color as equals]. He expanded my exposure and my territory,” Hubbard told the Advance on Wednesday.
Jackson has continued to be a powerful force in politics and social justice movements. In 2020, he spoke at a Grand Rapids rally for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who was seeking the Democratic nomination for president.
Gaddis, who grew up in the South during the heyday of the American Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s and ‘70s, summed up Jackson’s impact on the nation.
“We are fortunate that Jesse Louis Jackson came our way,” Gaddis said.
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