He was born in Greenville, South Carolina. After attending the University of Illinois and North Carolina A&T University, he began to study divinity at the Chicago Theological Seminary, and began to organize in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference under the direction of Martin Luther King. He was at King's side in Memphis when King was assassinated, April 4, 1968.
He formed two non-profit organizations, PUSH (People United To Save Humanity) in 1971 and the Rainbow Coalition in 1984. Both groups were merged in 1996. In the 1980's he emerged as the most visible African American political figure, and became a spokesman for civil rights issues.
In 1984 Jackson became the second African-American (after Shirley Chisholm) to mount a nationwide campaign for the President of the United States. He lost the nomination to Walter Mondale, but helped confirm the black electorate's importance to the Democratic Party. He also mounted a presidential campaign in 1988. During these campaigns he charged that the conservative Republican policies exemplified by President Ronald Reagan were turning back the clock on civil rights and neglecting the poor of America's cities.
While Jesse Jackson was initially critical of the "third way" or more moderate policies of Bill Clinton he became a key ally in gaining black support for Clinton, and eventually became a close advisor and friend of the Clinton family. His son, Jesse Jackson, Jr also emerged as a political figure, becoming a member of the United States House of Representatives.
Jackson has been involved in several negotiations with foreign leaders to release Americans imprisoned as hostages. In 1984 we won the release of the United States Navy pilot Robert Goodman from Syria. He has met with Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein, and Slobodan Milosevic in efforts to free various prisoners as well. Jackson is also known as a passionate orator, in the tradition of Southern and African American protestant preaching.
However, Jesse Jackson has often been the center of controversy. Critics of Jackson claim that he has exploited poverty stricken black Americans in order to make money and gain political power. Jackson's political activism and high profile visits to foreign leaders are derided as attention seeking by many. A famous quip states that "the most dangerous place in America is between Jesse Jackson and a TV camera".
Some of the allegations which are covered in the book Shakedown: Exposing the Real Jesse Jackson by Kenneth R. Timmerman include:
During the late 1990s , it was alleged that Jackson's sons and Jackson himself would protest against large businesses until the business 'paid' a donation to one of Jackson's tax exempt corporations.
During the contested election of 2000, Jackson quickly became involved in pro-Democrat demonstrations in the state of Florida. Shortly afterward, it was revealed that Jackson (married since 1963) had an affair with a young staffer that resulted in the birth of a child. This seriously damaged Jesse Jackson's credibility even among long time supporters, and - for a brief time - prompted Jackson to withdraw from activism. Jackson appeared at several anti-war rallies in opposition to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq.