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Jesse Jackson Tells AARP: ‘I Have the Ability and the Will to Fight’

The civil rights icon, 81, steps down as head of Rainbow PUSH Coalition

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The Rev. Jesse Jackson joins other community leaders in 2022 to call on the city of Chicago to take measures to curtail violent crime.
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The Rev. Jesse Jackson was present during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. While many have focused on the “dream” part of King’s speech, the following words likely resonated with Jackson: “We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their adulthood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating ‘For Whites Only.’ ”

The days of legal segregation are “behind us now,” says the 81-year-old Jackson during an interview with AARP about two weeks before the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington. “We’ve made tremendous progress that would not go backwards. I want to move forward.”

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Moving forward for Jackson, in part, means stepping down as the head of the Chicago-based Rainbow PUSH Coalition, an organization he founded as a result of mentoring from King. In July, the coalition said Jackson was not retiring; he instead “will pivot” to emeritus status as he passes the baton to the Rev. Frederick Haynes III. Jackson’s decision, the statement said, “is a result of his ongoing journey with Parkinson’s disease.”

Parkinson's is a chronic neurodegenerative disorder that affects movement. Symptoms include quivering hands, shuffling gait, stooped posture as well as cognitive decline.

It’s true that Jackson, who in his heyday stood at a towering 6 feet, 3 inches, is not letting the disease stop him. But it has slowed him.

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The Rev. Jesse Jackson shakes hands at the 20th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington in 1983.
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As the video camera turns on in a room at Loretto Hospital in Chicago, where Jackson had joined striking workers in their final push to settle a contract negotiation, he approaches the screen in his wheelchair. An assistant has wheeled him into the room. Someone else adjusts his mic. Known for his booming voice that has electrified crowds, he is soft-spoken today, and at times hard to hear, but one thing he makes clear: “I have the ability and the will to fight.”

“I'll be with him for a while,” Jackson adds about working alongside Haynes.

“His mind is so sharp that you can’t retire with a mind like that,” Haynes says.

Haynes, 62, has served as the senior pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas for 40 years. “So, in light of that, we continue to benefit from his wisdom, his brilliance, and his prophetic insights,” Haynes says.

Haynes was formally introduced as the new president during the Rainbow PUSH Coalition’s 57th annual conference in July.

“I’m delighted in the Rev. Haynes’ stature and ability to take this thing another step along the way,” Jackson says during the joint interview with Haynes, who called in from Dallas.

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“Rev. Jackson has been the direct mentor in teaching us,” the Rev. Al Sharpton told AARP in a separate interview. “So as long as we are doing the work, his legacy is not limited to one organization or one person. His legacy is that he has planted the seeds that have now grown.”

Sharpton, 68, head of the National Action Network in New York, says the Saturday morning rallies he has been leading for 32 years are based on the Saturday morning rallies Jackson started 50 years ago in Chicago. “When I walk in the studio of MSNBC, I think about how in the ’90s, Rev. Jackson had a show called Both Sides on CNN. … When I walk into 30 Rock, that’s Rev. Jackson’s legacy,” Sharpton says. “So I learned and modeled a lot after him.”

Just as aspects of Sharpton’s work are a result of Jackson’s efforts, Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition is, in essence, a result of King’s. The nonprofit was formed upon the merger of two organizations Jackson founded: Operation PUSH (1971) and the National Rainbow Coalition (1984).

The initial organization, whose acronym stood for People United to Save Humanity (“save” later became “serve”), was the product of a social justice movement that grew out of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) Operation Breadbasket. In 1966, King appointed Jackson to serve as the first director of the Chicago division of Operation Breadbasket. Jackson, who was with King in Memphis when King was killed in 1968, became Operation Breadbasket’s national director in 1967.

“When Dr. King gave his ‘mountaintop’ speech, but prior to the beautiful prophetic poetry at the end, Dr. King literally laid out a map for economic justice, and no one picked up that baton any better than the Rev. Jesse Louis Jackson Sr.,” Haynes says. “Through Operation Breadbasket and Operation PUSH, he fought for economic justice in a way that opened up doors of opportunity not only for Black businesses, but also for African Americans who historically had been denied opportunity when it comes to corporate [America].”

The March on Washington propelled King into the national spotlight as a gifted leader and orator. It also set the stage for many of his protégés, including Jackson, says historian Yohuru Williams, the founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas, who co-authored with Michael Long the upcoming book, More Than a Dream: The Radical March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

“Some of the core issues that we see evidenced in the work of the Rev. Jesse Jackson … were articulated at the March on Washington in 1963,” says Williams, who interviewed Jackson for a History Channel special, Jesse Jackson on MLK: One Bullet Couldn’t Kill the Movement.

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Williams notes a demarcation in the media between civil rights, which was “about seeking inclusion in American society and culture, and then Black power, which is separatist, and is representative of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.” To Williams, “Jackson is interesting because he’s the embodiment of both movements. … He mocks the idea that you can separate the two.”

Williams says that stance is what formed the foundation of the work of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition:

“Rainbow PUSH is an extension in a lot of ways of those foundations that are invisible to most of us from the March on Washington, because we’re so narrowly and singularly focused on King’s speech.”

But like King, Jackson, who ran for president in 1984 and 1988, popularized his own phrase for the movement. He memorably spoke his famous “I am somebody” litany in 1972 at the Wattstax concert, and during an appearance on Sesame Street.

Jackson’s urban appeal as a transplanted Northerner is what Sharpton says allowed him to relate to Jackson when Sharpton was a young minister.

“I have known Rev. Jackson since I was 12 years old,” Sharpton says, remembering the first time his mother took him to the local Brooklyn, New York, chapter of Operation Breadbasket. “What I’ve done in the civil rights community, I learned from him. … Being out of the North, in an urban context, he was a role model, like Dr. King had been for him in a Southern context. … He had been born out of wedlock, and I came from a broken home. So there was a lot about him that attracted me. As the years went by, and I developed into my own, he always would advise me. To this day we talk, maybe once or twice a week.”

Sharpton adds, “All of us are a continuation [of Jackson] like he was of Dr. King, so he will never retire. He can just stop going to the office and go somewhere else, but he’s planted too many seeds for retirement to even be part of the discussion.”

Contributing: Barbara Brody, AARP.

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