“If there had been no Jesse Jackson, there would be no Barack Obama,” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) told a packed crowd at Springfield Baptist Church to rousing applause during a concert Sunday celebrating the life of Helen Burns Jackson, 91, mother of civil rights icon Rev. Jesse Jackson.
“I don’t care if it was Barack Obama or anybody else,” said Waters, glad she wouldn’t have to miss any congressional votes to attend Mrs. Jackson’s home-going festivities, but making it clear she would have if she needed to in order to support the Jackson family during their time of sorrow. “They would have to go on without my input,” she added.
Though more than 500 family, friends, politicians and community leaders from across the country came to mourn, including Jesse Jackson Jr., the mood Sunday was one of thanks and celebration for the life of Mrs. Jackson—a cosmetologist and singer who will be buried today. Old favorites such as “Soon and Very Soon” flowed into a rousing rendition of “Stand” (“after you’ve done all you can…”) to an organ-backed Holy Ghost hand-clapping, foot-stomping session. Even the sanctuary aisles swelled with friends and family, hugging tightly, tears streaming down some faces, smiles highlighting others.
The concert featured the renowned Rev. Clay Evans, Detroit Bishop Marvin Winans, and singers Kim Stratton and Santita Jackson, with remarks by Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) to name a few, providing an opportunity to take stock of the cultural and political impact of both of Mrs. Jackson’s sons: Jesse and Charles (known as Chuck). The Rev. Jesse Jackson was noted as a through-line in the civil rights movement, having worked with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and later founding Operation Breadbasket and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.
“Rev. Jackson started #blacklivesmatter before it was ever named #blacklivesmatter,” said Derrick Quarles, 28, a South Carolina coordinator for the organization. “I thought it was important to come out and pay respects.”
As GOP presidential candidates like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker looked to South Carolina to cultivate primary voters, and Democratic candidates like Bernie Sanders sought to woo Black voters, it is worth taking note of Jesse Jackson’s impact on electoral politics. His candidacies for president in 1984 and 1988 were game-changers as the first times an African-American candidate launched a viable campaign for presidency. And along the way, Rev. Jackson used the power of his coalition to reshape the rules of the political game by apportioning delegates in such a way that nontraditional candidates like Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama could have a fighting chance to run and win.
“You are an international figure,” Waters told the Rev. Jackson, sitting in the front row, looking at the casket where his beloved mother lay, dressed in pink and surrounded by flowers in all shades of pink. “If they understood what is going on in Syria today, they would beg you to go talk to [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad.
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) went further, evoking the Rev. Jackson’s previous successes in penetrating impossible political situations such as persuading the likes of Slobodan Milošević, Hafez al-Assad, Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein to free captives.
“To see you stepping off the plain with [freed] hostages, I know she was happy,” Johnson said.
It was also a time to celebrate Mrs. Jackson’s other accomplished son, Chuck, a Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter largely credited for launching the singing career of Natalie Cole. Among the many hits he penned, Chuck co-wrote “Inseparable” with Marvin Yancy and “This Will Be.”
“This is not just something we are doing,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, a late arrival who regaled the audience of stories about his relationship with Mrs. Jackson, whom he met in his youth working with Operation Breadbasket. “Helen Jackson was a singer; it is appropriate that we do what she would do,” joking that he’d be perfectly happy going to “the club” when it was time for audience members to pass on.
Speaking of his relationship with the Rev. Jackson, Sharpton admitted to sometimes getting “big headed” and falling “in and out” with the man he counts as a mentor. But those ups and downs didn’t affect his relationship with Burns Jackson. “I would still call her,” he revealed, adding that he’d visited in the days before her passing.
“She was a transformative figure,” said Rev. Sharpton, pointing out that she and her children had to ride in the back of the bus when they were born. “By the time she left, there’s a Black president of the United States because of her son. We didn’t come to say goodbye. We came to say, ‘thank you.’ ”