Civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson has been among the powerful influencers in my life for some 40 years. I remember as a high school junior in Norfolk, Virginia, attending an assembly in a jam-packed arena with thousands of other students listening to his inspirational message, which urged us to stay drug-free and focused on academic achievement.
Using a series of rhyming maxims— “If my mind can conceive it, my heart can believe it, I know I can achieve it!”…”Down with dope, up with hope!”—the founder and president of the Rainbow Push Coalition closed that speech with a call and response that brought us to our feet, loudly declaring in unison: “I am somebody!”
A decade or so later, as a BLACK ENTERPRISE editor, I would be among those who covered his historic run for the White House in 1988—his first foray into presidential politics was during the 1984 race—in which Jackson came in second in the Democratic primaries with over 1,200 delegates, more than any runner-up in history at that time. He leveraged that position at the Democratic National Convention to rework the rules for selecting a Democratic Party nominee, making the process more equitable and inclusive.
Jesse Jackson as the ‘Conscience of the Nation’
In recent years, I have had the privilege to participate in and work closely with his team on The Wall Street Project Economic Summit, which has served as a major catalyst in the diversification of capital markets for more than 20 years. In fact, WSP has resulted in black-owned investment banks and asset managers gaining significant bond and equity underwriting and money management assignments, respectively, from corporate America.
Those represent but a few milestones that have left me, along with millions of others, forever transformed by his decades of fearless, visionary leadership.
Regardless of age, gender, or generation, Jackson undoubtedly has played a huge role in uplifting the lives of people of color, the working class and the disenfranchised. As such, he has been our unyielding champion for equal opportunity over five decades, fiercely fighting for parity in issues ranging from civil and voting rights to workforce and business diversity in Silicon Valley. Due to this relentless drive for African American economic advancement and political empowerment, it is fitting that he will receive the Earl G. Graves Sr. Vanguard Award at our Black Men XCEL Summit held at the JW Marriott Turnberry Miami Resort and Spa Aug. 28–Sept. 1. BE Founder and Publisher Graves says of the civil rights icon: “He has been vital in articulating the concerns, needs, and aspirations of black Americans from every corner of this country. He addresses himself to the legacy of our past struggles for civil rights and embodies much of our hopes for a future in which equal opportunity for all Americans is woven into the fabric of our society.”
The accomplishments of the man known as the “Conscience of the Nation” confirms that assertion. A testament to the breadth and depth of his works can best be expressed by two of the greatest honors he has received. In 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to Jackson; and, in 2013, the South African government bestowed upon him their highest civilian honor, the National Order, the Companions of OR Tambo. Also called the “Great Unifier,” he has challenged America to be inclusive and establish just and humane priorities for the benefit of all. He has brought people together on common ground across lines of race, faith, gender, culture, and class.
Born in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1941, the North Carolina A&T State University graduate who began his activism as a student deferred completion of his Master’s degree to work full-time for the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King as an organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and later director of Operation Breadbasket program. Ordained in 1968—the year in which King was slain by an assassin’s bullet—Jackson carried forward the equal rights agenda with the development of Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity) in Chicago in 1971 to expand educational, business, and employment opportunities for the disadvantaged and people of color. In 1984, the year he made his first run for the White House, Jackson launched the National Rainbow Coalition, a social justice organization based in Washington, D.C devoted to political empowerment, education, and changing public policy. By 1996, the Rainbow Coalition and Operation PUSH merged to form the Rainbow PUSH Coalition to continue the work of both organizations and to maximize resources.
The ‘Shadow Senator’
Throughout the years, Jackson became an international figure who took on national healthcare, a war on drugs, peace negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis, ending apartheid in South Africa, and installing democratic practices in Haiti, among other issues. His two presidential campaigns collectively registered more than 3 million voters, becoming a powerful force in a series of national, state, and local contests. In 1991, he would gain election as the “shadow senator” of Washington, D.C., advocating for statehood for the nation’s capital and promoting the “rainbow” agenda. Moreover, he was appointed by President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as “Special Envoy of the President and Secretary of State for the Promotion of Democracy in Africa.” In this official position, Jackson traveled to several countries on the African continent and met with such national leaders as President Nelson Mandela of the Republic of South Africa.
In addition to his other global campaigns for human rights and equity, he was on the front lines in the development of “reciprocal trade” between African Americans and corporate America. Jackson, who effectively used boycotts against major corporations to open doors for minorities, employed a different strategy to diversify the financial and tech sectors. For example, he acquired shares of publicly traded companies to press them as a shareholder to hire minority firms. Ariel Investments co-CEO and founder John Rogers, a major supporter of his initiatives, maintained that Jackson’s approach gave him access to attend annual meetings, and speak with corporate directors and CEOs as a means to “highlight the successful partnership between minority and majority companies.”
His Contribution to Black-Owned Businesses
Through it all, the impact of Rev. Jackson’s WSP has been palpable. Top-ranked black financial firms were tapped for the largest transactions on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley. For instance, these companies were involved in the industry-transforming initial public offerings of Goldman Sachs in 1999; Prudential Financial in 2001; Google in 2004; New York Stock Exchange in 2006; Visa in 2008; General Motors in 2010; Facebook in 2012 and Snap Inc. in 2017, just to name a few milestone transactions.
And Jackson continues to fight. During last year’s Economic Summit, he recounted African Americans’ tumultuous history and the need to continue our focus on multigenerational wealth building.
“African Americans have journeyed through four stages of a 400-year struggle. Stage one—ending slavery after 246 years in bondage; Stage two—ending the Jim Crow era with its mass lynchings and terror campaigns; Stage three—securing the right to vote; and currently, Stage four—securing access to capital, industry, technology, and deal flow in the U.S. economy,” he told attendees. “We are in the early days of stage four. We have freedom in our lives, but we don’t have equality. There are some steps the African American community can take to move closer to gaining equality and the fruits that will come with the successful navigation of stage four of the struggle. It’s the simplest way to begin building wealth. We must save money to invest in building a future. It’s time to consolidate that earning power for the welfare of the community.”
Let’s come together at BMX to salute him as well as commit to joining him in the next leg of our ongoing battle for economic parity.