Jesse Jackson passes the torch after a lifetime of opening doors to the American Dream

OPINION: While he twice run unsuccessfully for president, Jackson had a profound and positive impact on American politics, paving the way for other Black leaders like Barack Obama and Kamala Harris.

Rev. Jesse Jackson greets community residents before departing the AME Church in the Greenwood district on May 30, 2021 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

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When he was inaugurated in 1961, President John F. Kennedy said, “The torch has been passed to a new generation.” We’re now at a similar point in the long struggle for racial justice because of the recent decision by the Rev. Jesse Jackson to step down as head of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition

Jackson, who founded Rainbow PUSH, announced he is passing the torch to the Rev. Frederick Douglass Haynes III to lead the civil rights organization.

Long a trailblazer for opening the doors to the American Dream to everyone, Jackson ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 (when I worked on his campaign) and 1988. He has devoted his life to ending discrimination against those long denied fair treatment — including Black people and other people of color, poor people, the struggling working class, women, the LGBTQ community, immigrants and people with disabilities.

At the time of President Kennedy’s inauguration, Jackson was only 19 but was already engaged in a nonviolent battle against the evils of racism that oppressed Black people throughout America — most harshly under Jim Crow segregation in the South.

Six months before Kennedy became president, Jackson was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct for participating in a sit-in at the public library in Greenville, S.C., demanding that the whites-only facility allow Black people to enter. Black people then staged a series of demonstrations that forced the library to desegregate.

Now 81 and battling Parkinson’s disease, Jackson says he isn’t retiring. He’s simply pivoting to continue his life’s work in another way.

Rev. Jesse L. Jackson attends the 2nd Annual Attorney Benjamin Crump Equal Justice Now Awards at Courtyard by Marriott Los Angeles LAX/Century Boulevard on June 10, 2022, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Unique Nicole/Getty Images)

“I am looking forward to this next chapter where I will continue to focus on economic justice, mentorship and teaching ministers how to fight for social justice,” Jackson said in a statement. “I will still be very involved in the organization and am proud that we have chosen Rev. Dr. Haynes as my successor.” 

Haynes, 62, has a long record of crusading for racial justice and human rights and is a worthy successor to Jackson to lead Rainbow PUSH. He has served as senior pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas since 1983.

Jackson made a name for himself in 1964, marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to protest racism in Selma, Ala. He joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was headed by King, to become King’s trusted lieutenant. He was standing with King on a hotel balcony in Memphis when King was tragically assassinated in 1968.

Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity) was founded by Jackson in 1971 to improve economic conditions for Black communities around the country and later expanded to work for social justice and in political campaigns. Jackson broadened his mission in 1984 by founding the National Rainbow Coalition to benefit marginalized people of all races. The groups merged in 1996 to form the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.  

While he never became president, Jackson had a profound and positive impact on American politics and life. 

Few people thought a Black person could be elected president in the 1980s, but Jackson collected 21% of primary votes in 1984 and 29% in 1988. The idea of a Black president still seemed far-fetched after his losses, but it no longer looked like an impossible dream.

Jackson fought successfully to make the Democratic presidential nominating process more open to insurgents and Black candidates. That paved the way for Barack Obama to win the nomination and be elected president in 2008, ending the monopoly of white men in our nation’s highest office. Kamala Harris went on to be elected vice president in 2020, becoming the first woman, Black person and person of South Asian descent to hold that office.

Importantly, Jackson showed during his campaigns that he was a uniter rather than a divider, unlike so many Republican candidates today. He pointed out that the common interests, hopes and dreams of the American people are far greater than our differences. 

Jackson deserves a share of the credit for helping increase the number of Black elected officials at all levels of government. While systemic racism still exists, along with efforts by Republicans to limit voting rights and draw legislative and congressional districts to minimize Black representation, there has been enormous progress in increasing the number of Black elected officials in Jackson’s lifetime.

For example, when Jackson was born in 1941, there was only one Black person in the U.S. House of Representatives — Democrat Arthur W. Mitchell of Chicago, who was born in Alabama in 1883 to parents who had been enslaved. There wasn’t a single Black senator.

Today there are 59 Black House members and three Black senators, along with Vice President Harris, a former senator from California who can vote to break ties in the Senate. 

Jackson has earned his place in history, working to advance the cause of “liberty and justice for all” heralded by the Pledge of Allegiance. He has done his best to turn those beautiful words, along with the statement in the Declaration of Independence that we are all created equal, into a beautiful reality.

America owes Jesse Jackson a debt of gratitude for all he has done to make our nation a more perfect union. I do as well for his role as my mentor and dear friend. He has been an inspiration.

Despite his pivot of stepping down from the leadership of Rainbow PUSH, Jackson’s work is not done. I know he will do all he can to add to his great accomplishments.

Donna Brazile Headshot

Donna Brazile is a veteran political strategist, Senior Advisor at Purple Strategies, New York Times bestselling author, Chair of the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, and sought-after Emmy- and Peabody-award-winning media contributor to such outlets as ABC News, USA Today and TheGrio. She previously served as interim Chair of the Democratic National Committee and of the DNC’s Voting Rights Institute. Donna was the first Black American to serve as the manager of a major-party presidential campaign, running the campaign of Vice President Al Gore in 2000. She serves as an adjunct professor in the Women and Gender Studies Department at Georgetown University and served as the King Endowed Chair in Public Policy at Howard University and as a fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School. She has lectured at nearly 250 colleges and universities on diversity, equity and inclusion; women in leadership; and restoring civility in American politics.

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