Jesse Jackson, original name Jesse Louis Burns, (born October 8, 1941, Greenville, South Carolina, U.S.), American civil rights leader, Baptist minister, and politician whose bids for the U.S. presidency (in the Democratic Party’s nomination races in 1983–84 and 1987–88) were the most successful by an African American until 2008, when Barack Obama captured the Democratic presidential nomination. Jackson’s life and career have been marked by both accomplishment and controversy.
Jesse adopted the name of his stepfather, Charles Jackson, at about age 15. A good student in high school, Jesse was elected class president and later attended the University of Illinois (1959–60) on a football scholarship. He then transferred to the predominantly black Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina in Greensboro and received a B.A. in sociology (1964). He moved to Chicago in 1966, did graduate work at the Chicago Theological Seminary, and was ordained a Baptist minister in 1968.
While an undergraduate, Jackson became involved in the civil rights movement. In 1965 he went to Selma, Alabama, to march with Martin Luther King, Jr., and became a worker in King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Jackson helped found the Chicago branch of Operation Breadbasket, the economic arm of the SCLC, in 1966 and served as the organization’s national director from 1967 to 1971. He was in Memphis, Tennessee, with King when the civil rights leader was assassinated on April 4, 1968, though his exact location at the moment King was shot has long been a matter of controversy. Accused of using the SCLC for personal gain, Jackson was suspended by the organization, whereupon he formally resigned in 1971 and founded Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity), a Chicago-based organization in which he advocated black self-help and achieved a broad audience for his liberal views. In 1984 he established the National Rainbow Coalition, which sought equal rights for African Americans, women, and homosexuals. These two organizations merged in 1996 to form the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.
Jackson began traveling widely in the late 1970s to mediate or spotlight international problems and disputes. In 1979 he visited South Africa, where he spoke out against apartheid, and he later journeyed to the strife-ridden Middle East and campaigned to give Palestinians their own state. While some observers and government officials frowned on his diplomatic missions as meddlesome and self-aggrandizing, Jackson nonetheless won praise for negotiating the release of U.S. soldiers and civilians around the world, including in Syria (1984), Iraq (1990), and Yugoslavia (1999).
In the 1980s Jackson became a leading national spokesman and advocate for African Americans. His voter-registration drive was a key factor in the election of Chicago’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington, in April 1983. The following year Jackson ran for the Democratic presidential nomination. During the campaign he drew criticism for his relationship with Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam and for making a disparaging remark about New York’s Jewish community; Jackson later apologized for his comments and distanced himself from Farrakhan. In what was then the strongest showing ever by an African American candidate, Jackson placed third in the primary voting. In 1988 he staged another bid for the Democratic nomination and came in second to the party’s eventual nominee, Michael Dukakis. Jackson’s increasing influence within the Democratic Party ensured that African American issues were an important part of the party’s platform. Jackson, a dynamic orator, made memorable speeches at later Democratic conventions but declined to run again for the presidency.
In 1989 Jackson took residency in Washington, D.C., and in 1990, when the Washington City Council created two unpaid offices of “statehood senator”—popularly called “shadow senator”—to lobby the U.S. Congress for statehood for the District of Columbia, Jackson won election to one of the posts, his first elective office. In 1997 President Bill Clinton named him a special envoy to Africa, where he traveled to promote human rights and democracy. That year Jackson also founded the Wall Street Project, which sought to increase minority opportunities in corporate America.
During the impeachment hearings against Clinton in 1998, Jackson counseled the president, and in 2000 Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. That year Jackson also received a Master of Divinity degree from the Chicago Theological Seminary. The following year, however, he became embroiled in controversy when it was revealed that he had fathered a child out of wedlock. Jackson continued his social activism, giving lectures and leading protests. His books include Straight from the Heart (1987; ed. by Roger D. Hatch and Frank E. Watkins) and Legal Lynching: Racism, Injustice, and the Death Penalty (1995). His son Jesse Jackson, Jr., served in the U.S. House of Representatives (1995–2012).
What Trump never mentions is the growing racial wealth gap: the economic disparity between whites and people of color that plagues this country. The statistics from the Federal Reserve are clear. Median black household net worth — what assets the black households in the middle have after subtracting debts — is $17,600. That of the typical white household is nearly 10 times greater at $171,000.
The reason for this shocking disparity is clear. As an economic letter from authors of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco notes, “For the past several decades, black workers have fared worse than white workers in the U.S. labor market. Despite government policies designed to reduce or eliminate racial disparities, black workers continue to experience lower wages and higher unemployment rates than whites. Black workers still earn less than their white counterparts in a worsening trend that holds true even after accounting for differences in age, education, job type, and geography.”
Trump is trumpeting rising wages but in the first year of the Trump administration, the median weekly earnings of African-Americans went down, not up, when adjusted for inflation.
Forty-five percent of black families own homes, compared with 73 percent of white families. African Americans were the hardest hit by the financial collapse, in part because banks targeted the worst liar’s loans to African-American and Latino families, assuring them that they could refinance when the value of their homes rose. When the bottom fell out, the families found themselves underwater, and bankers, like current Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, then made big bucks foreclosing on the victims.
The measure of this, as the report Foreclosed details, can be seen in the fact that the wealth of African-American families had recovered to its pre-crash level by 2016 — not counting the value of their homes. But the average home equity for African Americans was still $16,700 less. The very working and middle class families that reached to buy a home were still struggling to get back to where they were in 2007. Over the same period — from 2007 to 2016, the average wealth of the top 1 percent increased by a mere $4.9 million.
The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is far from a perfect health care plan, but it did allow African Americans to lower the number of uninsured among the non-elderly by 1.8 million. Trump and Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare and to throw millions off Medicaid will disproportionately hurt African Americans and Latinos.
Inequality is still getting worse. As the Pew Research Center reports, the typical wealth of upper-income families was seven times that of middle income families in 2016, a gap that has doubled since 1983. Similarly, upper-income families have 75 times the wealth of lower-income families in 2016, compared with 28 times the wealth in 1983. And African-American and Latino families are disproportionately more likely to be among the low-income families.
Trump is not to blame for this disparity, just as he is not the reason for current low unemployment rates. The question is what will the administration do going forward?
This week, I will travel to New York where the Rainbow Push Wall Street project will convene bankers, religious and civil rights leaders, economists and union leaders to discuss the growing racial wealth gap. We will explore how the workers’ pension funds — from universities, from unions, from public employees, from churches — could be used safely to green line the neighborhoods that are too often red-lined. With federal guarantees, real investment could rebuild neighborhoods, seed small businesses, build affordable housing and create jobs.
With the tax cut projected to add more than $1 trillion to the deficit over a decade, the Republican-led Congress is looking to slash, not expand, federal support for working and poor people and impoverished rural and urban communities. With federal guarantees and more independent pension fund management, new capital for vital investments might be freed up.
If Trump were serious about dealing with the wealth gap, he would be leading this discussion, not ignoring it.
Top photo: Photo by Eugene Kim | CC BY 2.0