Jesse Jackson was arrested for the first time 50 years ago this month, leading a civil rights demonstration in his home town of Greenville, South Carolina. On July 16, 1960, the 18-year-old Jackson and a group of 7 other young people protested the segregated public library, by sitting in at the whites-only library and reading books. The “Greenville 8” were quickly arrested, the first in a lifelong series of arrests for nonviolent civil disobedience for Reverend Jackson. Soon after, the library was integrated.
Jackson has never stopped marching since. For half a century now, he has helped lead the fight for progressive politics.
Run down the list of key moments in progressive activism over the last half century, and there is a good chance that Jesse was there—not just observing, but marching, picketing, speaking, organizing, registering people to vote.
Marching with Dr. King across the bridge at Selma. Coining his signature phrase, “I Am Somebody,” at Resurrection City. Dumping the illegitimate Daley delegation at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami.
Joining the SCLC staff. Launching PUSH in 1971 (still meeting every Saturday morning at the headquarters in Chicago, as it has for more than 38 straight years).
Helping register voters and raise money to elect that great progressive mayor, Harold Washington. Building a strong enough African-American political machine in Chicago that all 3 African-American Democratic Senators since Reconstruction have come from Illinois, including the current President and the only African-American woman.
Since 1960 Jackson may have inspired more young people and minorities to vote than anyone—and given that almost all of them registered Democratic, it is very likely that Jesse has helped elect more Democrats than any other political figure. No one has done more to put “flesh” on the “spirit” of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
He opened up the cells to free prisoners and hostages, from Syria, Cuba, Iraq, Serbia. He helped force open the door for more diversity in the Congress, the Oscars, corporate boards, sports, the media.
He paved the way for an African-American President, with two history-making campaigns in 1984 and 1988. He won seven million votes, 13 primaries and caucuses, and 1,218.5 delegates in his 1988 run.
Jackson’s campaigns cemented the transformation of the modern Democratic Party, a party that had regressive Dixiecrats as its base when Jesse started out, but has progressive African-Americans as its base today. The immediate symbol of that was the election of Ron Brown, his 1988 convention manager, to be the first African-American DNC Chair.
Jackson has fought against uncounted injustices, and for peace and fairness, often in front of the cameras, but also behind the scenes more than is understood. Here are some of them:
Changing the Democratic Party rules.
Protecting affirmative action from the Democratic Leadership Council (“mend it, don’t end it!”).
Saving Social Security from a secret Clinton/Gingrich deal.
Helping early rhythm and blues singers win royalties from the record companies.
Pushing for Ernie Banks’ statue at Wrigley Field.
Standing up for Nelson Mandela’s liberation.
Advocating early on for a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Petitioning Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to end the nuclear arms race.
Speaking at the first big D.C. rally in favor of gay and lesbian rights, 10/87.
Denouncing the contra war, the invasion of Panama, the embargo on Cuba.
Criticizing U.S. involvement in the attempted coup in Venezuela.
Remembering the history of the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba, defending Haiti’s Jean-Bertrand Aristide, advocating for Brazil’s Lula da Silva.
Marching with Dr. King and the Memphis sanitation workers. With the AFL-CIO’S Rich Trumka and the United Mine Workers at Pittston. With Dennis Rivera and 1199 in New York City. With the Teamsters versus UPS, Steel Workers in Appalachia, chicken workers in North Carolina.
Fasting with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers.
In October, 2002, when the peace movement held its first big rally against the impending invasion of Iraq, Jackson headlined the speakers on the Mall.
The day the world said no to the Iraq War, 2/15/2003, Reverend Jackson marched in London, and spoke to 2 million peace activists in Hyde Park.
Jesse Jackson picked up the civil rights baton, the progressive activism baton, the peace baton, from Dr. King, and carried it forward against the racial backlash of the ‘70s, the supply-side headwinds of the Reagan Era, the militarism of the Bush/Cheney years.
Jackson’s half century of struggle has not led us to the Promised Land, but it has won victories we can point to, progress we can be proud of. His 50 years of memorable oratory, of creative street heat, of getting up every day and catching the early bus for the freedom struggle, of keeping hope alive among the dispossessed, the disenfranchised, the despised, has kept hope alive during several dark decades.
And this August 28th, he’ll be marching for jobs with the United Auto Workers in Detroit.