Making Jesse Jackson - a photo of Jesse Jackson speaking
Bob Child/AP Photo
Making Jesse Jackson - a photo of Jesse Jackson speaking
Bob Child/AP Photo

Before there was Barack Obama on the ballot, there was Jesse Jackson. Preacher, civil rights soldier and activist, Jackson ran two memorable campaigns for the American presidency.

“Our time has come,” Jackson declared during his famous ‘David and Goliath’ speech while he was running for president in 1984. “Red, yellow, black and white, we’re all precious in God’s sight! Our time has come.”

But what ingredients create a civil rights legend? Join biographer Barbara Ann Reynolds, long-time friend and collaborator Frank Watkins and Jackson’s son, Jonathan Jackson, in conversation with host Brandon Pope. They dissect Jackson’s decades-long career – as a mentee of Martin Luther King Jr., as the leader of Rainbow PUSH and as a renowned orator – on the latest episode of Making.

This season of Making covers a different, iconic figure every week. Subscribe and don’t miss an episode.

Making Jesse Jackson - a photo of Jesse Jackson speaking
Bob Child/AP Photo
Making Jesse Jackson - a photo of Jesse Jackson speaking
Bob Child/AP Photo

Before there was Barack Obama on the ballot, there was Jesse Jackson. Preacher, civil rights soldier and activist, Jackson ran two memorable campaigns for the American presidency.

“Our time has come,” Jackson declared during his famous ‘David and Goliath’ speech while he was running for president in 1984. “Red, yellow, black and white, we’re all precious in God’s sight! Our time has come.”

But what ingredients create a civil rights legend? Join biographer Barbara Ann Reynolds, long-time friend and collaborator Frank Watkins and Jackson’s son, Jonathan Jackson, in conversation with host Brandon Pope. They dissect Jackson’s decades-long career – as a mentee of Martin Luther King Jr., as the leader of Rainbow PUSH and as a renowned orator – on the latest episode of Making.

This season of Making covers a different, iconic figure every week. Subscribe and don’t miss an episode.

Brandon Pope: Before we begin, we’d like to honor Frank Watkins, activist and longtime lieutenant of Reverend Jesse Jackson. Watkins is one of the guests in this week’s show. He passed away after we recorded the episode. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and his loved ones.

Brandon Pope: African American icon. 

ARCHIVE JESSE JACKSON: I am…[I am] … somebody, [somebody].

Brandon Pope: Fierce civil rights soldier. 

ARCHIVE WOMAN: If Jesse can come from nowhere and be somebody, I can be somebody too.

Brandon Pope: Unapologetically outspoken activist.

ARCHIVE JESSE JACKSON: We may be in prison, but the prison is not in us.

Brandon Pope: Just some of the ways legendary political strategist and rainbow push coalition founder Jesse Jackson has been described. But what lit the fire - that would spark movements?

ARCHIVE JESSE JACKSON: I am [I am] … Somebody. I may be poor. [I may be poor]. But I am … [I am] … somebody [somebody].

Brandon Pope: What shaped the destiny of one of the nation’s most celebrated leaders?

ARCHIVE JESSE JACKSON: More than 600,000 blacks unregistered. Reagan won Pennsylvania by the margin of despair, by the margin of the fracture of our coalition. Your time has come! Pick up your slingshot. Pick up your rock. Declare our time has come. A new day has begun. Red, yellow, black and white, we’re all precious in God’s sight! Our time has come.

Brandon Pope: From WBEZ Chicago, this is Making Jesse Jackson. I'm Brandon Pope. Today, we speak with three people who know about the life of Reverend Jesse Jackson. His son, current congressional candidate Jonathan Jackson. 

Jonathan Jackson: People ask what is Jesse Jackson running for? And he would say, you don’t know where I’m running from.

Brandon Pope: Journalist and two-time Jackson biographer Barbara Ann Reynolds. 

Barbara Ann Reynolds: He said, I told you so. I told you I’d be the best damn bastard you’ve ever seen.

Brandon Pope: And Jackson’s longtime friend and collaborator, Frank Watkins. 

Frank Watkins: I think Rev. Jackson changed politics forever.

Brandon Pope: Coming up, Jackson’s journey out of poverty, Selma and Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. Also, Jackson’s run for president and the controversies that held him back. All that and more, today on Making. 


Brandon Pope: Welcome to Making Jesse Jackson, thank you all for being here today. So Barbara Ann Reynolds, I’d like to start by asking you about your early moments with Rev. Jackson. You started reporting for the Chicago Tribune in the early 70s, and you covered Jackson. You encouraged the Trib to cover him even more. So I’d like to know, when did you know you wanted to write a biography on him?

Barbara Ann Reynolds: Well, I remember that day very clearly. I came over to his house, he was getting something out of the refrigerator. I said, Reverend, Reverend, I got a contract to write a book about you! Because I always was with him. Wherever he went, I went there. He was exciting. I couldn't stop following him. And he never could stop letting me follow him because we would always make headlines. But he looked at me, he said, Barbara, don't write the book. And then later, I could understood why. He knew I was a reporter, and I really believed in telling the good, the bad and the ugly, that I was not going to be a PR person for him. But I was gonna get to the truth. And at that point, I thought everything was going to be positive and wonderful. But it just didn’t turn out that way.

Brandon Pope: Jesse Jackson was a child of the Jim Crow era. 


Brandon Pope: Born in 1941, he grew up in South Carolina amid racial segregation and state-sponsored discrimination.

ARCHIVE WHITE SOUTHERNER: You just don’t understand the connection that we have with the colored people.

ARCHIVE WHITE SOUTHERNER: You’ve got to keep the blacks and the whites separate!

ARCHIVE BLACK SCHOOL GIRL: For myself I would not like to attend the schools with the white children because of the fact that we are not welcome.

Brandon Pope: In his early years, Jackson was bullied for his out-of-wedlock birth. His mother was a 16-year-old high school student and his father was her 33-year-old married neighbor.

Still, Jackson succeeded. He was elected class president at his racially segregated high school. He finished 10th in his graduating class. He was a three-sport varsity athlete.

ARCHIVE JACKSON: I was arrested July, 1960 with several classmates for trying to use the library.

Brandon Pope: While home on break after his freshman year of college – Jackson staged a sit-in at the whites-only library in his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina. Seven other black students joined him, including high school student Margaree Crosby. 

ARCHIVE MARGAREE CROSBY: And we went in there to sit down just to read a book.

Brandon Pope: Police arrested them less than 20 minutes later.

ARCHIVE MARGAREE CROSBY: I couldn’t go in the library and read a book because of the color of my skin.

Brandon Pope: The year was 1960. Jackson was 19 years old.

Brandon Pope: Ok so before we get into Jesse's activism, I do want to talk about his early childhood here. Jackson grew up in poverty – this was the Jim Crow segregated south. So Jonathan, did those early days affect your father at all?

Jonathan Jackson: Oh most certainly, most certainly. Even in his campaign speeches, from the gutter most to the automobiles from the outhouse to the white house, when he was running for president, one zinger in the speech that always kind of caught me, is when he would go in third person talking and saying, people ask me what is Jesse Jackson running for? And he would say, you don't know where I'm running from? Whoa, where did that come from? You would see it in his speech pattern when he would start talking passionately, instilling that message that you can overcome your circumstances. 

Brandon Pope: That's some bars right there. “You don't know what I'm running from.” I love that. Barbara, I'd like to ask you about your research into Jackson’s early life. So, he didn't learn who his biological father was until he was seven years old. He was taunted by classmates for being “a nobody” with “no daddy.” Do you think there’s truth to the suggestion that those schoolyard taunts about Jesse - all that adversity – motivated him and pushed him to succeed?

Barbara Ann Reynolds:  I want to tell you just how deeply it affected him. One of his teachers, Mrs. Norris, she says I remember Jessie as a sharp dresser. He wore suits and ties when other students were wearing blue jeans. In fact, envious teenagers used to playfully tease him about his penchant for dignified dress, which he wore along with what was considered a superior attitude. and he said one day, Jesse heard of front porch coffee sipper quip, there goes Noah’s bastard thinking he's better than everybody else. Look how he's dressed. And Jesse wheeled around and respectfully told her go ahead, call me what you want. I am Noah’s bastard if that’s what you want to call me, but one day, you will be proud to know this bastard. 

Brandon Pope: Wow.

Barbara Ann Reynolds: I had the privilege of going back home with him to Greenville, 1973. And it was culture shock to see the eye of the change that the King movement had got. Whites and Blacks were lined up on the sidewalk when the integrated high school bands burst into music. There was a homemade welcome sign. Hey, Bo Diddley. And that's the name they used to call Jesse in his community. And his speech was remarkable. 

You know, I was there looking and I said, could this be him thinking about Jack the grocer. When he was eight years old, he went into a store, and he called for a white man to come and help him. And the grocer held a gun to his head and said, don't you ever demand a white man to do anything. Was he thinking about that man? Was thinking about the gossip monger who called him a bastard when he was 14? And at that moment, I mean in my own eyes, he looked almost angelic. And I said to myself, there, told you so. I told you I'd be the best damn bastard you've ever seen.

Brandon Pope: Oof. Talk about self-fulfilling prophecy, and someone who really speaks the “I am somebody” mantra. The Reverend Jackson knew early he was going to be somebody. And we just heard some tape about the sit-in at the Greenville public library. Jesse, he was just 19 years old at the time. What prompted him to lead – seven other students in a sit-in at his hometown library?

Barbara Ann Reynolds: I mean, he could not just just take things, as they were, as many people did. He wanted to overcome it personally. But after a while, it was not about him. He was really at a young age becoming a symbol. What you do to me, you are doing to others. And I'm gonna fight for both. He ran for everything. In fact, some of the students in his school would say, why didn't Jesse stop running for everything? We can't run for anything! But yet, they were voting for him. So this became part of who he was to stand up for himself, and he began to understand that he could also stand up for other people.

Brandon Pope: And that Greenville 8 group, it's not a group that is given the level of attention that others sit in protest in that era actually got. But it did successfully desegregate the library system there. Jonathan, Barbara just talked about that stigma around race and how, you know, the Reverend Jesse Jackson wanted to push through that – what in this moment with the sit-in, tells us about your father?

Jonathan Jackson: Him coming to the aid of countless people, and meeting them at their point of pain is something that I'm very familiar with – his ability to empathize and sympathize. So for those that are voiceless, and those that are downtrodden, that's a call to action for him, rather instinctively. He oftentimes says, stay with the eagles and not with the snakes, that you have to rise above circumstances. Rise above your pain, and stay focused on the goals. So he's never dwelled on, never shared all these personal stories with us. I am in class listening to this now. It's not something he carries. It's where he's from, but it's not who he is. It's not what he reflects upon, frankly. And so I'm learning a lot today. 

Brandon Pope: So what's that like for you? You know, learning so much about your dad, who I mean, you've obviously known for so long already. And right now you continue to hear new things that you probably hadn't heard before.

Jonathan Jackson:  Exactly, so in so many ways, I've not studied my dad, I'm not like, I don't think it's appropriate for me to analyze him. At a certain level, that's not my place. So I love him for who he is.


Brandon Pope: Jesse Jackson would finish his bachelor's degree in sociology at North Carolina A&T with a BA in 1964. Then he went to seminary school at Chicago theological seminary, and he was later ordained a Baptist minister. So Frank, you’ve been working alongside the Jackson family for 50 years, and it was about this time that Jackson met Dr. Martin Luther King, at an airport. What happened there?

Frank Watkins: I understand they kind of met in passing, I believe, you know, accidentally. Reverend Jackson went up and introduced himself, and I'm sure they had, you know, brief conversation and got on their planes and went on their separate ways.

Jonathan Jackson: Frank, let me add one thing to that. And to put it in context, because he's reflected upon that meeting several times with me. At that point, my father had gained a level of visibility having been arrested in the school, and Rev. Martin Luther King had recognized him. Keep in mind, Rev. Martin Luther King was like 14 years older, roughly, than my father and the other generation. So there was some connection on recognizing that you all are the students that are doing things in this region. 

Barbara Ann Reynolds: I really think that meeting Dr. King was what helped him really become a preacher. But it doesn't seem like Dr. King was that impressed with Jesse at the time. As I see it, you know, Jackson was little more than a face in the crowd to King. But he kept cropping up.

Brandon Pope: Alabama, 1965. Jesse Jackson joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 50-mile march beginning in Selma.

ARCHIVE NEWS REEL: The procession was broken up violently by state’s troopers and sheriff’s deputies.

ARCHIVE: [crowd yelling]

Brandon Pope: But the group of as many as 25,000 protestors made it to the state capital in Montgomery.

ARCHIVE MLK JR.: We are here, and we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying we ain’t going to let nobody turn us around. 

Brandon Pope: After Selma, Dr. King and one of his main collaborators, James Bevel, picked Jackson to head the Chicago branch of the southern Christian leadership conference. They made Jackson the national director of Operation Breadbasket.

ARCHIVE MUSIC: Operation Breadbasket honey!!!

Brandon Pope: This song from the time celebrated the program – which was designed to improve economic conditions of African Americans across the country. Jackson remained a member of Dr. King’s inner-circle up until King’s assassination outside his Memphis motel room on April 4, 1968.

ARCHIVE RFK: Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee. 

ARCHIVE JESSE JACKSON: The white people do not know it. But the white people’s best friend is dead.

Brandon Pope: Those last words you heard there were those of Jesse Jackson, who was in the nearby motel parking lot when Dr. King was killed. We're gonna get back to that moment in a minute. But first Frank, what brought Jesse to Selma, Alabama in 1965?

Frank Watkins: Well, on March the 7th, a couple 100 people tried to march to Montgomery, Alabama and started that march across the Edmund Pettus bridge. 

ARCHIVE OF SELMA: This is an unlawful assembly, this march will not continue…

Frank Watkins: They were attacked by state troopers when they reached the other side, indicating that they were not going to allow them to march. 

ARCHIVE OF SELMA: The nation was shocked by the brutal attack.

Frank Watkins: Reverend Jackson at that time, on march the seventh was in Chicago at the Chicago theological seminary, he organized a group of students to go to Selma. 

ARCHIVE OF SELMA: When the march arrived in Montgomery it had swelled to over 25,000 people.

Frank Watkins: And it was at that point that Dr. King recognized Reverend Jackson's leadership skills, originally appointed him, the Chicago director of Operation Breadbasket. And that was, you know, a key turning point in his life.

Barbara Ann Reynolds: You know, you also have to remember that Jesse, he had a deep disdain for that doom and gloom traditional preachers, because he felt that they’d given up on the world and were concentrating on the afterlife. So when he came across Dr. King it was like, this was it. I mean, here was a man preaching about the things that we can change things. We just don't have to accept things.

ARCHIVE DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING: We are going to walk nonviolently and peacefully, to let the nation and the world know that we are tired now.

Barbara Ann Reynolds: And I really think, Reverend Jackson, he came from nowhere. But he came making speeches. And Dr. King noticed him then, but some of King's staff said, well, who is this person? He wasn't locked up. He wasn't being... but you know… Jesse kept pushing himself forward. You know, just as he acted like who he was, a leader.

Brandon Pope: When Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, Jesse Jackson was close by. You know, Jonathan, this was a pivotal moment in American History. A key figure in the civil rights movement was killed in broad daylight. Has your father ever recounted this moment to you? How did he reason with it?

Jonathan Jackson: Very seldom does he recount that moment. I think something that people oftentimes forget, is that these are such young men. They laughed a lot. And they were enjoying some minor successes at the moment. It's like everything was right. And then that gunshot, they can hear the crack. And I've asked my father, and several times in several interviews about it, and he just freezes up and doesn't say anything. And it really hurts me. And I think that people should put it in context. And let's say at arm's distance, someone’s assassinated. Someone right beside you, and still you have the courage to go forward. I call my father and those young ministers who got together, the greatest generation. They created the third American Revolution. They lead it not with arms, but with love, no guns, and to see that was very painful.

Brandon Pope: Now Frank, I want to come over to you. You know, we just reiterated how young Jesse was at the time. What do you think this moment meant for him? 

Frank Watkins: Well, I think it was a life changing moment. Dr. King had come to Memphis to help the garbage workers. They were staying at the Lorraine Hotel. He came out on the balcony. And Reverend Jackson said, hey, Doc. as soon as Dr. King turned around, that's when the shot was fired. They hit the ground, apparently all the police were running toward Lorraine. And they were pointing saying no, the shot came from over there, you know, go that way, don't come over here. 

Brandon Pope: Barbara, you face some heat for your reporting of the situation here. There were conflicting accounts, some accusing Reverend Jackson of embellishing how close he was to King in his final moments. What did you hear? What did you report in detail?

Barbara Ann Reynolds: Well, here's what happened. Playboy Magazine after the assassination, called Reverend Jackson the heir apparent to Martin Luther King. One hundred news accounts claimed that Jackson cradled Dr. King, that he was the last man King spoke to before he died. Now as a reporter, I was very interested, I had nothing to prove or not. I said, I wonder if what the people there who were eyewitnesses, what did they see? And they were very incensed, because they said this did not happen. But Jose Williams, who was there, said the only person who cradled Dr. King was Abernathy. And he was certainly there. He said, I am sure Reverend Jackson would not say to me that he cradled Dr. King. I'm sure he would not say to me that he even came near Dr. King. And then said to me, my guess is Jesse smeared the blood on his shirt after getting it off the balcony. 

Brandon Pope: Jonathan, what do you make of these conflicting accounts? Have you heard them before? Has your father discussed them before?

Jonathan Jackson: Well, some of which I would respectfully disagree with Miss Reynolds. From my accounts of speaking with Reverend James Bevel, Reverend Billy Kyles. I was not there, of course. So there will be differences of opinion. And I think there's a bit of a pun and a play on word, the new King as in charge of something, versus the new Reverend Martin Luther King, that has to be separated. And I can see how people can conflate two. That, Blacks are reasonable, have enough intelligence, they know who they want to follow, who can lead them. You know, succession isn't appointed. You know, it's rather anointed. People will follow leadership. So I would say that, you know, time has proven and life has gone on. I've met many of those ministers over time, Reverend Abernathy, and so forth. Oftentimes, it's such a traumatic moment, people want to know what's next, who's next. And you can be accused of many different things. But leadership has to come forward and assert itself is what I would say.

Barbara Ann Reynolds: I wouldn't argue with that point at all. I have to go back and say, I've reported what Abernathy said. And I'm not saying that Jesse didn't prove that he was the leader for a time, because I think he did. But it's also as a reporter, I couldn't see myself not not giving the side that people hadn't heard. Because we have to somehow, you know, state the facts.

Jonathan Jackson: And there's also a perspective on the white press analyzing the African American structure, movement, that may not be accurate. So they want to make sure that they're both sides. But what's the other side of slavery? What's the right side of it is just simply wrong. And so that's probably the last I would comment on that.

Barbara Ann Reynolds: And as a person in the media, as always, that one spokesman because that one spokesman, because that one spokesman can be controlled. But I can say that Jackson returned to Chicago in flames. The people in the streets, they were tearing down windows. And Reverend Jackson, with his leadership's skills, stood up and called for for looters to stop, for the violence to stop. And he rose from that period to be one of America's greatest leaders.


Brandon Pope: More making, in a minute.


Brandon Pope: The years following Dr. King’s death were trying for the Southern Christian leadership conference. After clashing with Dr. King’s successor, Ralph Abernathy, Jackson resigned and created his own organization: Push, People United to Save Humanity.

ARCHIVE REPORTER: Are the black communities in America being more seriously hit by the economic conditions than the white?

ARCHIVE JACKSON: Oh indeed, given the racism in the country we are the last hired and the first fired. In times of war, the first drafted and the first to die. When the nation profits on the employed, we are unemployed, and then stigmatized for being that way.

Brandon Pope: Jackson pushed politicians to improve economic conditions for black and poor people. 

ARCHIVE JACKSON: Now the challenge is upward mobility, and that is why the focus on not only getting in school, but producing in school becomes a new kind of challenge. 

Brandon Pope: He pushed the Republican party to seek out black votes. He pushed for more boycotts. He ran programs for housing and social services and voter registration.

Brandon Pope: Alright Frank this was around this time when you arrived on the scene, and you've basically been with the Jackson family ever since. In 1967, you moved to Chicago. You got involved in Operation Breadbasket. Can you tell us some of the national boycotts Jesse championed and that you were a part of? 

Frank Watkins: Well, we started, you know, with small stores in the black community originally. Black people were manufacturing certain products, but they weren't being displayed on the stores in the black community. And we insisted that they give shelf space to Baldwin ice cream and Joe Lewis milk, and then we moved up to bigger things. We took on Anheuser-Busch, eventually led to a boycott. But as a dud. We took on Coca Cola. Don't choke on coke. We signed what we called moral covenants with them, and basically dealt in four areas. One, that they have a black on their board of directors to set policy, that they hire contractors, and lastly, we insisted that they engage with philanthropy – that they they were given to someone were they given to the united negro college fund? Were they supporting the NAACP? Were they supporting the urban league, etc. So those were the four areas – policy, jobs, contracts and philanthropy – that we insisted that they engage in. So that's what Bread Basket and eventually PUSH became known for breaking down racial barriers in the private sector. 

Brandon Pope: And Jonathan, you know, you're currently the national spokesman for Rainbow PUSH. Reverend Jackson wanted politicians and political parties included the republican party to compete for black votes. That was like a big objective for him. Did he accomplish that goal?

Jonathan Jackson: Oh, absolutely. So as you know, at that time in 1961, Blacks were Republicans, Lincoln Republicans. Rev. Martin Luther King, his father was Republican, then, but it was for equal rights. It wasn't just reactionary. People that are out there today, it was much more about inclusion, when you see something wrong, you fix it. Ronald Reagan, in recent history, when he was campaigning came by my father's offices at Rainbow PUSH to try to make an appeal on economic opportunities. But the idea of being able to talk to Republicans was very normal. And it wasn't a separation, it might have been a little bit to the left, a little bit to the right. It wasn't radical having Blacks in the Republican party. 

Brandon Pope: Barbara, Reverend Jackson successes were no doubt a result of his oratorical skills. Where did Reverend Jackson learn to be such a powerful speaker?

Barbara Ann Reynolds: People like to say that he learned from Dr. King. I'm sure he did. But first of all, if I'm correct, his father's father was a preacher. And he had a twin, who was a preacher, and they had a church there. And, and so, you know, he taught the cadence, really, of what you hear in the Black church. The Black preachers are the most eloquent speakers that they that there are. His ability to rhyme. You know, that's what the great marketers today get paid billions to come up with something that will stick in your mind from his - down with dope and up with hope. You know, yeah, he had a way of condensing pathos into words that we remembered in our hearts, but also, a became part of our soul experience. 

Brandon Pope: Jonathan, do you remember the first time you saw your father give a speech or sermon?

Jonathan Jackson: I don't. It's been a part of my life. It's um... a Saturday morning for me was not watching cartoons, or going to sports camp, it was going to the operation PUSH headquarters, and being in a pew, and eating candy and nodding off, dozing and waking up in between person's speeches and singing and Ben Branch and Thomas Dorsey. 

Brandon Pope

: Legends

Jonathan Jackson: It was black and white, so it's white ministers others from the seminary. There were African American ministers. And I actually thought the world was more integrated in these places than it actually is, or was, because our inner circle was so integrated. 

ARCHIVE INTRO: If this country has the judgment it ought to have, I present to you the next president of the united states, Jesse Jackson.

Brandon Pope: In 1984, Jesse Jackson sought the democratic party’s nomination for president.

ARCHIVE JACKSON SPEECH: This is not a perfect party. We are not a perfect people. Yet, we are called to a perfect mission. 

Brandon Pope: Jackson did not win the nomination. Early in the primaries, an anti-Semitic remark derailed his campaign. 

ARCHIVE JACKSON NEWS: Reports surfaced that Jackson privately referred to Jews as “hymies,” and after a week of denials, Jackson tonight admitted making that remark. 

Brandon Pope: It cost him at the polls and ended with an apology.

ARCHIVE: If there were occasions when my grape turned into a raisin, and my joy bell lost its resonance, please forgive me. Charge it to my head and not to my heart.

Brandon Pope: But Jackson – originally considered a fringe candidate – did win four state contests and 3.2 million votes. He was just the second African American to run a nationwide campaign for president, and he finished third. 


ARCHIVE JESSE CAMPAIGN AD: In 1984, I believe that Jesse Jackson was right on the issues, but I didn’t vote for him because I didn’t think he could win. In 1988, Jesse Jackson is right on the issues, and I think that he is the best candidate for the working men and women of the state of New Hampshire.

Brandon Pope: In 1988 he ran again, and more than doubled his prior successes. 

ARCHIVE JESSE SONG: [... Jesse's the hope for a future unseen…]

Brandon Pope: He won 11 state contests and briefly led the pack of Democratic candidates.


ARCHIVE JESSE CAMPAIGN AD: Jesse Jackson for president.

Brandon Pope: But he lost in ‘88 as well, his last campaign for the presidency.

ARCHIVE NEWSCAST: Jesse Jackson was soundly defeated in Pennsylvania today, getting less than a third of the vote...

Brandon Pope: At the democratic national convention that year, he delivered one of the most celebrated speeches of his career.

ARCHIVE JACKSON DNC SPEECH: I was born in the slum, but the slum was not born in me. And it wasn’t born in you! And you can make it.

ARCHIVE ATTENDEE: It was a spectacular speech. I really was moved to tears, it was incredible.

ARCHIVE ATTENDEE: If Jesse can come from nowhere and be somebody, I can be somebody too.

ARCHIVE JACKSON DNC SPEECH: Hold your head high. Stick your chest out. You can make it.

Brandon Pope: Before Obama, Jackson was the first black man to have a serious shot at winning the office of the presidency. He's the first to win a major party primary. So Frank, I'll start with you. What memories do you have from that first campaign in 1984?

Frank Watkins: Well, the first memory I have in '84, they had a winner take all system, Democrats did. So if you got 49% of the vote in the state, you didn't get any delegates, if the other person got 51%. We changed the rules in the Democratic party to proportionality. So when you saw in all the races leading up, and especially in 2020, people were talking about the 15% threshold, they were really talking about the Jackson rule. Which is what we changed between '84 and '88. It's what allowed Barack Obama to win the nomination, and then eventually become the President of the United States. 

Brandon Pope: Yeah, really seeing that impact there. Jonathan, what memories do you have from that 84 campaign?

Jonathan Jackson: So in 1984 to see Mayor Marion Barry gave a head of state entourage to my father on the same constitution street that once hosted the Klan many years later. Then by 1988, I started finishing college. And I realized since 1619, is 369 years later, and an African American is now seeking the highest office in the land. And you can see the rotunda in the capitol and know all the history and my father had a leg up, and so... And the community began to believe in itself. Many people did not know the voting rules how we could vote. So he had to do a year to voter education and voter registration to lay the groundwork. And then people believe and so sure, by a will of force, he was able to do that. Coming out of Michigan, I want to go back to your montage. Ultimately my father won Michigan, the press had already left town, because it was a foregone conclusion that someone else would win. And then it was a shocker. So we were leaving Michigan going into New York, and there was a writer who said that Reverend Jackson said "hymie town," and then the world got turned upside down. No recording, no video, no tape. This is his word working for white media outlet that had all this gravitas. And this person's word, and then that's what happened going into New York. There's not any anti in my father's body or bones at all. And then the script was flipped, you know, sleight of hand. And so although he apologized, we were all in that area, the sentiments, his spirit, but when blacks work for certain white papers, you got to watch them because they have to come down with a majority white opinion on describing blacks to help earn their salaries. And so, there's nothing new about that, you know?

Brandon Pope: Well, this was this was definitely a pivotal moment in that campaign, no doubt. Barbara, I'll bring you in here. It was a conversation with a Washington Post reporter where he allegedly used that pejorative term. And it blew up, Barbara, can you explain from your perspective what had happened here?

Barbara Ann Reynolds: I don't know what happened. I didn't hear it. I just saw it reported. At the time, you know, being one of the first Black reporters in the mainstream press, negative stereotypes was what was the offered menu, that blacks weren't good enough. They weren't smart enough. And to see a strong, intelligent, brilliant Black man stand up, like he did and debate the issues with such aplomb really cast a spell over the colleagues that I was looking at. They seem to be shocked that this man, you know, was was even there. He had virtually no television ads. He had inexperienced campaign staff who had never, most of it never worked with anybody running for president. 

But his estimates, he said he wants 3.5 million votes spent less than 3 million in comparison to about 31 million spent by Walter Mondale, and 17 million spent by Gary Hart. His race was supposed to be one of the most cost efficient in history, but here's the thing, because when he ran, the people down the ballot were running, it seemed like he just opened up a flood of people were saying, it's now is my time to get in the race. It was about tens of thousands of people running in the states with school boards, sheriff state legislators. I mean, he was transforming the congressional and state infrastructure of America because when he ran, we won. I think that when he lost, we still won. You cannot rule out what Reverend Jackson did and it's so much attributed to the win of our first Black president, Barack Obama,

Jonathan Jackson: And if I can add to that. Thank you, Miss Reynolds - is headlines on certain newspapers in 1988, as we're reading, and we got to talk about the racism in the media and the journalism - is it legal, for him to run?

Brandon Pope: Wow. 

Barbara Ann Reynolds: Yeah. They just couldn't take it, you know, Jonathan. That this man did not come to them to ask, could he do it? So what else could they do, but say now, should he do it?

Brandon Pope: And you see the parallels in how Barack Obama was treated when he were in 2008 with birtherism. This idea of can you? Are you even allowed to, can you legally do it? You can kind of it's eerie how you see history kind of repeat itself.

Jonathan Jackson: Yes.

Brandon Pope: I want to wrap here with everybody with our final question. We talked about the impact on the political system. But what is Reverend Jackson's legacy here? When we take in, you know, his activism, the president's - the presidency, the politics? What impact did all this have on American history itself?

Frank Watkins: Yeah, I don't think American politics will ever be the same again, what was started in '84 and '88. Politics doesn't operate, you know, boom, boom, boom. It takes time for things to, to gel. And so what you're seeing now with all these young people of color and gay, lesbian people and women and the people that were in the coalition in '84 and '88 are now running for office. So I think Reverend Jackson changed politics forever.

Barbara Ann Reynolds: I have to just bring another dimension in here, because we say he was a civil rights leader, but he was also an international leader. And he's not perfect. And he'll tell you, he'll be the first to tell you that he's not perfect, like none of us are perfect. But when you look at it, and then you look at the leadership crisis for today, that is scandalous, that is toxic, you know, you almost want to put a crown on his head.

Brandon Pope: This has been Making Jesse Jackson, a great discussion here. Special thanks to Jonathan Jackson, Frank Watkins, and Barbara Ann Reynolds. And thank you all for listening.

Barbara Ann Reynolds: Thank you for asking us. 

Jonathan Jackson: You’re superb.

Brandon Pope: This episode of Making was produced by Justin Bull and Heena Srivastiva. Our executive producer is Kevin Dawson. Be sure to check out the Jackson biography by Barbara Ann Reynolds. It's titled: Jesse Jackson: America's David. More episodes are on the way. Be sure to press the subscribe button. and we’ll see you next week.

WBEZ transcripts are generated by an automatic speech recognition service. We do our best to edit for misspellings and typos, but mistakes do come through.