Jesse Louis Jackson is the founder and national president of PUSH (People United to Save Humanity). From 1967 to 1971 he served as a national director of Operation Breadbasket within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He attended Chicago Theological Seminary after graduating from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and is an associate minister of Fellowship Baptist Church in Chicago. Now, at age thirty-five, he leads national PUSH campaigns for excellence in city schools and conducts crusades against sex and violence in the media. Glenn Arnold, associate professor of journalism at Wheaton Graduate School, conducted this interview.

Question. Do you recall spiritual experiences from your childhood?

Answer. Well, of course, I remember that the environment was “join the church,” but I was never pressured to do it. But when I made that decision—I was in the third grade—I could sense the delight in my parents. I remember crying as if some burden had lifted.

Q. What do you recall about your early church experience?

A. Sunday school, church attendance, and Baptist Training Union on Sunday afternoons were all part of our life-style then, to be sure. The first stage I ever spoke on was a pulpit during some Christmas or Easter pageant. The church for us was a social, cultural, spiritual matrix around which a lot of our life revolved, a place where we could express our talents, whether playing a piano or organ or singing, and gain acceptance, as it were, in the broader community.

Q. Is it true that you were a delegate to a Sunday-school convention at age nine?

A. Yes. That became a great source of growing up. When you went to these conventions, your mother was waiting to get a report back from the counselor. She would ask, “How was his conduct away from home?”

Q. Do you remember any particular pastor especially well?

A. The Reverend James S. Hall. He was the pastor who first introduced me to social action—Jesus and social change and Mahatma Gandhi. He was a young pastor, twenty-six or twenty-seven, and I was fourteen or fifteen at the time. Jackie Robinson was coming through Greenville. He couldn’t get off the plane to use the restroom or eat at the local airport. So Pastor Hall led a march, over much resistance from the community, because they just couldn’t understand why a preacher would do such things. He began to interpret the Gospel in its broader application.

Q. Would you describe your conversion experience?

Article continues below

A. Well, you know, I’m very sensitive about trying to interpret that, because I think that many people have been driven from the church by seeking some classical form that their conversion took. You know, “I remember the day! I remember the hour! I felt the power!” “I fell off a horse and woke up on a certain street.” I think people have been locked into a certain cataclysmic event, and people who may not have felt that way after trying often have felt that they haven’t been called or that they haven’t been converted. I really think that one can have high moments, but one in my judgment should never associate a convulsion with a conversion.

Q. What happened after you felt called to the ministry?

A. There was some equivocation in my mind about coming to seminary here in Chicago. I was first accepted at law school at Duke. I finally decided to come on a trial basis, because it was within the context of the civil-rights movement, and we would be downtown marching. When I first came here to Chicago, I drove all the way with my wife and baby. I sat down on the side of the bed; it was a fairly dreary day, and I cried. I was leaving one period and going into another. There are two significant periods in a person’s life—that’s to know when you were born and then to know why. It was clear to me why I was born and what my mission was.

Q. Did you feel that this was more like a confirmation of your call?

A. Yes, a real inner confirmation. And then of course during the years since that time, I’ve had other expressions of confirmation. Sometimes I’ve been at particular places at particular times that could not have been planned or predicted, circumstances that only God could have arranged. I was with Dr. King in Memphis when he was killed. That experience—the tragedy and the trauma of it, as well as the opportunity to interpret it—was unique. Other kinds of events also indicate to me that it is possible for man’s feet to be planted by God.

Q. Do you still enjoy preaching?

A. Oh, very much. It is the supreme joy of my life. I’m always humbled by the size of the crowds. I’m acutely aware that people don’t have to come to hear me preach. They don’t come to hear other people preach. I think when I was a little younger, I may have preached for reputation; but the older I get, I preach for edification. And when I see the crowds come in, I don’t feel so much good as I feel obligated. They come from so many walks of life, and they expect so much. A lot of them don’t even come to church ordinarily; and so to have prepared myself as best as possible as a vessel through which the Word of Truth might come is a very obligative state of existence.

Article continues below

Q. What kind of sermons do you preach?

A. Well, first of all, I speak to situations. But I tend to put my situations in biblical contexts. I’ve never experienced a situation where there was not a text that could adequately fit the situation, a biblical text.

When Mayor Daley died, for example, people were searching for profound things to say and searching for ways to interpret it. I remembered the last verse in the last chapter of Judges when there was no king in Israel, “And each man did what was right in his own eyes.” And that’s exactly what happened; all that breaking up into little groups and coalitions—the Jews, the Irish, and the blacks, and the Croatians—“there was no king and each man did what he thought was right in his own eyes.” You can just go on and on, searching for ways to marry the situations.

I think just talking about Ezekiel and describing the circumference of Babylon—describing the geography of Babylon and using some literal interpretation of bones and talking about physiological anatomy without any serious application to the valley in which you now stand—is a misuse of people’s time. That is not good preaching.

Q. Do you consider yourself an evangelical?

A. I consider myself an evangelical, but white evangelicals don’t. They shy away from me because of my social activism.

Q. Do you believe in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ?

A. Yes. It can’t be disproved. God is capable of all things.

Q. What do you believe about the doctrine of original sin?

A. Well, one has to know that Adam and Eve is a myth; I separate myth from a fairy tale. A fairy tale is a story that has no original truth. It was designed to be false. A myth is a way of conveying a message wherein there is a kernel of truth even though certain peripheral elements may not be literal.

Q. Do you believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ?

A. Well, you know, I do. If that tomb was guarded by military soldiers and they were not able to report that they were overthrown by some element and left, something happened. The disciples would not have lied to the point of each of them being destroyed through some violent death. They not only came back to protect themselves; they came back with enough convictions themselves to be crucified.

Article continues below

Q. Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?

A. Oh yes, I do. I don’t believe Jesus is the only son of God. I think God’s world is too big for that.

Choose The High Road

The following is an excerpt from a speech Jesse Jackson gave last month at PUSH headquarters in Chicago. The cover photograph was taken during the speech.

One thing worse than not having life options is to have life options and not take advantage of them.

There was a one-hour presentation on television last night. Young men, some black and some white, somehow chose the wrong road. They became murderers. They did not choose the road of excellence. They chose the road of moral decay.

The low road is deceptive. It tells you that this is a beautiful road because we’ve got big hats and we’ve got high heeled shoes and we’ve got bangles on our arms and we’ve got money in our pockets and you don’t have anything but a book under your arm. Each young man talked about his mother and his father. Some of them said it was a broken home that put them on the low road. Almost always they argued that it was some peculiar circumstance that shoved them from innocence into the chaos of the low road.

There’s also a high road. You don’t walk it by just looking in the mirror. You’ve got to walk the high road by looking out of the window pane. Now I know that the mirror and the window pane are both glass. But in the mirror you see only yourself and begin to engage in a kind of narcissism. You become so wrapped up in self-pride that you think your personality is the center of the universe. You cannot mature by just looking in the mirror; you have to look out the window. Out of the window is the objective world. Out of the window there are four seasons. Out of the window are the sun, the moon, the stars, the grass. There are mountains, meadows, hot days, and electrical storms. There are ups and downs in that real world. So many of us just wallow in self-pity. People will pity us if we can’t type, but they won’t hire us. People will pity us if we don’t go to medical school, but they won’t let us be their doctors. Why complain about your eyes when there is a blind man down the street? Why complain about arthritis in your leg when there is another man walking on a peg? Look out the window.

We believe in inspiration. We believe in the Holy Spirit. Our roots are in the Church. We are able to interpret the Gethsemanes of life. We are able to interpret the Calvarys of life. We are able to celebrate the Easter Sundays of life because we have a religious foundation. We can know where we’re going. We can know that star, which is seen by night. We know who is in charge. Just because it rains, we don’t drown—for we know Somebody.

Article continues below

Q. Would you explain that?

A. I think that God has many sons. There are people all over the world—some who never heard of the Christian faith—who will be saved because they’re God’s children. I don’t think 900 million Chinese today who never heard the word “Jesus” are lost eternally because some white Christian missionary didn’t make it to China. I don’t believe that.

Q. Do you believe that they would have some awareness of God through nature or other means?

A. Through nature and through other people. God is not limited in his use of people and events through which to speak. Sometimes when he tries to speak through a given vehicle that is insufficient, then God will raise up others. But, you know, Jesus went on to define how you get to the Father. And even though we always say that you go through Jesus to get to God, Jesus did not always put on that restriction.

Q. What do you do with Acts 4:12, “There is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved”?

A. I just take that as the evangelism of that day. It’s a good sermon. One might say that there is “no other way under heaven whereby man may be saved except through love.”

Q. Are there major differences between white and black evangelicals?

A. I told somebody one time that the classical difference between Dr. King and Billy Graham—both were evangelicals—was that Billy Graham would have preached to the slaves in Egypt and converted their souls and told them to go back to the fields; then he’d have gone and played golf with Pharaoh. Dr. King would have preached to change their souls and then taken them to Canaan.

See, it’s not enough to change people’s appetites and desire for freedom and then send them back to slavery, while you go play golf with Pharaoh. God wants the mind, body, and soul of his people. God is more likely to manifest himself when you change from the tendency of the oppressor to him as the liberator.

I think evangelicals by and large have been too insensitive to the environment in which God has sent us to evangelize. A part of the mission is the creation of a just world.

Article continues below

Q. What is the relation between your Christian faith and politics?

A. My religion compels me to be concerned about economics and international affairs. I would be violating the tenets of the faith if I were not involved in helping in housing, urban development, HEW, war and peace. How can you be a messenger for the Creator without a concern for the creation, for all the creatures?

Q. When did you first see Christianity functioning in a social context?

A. My mother was a real social servant of sorts. She had graduated from high school, and in our neighborhood in Greenville, South Carolina, she was one of the few people who could read. A lot of old people, when they would try to apply for Social Security, would come by the house, and Mama would fill out the papers for them. If they were sick, she would go to their house and try to make certain they got what was coming to them. A lot of them couldn’t even count well enough to take their money to the store. I appreciate the impression that made upon my own mind.

One experience stands out in my memory. Mr. Dave Robinson used to come by the house all the time. He couldn’t read or write. He got real sick, and Mother used to go down to his house every day and help him with his medicine and his liniment.

Anyhow, this Christmas, Daddy lost his job, and Mama had been ill, and we didn’t have any money. They were debating not going to church because we didn’t have any gifts to share. I remember Mama saying, “We don’t have any gifts to give, but we are members of the choir.” She was a lead singer in the choir. “We aren’t taking any gifts and we don’t expect to have any gifts. It’s okay; we can still participate.” So then we walked to church, three or four miles across town.

Later we came back home and walked up the flight of seventeen stairs. I shall never forget it. There were about six bags of groceries on the porch. They didn’t have any name written on them, and we assumed it was an accident. We saw some meat and we figured we’d at least put the meat in the refrigerator until someone claimed it. We wouldn’t dare touch it.

The next day Mr. Dave came by and said, “I don’t understand. You got the groceries in the living room. Somebody should have put them up.”

But Mama said, “No, nobody can put it up, because they belong to someone else; they were left here by accident.”

Article continues below

He said, “Oh no, it was not an accident. My Social Security check came, and I bought that for you and Charlie and the children for Christmas.”

That was a very spiritual experience, and made an imprint on my mind. The reason there was no writing on the groceries was that Mr. Dave couldn’t write. That was really “bread cast on the water,” returning toasted, with butter on it.

Q. Why don’t white evangelicals have a Jesse Jackson on the front lines of social issues?

A. Racism. I think that one great flaw in the American character is that of race, and the quicker that that cataract of race is pulled off the eye of the evangelicals and the Golden Rule is applied to all of God’s children and a compassion for those that have less is communicated, then the power of the evangelical will expand; his power will be unlimited.

Q. What should be the relationship between Christianity and the government in the United States?

A. One of the great dangers of Christianity in this country is that Christianity is determined by color and limited by culture. And too often we end up with a state religion where the flag flies higher than the cross. We end up respecting the cross but worshiping the flag. If God is the ultimate concern, that is what we will live and die for ultimately. There aren’t many Christians who will die about the cross.

Q. What lies behind your PUSH for excellence in inner-city public schools?

A. Our basic notion is that the death of ethics is the sabotage of excellence. There must be ethical standards. We’ve said in PUSH that the triangle is our symbol. We have economic generation, spiritual regeneration, and discipline. You need all three, because if you’re spiritually regenerated and disciplined you can get economic generation.

Q. Do you think prayer and Bible reading should be reinstated in the public schools?

A. Well, you know, actually they were never taken away. I think that in a pluralistic society that is heterogeneous, you cannot impose your religion on people of other religions. If a child is trained in Islam, you cannot have him standing up and saying the Lord’s Prayer. The court didn’t say that you couldn’t pray; the court said that you couldn’t make me pray. That’s all the law has said. I’ve been to many schools around this country where they still have prayer. And it’s not unconstitutional either.

Article continues below

Q. In your very busy worldwide schedule, what priority do you give to your own family and their needs?

A. I try to share with them a qualitative use of my time, but quantity, too. In summertime, periodically I’ll take my daughter on weekend trips with me so she can say things she’d never say if she wasn’t away from Mama and the boys. Then the next weekend I might take three of my boys with me. We begin to communicate. I have a basketball goal in my back yard, and we play ball together. And I sign my children’s report cards. Obviously their mother sends them off to school more than I do, but they finally got to come back this way before that report card goes back.

Q. If you could get one message across to the readers of CHRISTIANITY TODAY or white evangelicals in general, what would it be?

A. When you say “Our Father,” draw the “O” big enough to include all God’s children.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.