Rev. Jesse Jackson won’t slow down at 81: ‘It’s my sense of purpose’

Rev. Jesse Jackson at his desk at Rainbow PUSH. The longtime civil rights activist turned 81 on Oct. 8.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Days after his 81st birthday, Rev. Jesse L. Jackson is laser-focused on the bus. 

He’s been using a “Votercade” bus to go around the city and register Chicago residents to vote through his organization, Rainbow PUSH. Ahead of the Nov. 8 election, Jackson has made combating voter suppression his main goal.

“I know what he’s thinking right now,” said Bishop Tavis Grant, Rainbow PUSH’s acting national executive director, who joined Jackson for a recent interview.

“He’s wondering where the bus is.”

Jackson’s 81st birthday was Oct. 8, with a party planned for Friday at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, 4543 S. Princeton Ave., from 7 to 9 p.m. General admission is $35.

But the longtime civil rights activist said he would rather focus on his work. He wakes every day at 4 a.m., reads the local papers, watches the news and writes a list of what he wants to accomplish that day.

He fits in a couple hours of physical therapy for his Parkinson’s disease, which Jackson was diagnosed with in 2017, and then works until “there is no more day,” as staffers often put it. The disease has affected his speech, but by day’s end, everything on his list is checked off.

Jackson’s public activism began decades ago, when he was one of the “Greenville Eight,” a group of Black students (Jackson was a college freshman at North Carolina A&T) protesting at the whites-only public library in Greenville, S.C., where Jackson grew up.

In the years since, he remained active in the movement, formed PUSH in 1971, ran for president twice (1984 and 1988) and has, multiple times, successfully negotiated for the release of U.S. citizens being held hostage abroad. The Rainbow Coalition, which grew out of his 1984 presidential campaign, merged with PUSH in 1996.

In recent years, he’s continued publicly advocating for civil rights and various political campaigns while leading Rainbow PUSH at its headquarters in Chicago.

People close to him often wish for him to slow down a bit. He refuses. Members of his team say they want him to conserve his energy. But it is clear Jackson himself has no intention of stopping his work anytime soon, or stepping down as head of Rainbow PUSH.

Jackson points to Nelson Mandela, a “senior citizen as a freedom fighter,” and President Joe Biden, 79 (and turning 80 on Nov. 20), as public figures who also did not pump the brakes despite their age.

“I find fulfillment in my work. It’s my sense of purpose,” he said. “I do everything with a sense of purpose.”

Grant, who has spent his entire adult life working with Jackson, was recently appointed temporary national executive director at Rainbow PUSH.

“Two things about Rev. Jackson,” Grant said. “He refuses to take no for an answer, and he gets up before everyone else. … He is just as sharp today as he was (before). And his tenacity … he will not take no for an answer. As a leader, it’s infectious.”

Jackson often shares stories about his days in the civil rights movement — for example, he was at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Voter suppression efforts are among the troubling developments Rev. Jesse L. Jackson sees in the current political climate.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The current political climate is upsetting to Jackson.

Decades ago, “it was simpler, but also more difficult. Now, it’s a more complex situation,” he said.

His immediate focus is the upcoming election.

Voter suppression efforts are a “violent attempt to overthrow our government,” he said.

“People who vote this year will take it back. That’s a big deal,” Jackson said. That’s why he’s so determined to help register new voters — particularly people of color, and of a lower socioeconomic status.

The next generation of leaders that Jackson has influenced inspires him, from Grant’s work at Rainbow PUSH, to politicians like Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman running for governor of Texas, and New York Mayor Eric Adams.

Jackson, proud of what he’s accomplished, wants to be remembered as someone who “never stopped serving.” 

Still, Jackson does have some guilty pleasures. 

Among them are fried chicken (“I’m a chickentarian”), football (“Justin Fields is getting better”) and visiting the Museum of Science and Industry (“My favorite spot in Chicago”).

He’s currently reading “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.” His favorite song is “Isn’t She Lovely,” by Stevie Wonder. 

But he’d rather talk about his plans for the future, and the mantras he’s lived by.

“When you fall down, you get back up again,” he said. “The ground is no place for a champion.”

Jackson has a dream for the future of voting. He wants every American citizen to be registered to vote as soon as they are born, as easily as newborns can get a Social Security number.

Of course, Jackson won’t sit around and hope that happens. He has to get back on that bus. 

Mariah Rush is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.

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October 14, 2022 at 07:13AM

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