As it turned out, the name Jesse Jackson would become almost as iconic in the history of the civil-rights movement. And as his father’s renown grew, Jesse Jr., along with his four siblings, became children of that movement. The Jackson family’s stately Tudor-style house in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, which was purchased for the reverend by some of his wealthy benefactors when Junior was 5, was constantly swarming with activists, politicians, and celebrities. When Jesse Jr. wasn’t at home, he was usually being passed from lap to lap at his father’s political organizations, first Operation Breadbasket and later push (People United to Save Humanity).
While the elder Jackson, who was born out of wedlock to a 16-year-old girl in South Carolina, grew up hearing taunts of “Jesse ain’t got no daddy,” his own children had the opposite problem. “One of the first things I became conscious of was that many of my classmates knew me before I knew them,” Jesse Jr. wrote in A More Perfect Union, his 2001 memoir and political manifesto. “[T]here I was, the child of the newsmaking agitator. Some of my friends liked him and some didn’t—probably reflecting their parents’ attitudes—but I didn’t understand enough of what my daddy did to adequately explain it to them. That situation was often hard to deal with.”
So were the expectations. “He looked so much like his father and he acted like him in so many respects and just being the Junior, he was the anticipated successor,” recalls Calvin Morris, a Jackson associate from the Breadbasket days. After Jesse Jr., at the age of 5, clambered atop a milk crate and addressed a Breadbasket meeting, mimicking his father’s gestures and cadences, that sentiment deepened. “I grew up in a house with great expectations,” Jackson told the Chicago Tribune in 1995. “If I want to be a lawyer, that’s not enough. I need to be a Supreme Court justice one day. If I wanted to be an elected official, that’s not enough. ‘One day, son, you may be president.’ ”
At first, Jesse Jr. seemed to wilt under the pressure. As a rambunctious boy, he earned the nickname “Fella”—as in the “baddest fella” on the block. He became such a handful that when he was 12, his parents sent him to a Catholic military school in Indiana, where he received regular paddlings for “conduct unbecoming a cadet.” When his father began to consider a run for the presidency, he sent Jesse Jr. to the Washington prep school St. Albans to be educated “with the Mondales and the Bushes,” as the Reverend Jackson later explained. There, Jesse Jr. became a standout football player but struggled academically and was twice suspended—one time for sneaking a girl into his dorm room and the other for cheating on a calculus test.
It wasn’t until Jesse Jr. went to North Carolina A&T State University, the historically black school where his parents had met, that he seemed to find his niche—and one far different from the one his father had occupied. While Jesse Sr. had been the Aggies’ star quarterback and a member of Omega Psi Phi, Jesse Jr. quit football after one season and never joined a fraternity. Instead, he fell in with a group of “geeky, civil-rights, philosophy nerds,” as Mark Anthony Middleton, one of Junior’s best friends at A&T, puts it. He was active in politics, organizing anti-apartheid demonstrations and voter-registration drives, but he was primarily a behind-the-scenes player. Rather than run for student-body president, as his father had, Jesse Jr. managed the campaigns of his friends. “He decreased so that we might increase,” Middleton recalls. “He didn’t want to be out front.”
After college, Jesse Jr. stayed in that role, becoming a top adviser to his father and, in the process, forging a far closer relationship with a man who, for much of his life, had been a remote figure. In the early nineties, Jesse Jr. was appointed national field director of the Rainbow Coalition and set about trying to bring some order to his father’s notoriously chaotic political operation. Working in the group’s headquarters in Washington, he installed a then-state-of-the-art computer system and created a weekly fax newsletter, JaxFax, that provided talking points to clergy, college professors, and radio stations. He wanted to build the Rainbow Coalition into a real national political organization—one that wouldn’t exist just to assist his father’s quixotic presidential campaigns but would support, and actually help to elect, candidates up and down the ballot. In the process, he hoped that he might instill in his father a discipline and political focus that he’d always lacked.
But his father resisted. Part of it was generational. “Reverend was a technophobe,” Frank Watkins, a longtime Jackson adviser who was the coalition’s political director at the time, says. “He accused Jesse and me of loving computers more than loving people.” But the elder Jackson also seemed threatened by his son’s plans. “Reverend was about Reverend,” one Jackson adviser says. “He just wanted to keep Rainbow the way it was.”