Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. has been fighting for justice since he was a teenager in his native Greenville, South Carolina. It’s one thing he knows how to do extraordinarily well, and nothing will stand in his way—not even Parkinson’s disease, a neurological disorder that affects movement, with which he was diagnosed in 2015 but did not publicly disclose until 2017.
In 2019, the Baptist minister and renowned activist achieved something he wasn’t certain he would: On October 8, he turned 78 years old. In addition, on the last day of the year, he celebrated 57 years of marriage to his college sweetheart, Jacqueline.
As the progressive nervous system disorder threatens to rob him of his speech, Rev. Jackson uses every breath he takes to make his voice heard by continuing to practice what he has been preaching for decades: keeping hope alive on a mission for social justice and change.
Juggling a busy schedule at an often-dizzying pace, the esteemed civil rights leader took a moment to slow down and talk about his new book, Keeping Hope Alive: Sermons and Speeches of Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. (Orbis Books; $25) on the eve of a visit to impoverished Pembroke Township, near Kankakee, Illinois. The village has a population of 2,100, and the median household income is just under $27,000. The Rainbow PUSH Coalition founder will be on the battlefield there working to get a natural gas line so residents will no longer have to warm their homes using propane, wood-burning stoves and electric heaters. During our interview at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition headquarters in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, he is alert and ready to discuss what “keeping hope alive” means to him.
EBONY.com: What made you decide to do a book of this nature now?
Jackson: We must have our own set of principles to guide us and not . . . just react to breaking news. For example, the media said Barack Obama won because of social media. That’s not true. He won because we broke new ground, but also because we democratized and changed the rules. It was not just a matter of social media, though it played a role. I tried to lay out that our presence has a world impact. We have a frame of reference around the globe.
EBONY.com: How did you decide which speeches and sermons to include?
Jackson: There was a great concern about the 1984 and 1988 speeches. Many people saw bits and pieces of my work and not a whole speech live on television. There’s been a great demand for those speeches in classrooms. We are in the belly of the beast. People get much of their guidance from what we do. We are change agents.
EBONY.com: I’m sure all your speeches and sermons hold a special meaning, but is there any one that particularly stands out for any reason?
Jackson: The ’84 and ’88 speeches summed up a body of work and had world impact.
EBONY.com: Given where we are with today’s president, could you have ever imagined someone like Trump in office?
Jackson: We’ve had Trumps before. The success of Barack Obama, ironically, helped create the crisis. If he had failed, some people would have been happy.
EBONY.com: Your slogan is “Keep hope alive.” We’re living during a time in which it’s difficult to do this. How does one continue to sustain hope amid so much despair?
Jackson: Hope is at its best when despair is at its height. Hope is not a luxury. Hope is a need. Hope is a weapon. You fight darkness with light. You fight despair with hope. You fight sadness with joy. You keep hoping, you keep hopping. This atmosphere wants to break your spirit. As long as your spirit is alive, so are you. … When you can protect people against their fears, they hold on to you. If a Black doctor has a cure for cancer, people will beat a tall bush to get to [his] door. The weapon against racism is excellence. Service is power. People have a hard time turning down an excellent doctor. People have a hard time turning down an excellent teacher. Excellence wins.
EBONY.com: This is an important book. How do you envision the masses using it?
Jackson: I want it to be in schools. I want our youth to study our struggle. We have plans and counterplans. Nonviolence is a way of coming to a resolution without mutual destruction. You fight blindness with sight and ignorance with information. Nonviolence affirms oneself. Nonviolence affirms courage over cowardice.
EBONY.com: You just turned 78. How much longer will you remain on the battlefield?
Jackson: As long as I can fight. As long as I’m truly making a contribution. Some people have greater endurance than others. There’s no baton to be passed. My main goal is simply to serve. I often say I sow seeds. Some will germinate. You never know which seed will germinate. I remember Barack saying he saw me run [for president]. He said to himself, ‘This can be done.’ Apparently, he got it. I can’t think of a higher compliment. What I was doing was as a pioneer breaking through. He saw a path. Some people only react to other issues people create, and they are defensive. I seek to affirm where we need to go.
EBONY.com: What do you want people to take away from this book?
Jackson: Our presence affects all life. When we move, we affect the whole world. We are global, not just ghetto. There are no more foreigners in this world. We are strategic thinkers, we are not just reactionaries.
EBONY.com: This book will certainly be part of your legacy. What do you want your legacy to be?
Jackson: That’s for others to determine. My legacy is one of service. Continued service, and I’m a long-distance runner. I remember having to adjust to the wall of segregation and having to live behind that wall. I went to the [Whites-only Greenville] public library in 1960. I got arrested. I broke that wall. I found comfort in the zone of challenge. When I went to jail, I lost my fear of death. I lost my fear of fear. I never stopped serving even as I continued to go to jail. I have been fighting [for justice and equality] since I was a teenager. I have nothing better to do with my time. I don’t want to [be] on a golf course chasing a ball. Life is co-generational. You can’t give without receiving.
Margena A. Christian, Ed.D., a distinguished lecturer in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is the author of Empire: The House That John H. Johnson Built (The Life & Legacy of Pioneering Publishing Magnate). Rev. Jackson wrote Empire’s foreword. Dr. Christian, a former EBONY and JET editor, also co-authored the book Wally, Where’d You Get Those Glasses? My Life Through the Lens of Parliament, Pendergrass and Prince.