Last Saturday, dozens of former aides, friends, supporters and dignitaries gathered in the former synagogue that houses the headquarters of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition on the South Side of Chicago to celebrate the second presidential campaign of the Reverend Jesse Jackson 35 years ago. The founder of the organization, once a college football star towering over six feet with broad shoulders, is now run by a group of trusted assistants. Parkinson’s disease ravaged Mr Jackson’s body and arrested his speech – although according to those around him, it did not slow his mind.

Fifty-two years ago at the age of 30, Mr. Jackson broke away from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. before his death, to form his own organization, Operation PUSH, which first stood for People United to Save Humanity and later, People United to Serve Humanity (and which then merged with the Rainbow Coalition). Mr. Jackson, now 81, announced that he would hand over day-to-day leadership of the organization to the Rev. Dr. Frederick Haynes III, a 62-year-old Texas pastor.

It has been 39 years since Mr. Jackson first ran for office, and yet what he represents — a living link to the civil rights movement and a symbol of the work that remains to fulfill that movement’s dream of full equality for Blacks in America — is something precious. Perhaps even more so if Mr. Jackson remains a complicated, little-understood figure whose work is as misunderstood as it is seemingly ubiquitous.

Mr. Jackson left seminary to march alongside Dr. King in Selma, Ala., eventually making his way into the inner circle. He was there on the day when Dr. King was killed, wearing a shirt that he famously said was stained with the blood of Dr. King. From that moment, he would use his extraordinary oratorical skills and ability to attract media attention to become one of the most well-known black men in America and perhaps the world.

Mr. Jackson was sent to Chicago by Dr. King in 1966 to manage Operation Breadbasket. It had a bold mission: to address the economic conditions of black people. Tasked with moving the movement beyond the sit-ins and protests aimed at securing basic decency for blacks in the South, Breadbasket targeted substandard housing conditions, persistent de facto and de jure racial exclusion, and the diversity of products that stocked store shelves in minority communities.

Mr. Jackson learned from and expanded on tactics that Dr. King initiated. In 1966, Dr. King and his wife, Coretta, briefly lived in a dilapidated housing project in Chicago to highlight the treatment of poor blacks by landlords, prompting the city to clamp down on poor living conditions. Months later, the threat of peaceful marches through the all-white Chicago suburb of Cicero roused the fury of the American NSDAP, which sought to form a counter-protest. The march was called off after Dr. King reached an agreement with Chicago leaders to open more housing in the city to Blacks. President Lyndon Johnson rode the momentum of national mourning after Dr. King’s assassination to push Congress to pass the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

In the years after the murder of Dr. King, Mr. Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket boycotts and local business strikers became legendary. Later the ambitions of the organization grew, and after Mr. Jackson’s break with SCLC, he began to target more powerful interests, switching to national companies such as Pepsico and the grocer A&P. A similar pattern has occurred in dozens of meetings with countless corporate entities over decades. There were times when the simple threat of a meeting with Mr. Jackson would set in motion a cascade of events that resulted in new opportunities for Black business owners looking to buy franchises and executives who had been locked out of board positions and C-suite positions. At other times, seeking to escape the heat, corporations have proactively moved to diversify their boards or corporate ranks.

Mr. Jackson has often said that he considers himself a “tree shaker, not a jelly man.” Those who worked for him knew the saying well: After all, they were the ones who were tasked with taking the fruit from the floor to make the jelly.

Could anyone else rock the tree quite like Jesse Jackson? And even if they could, would America still appreciate it? At a time when diversity is once again under political attack, the tactics Mr. Jackson pioneered and the doors of opportunity he opened for countless women and people of color in corporate America are also under attack.

Almost immediately after Dr. King’s death, Mr. Jackson moved to fill the vacuum that was left in the civil rights movement. But it was only more than a decade later that he began to look at politics. Mr. Jackson’s efforts to register voters in Chicago helped propel Harold Washington into office in 1983, making him that city’s first Black mayor. Mr. Jackson traveled the country to register voters, especially throughout the South. Later it would encourage his improbable national bid for the presidency. Despite years of living in Chicago, he never lost his South Carolina drawl or his connection to a network of Southern Black churches that sustained his ministry and activism. Mr. Jackson never actually pastored a congregation but ministered to a wandering flock, preaching the virtues of civic engagement. His parable of unregistered voters (mostly in the South) as the pebbles in David’s slingshot in his battle against Goliath became a cornerstone of his presidential campaigns.

Mr. Jackson’s political influence was felt most acutely on the left, which was shaped by the ideas he ran in his presidential campaigns, his emphasis on increasing the electorate through widespread voter registration of youth and people of color, and by the scores of people who ever made their way through his orbit. Among them: cabinet members like former Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, representative Maxine Waters, political strategist Donna Brazile and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge.

Many Americans, especially blacks, remember the spectacle of Mr. Jackson’s presidential ambitions: the massive rallies, the chants of “Run, Jesse, run!” But those campaigns also fused a unique platform of economic populism, social justice and moral urgency. While Mr. Jackson successfully mobilized and energized black voters, his candidacy is best remembered for mobilizing voters not on the basis of race but on moral imperatives and political precepts that compare to those of today’s Democratic Party. seem predictable.

The shorthand of Mr. Jackson’s historic candidacies in the 1980s labels him precisely as the most serious Black candidate for the presidency until Barack Obama emerged two decades later. But Mr. Jackson’s greatest achievement was not, as some thought, his race but the political platform he built. In 1984 and 1988, he ran to end economic inequality, introduce universal health care and promote America first policies that would have echoes in the decades to come. He envisioned a coalition of black, white, Asian, Native American, rural, urban, gay and straight people coming together to achieve social justice as much as economic justice.

“When we form a great blanket of unity and common ground, we will have the power to bring health care and housing and jobs and education and hope to our nation,” Mr. Jackson said in his speech at the 1988 Democratic Convention. His failed campaigns had a concrete consequence: Mr. Jackson negotiated permanent changes to the Democratic Party’s nomination process, including an end to its winner-take-all primary system, which enabled Barack Obama’s first victory in the Democratic primary. At the time of Mr. Obama’s candidacy, a whole generation of black Americans saw and hoped for a black man in the White House. “We raised the low ceiling higher,” Mr. Jackson reflected to me recently. “We’ve raised the ceiling on Black possibility.”

Abby D. Phillip is a senior political correspondent and anchor of “Inside Politics” on CNN. She is writing a book about Jesse Jackson’s legacy in American politics.

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