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After more than five decades, Rev. Jesse Jackson steps down at Rainbow-Push Coalition

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

After more than five decades, the Rainbow-Push Coalition has a new leader. Yesterday the Reverend Jesse Jackson stepped down as its president, and now a Dallas minister, Frederick Douglass Haynes III, takes charge of the civil rights organization. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: The Rainbow-Push Coalition is holding its annual convention, and the group's huge change in leadership officially came yesterday afternoon. Jesse Jackson uses a wheelchair. Aides helped him stand at a church podium, and Jackson led a crowd of dignitaries, Rainbow-Push members and others in his signature chants.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JESSE JACKSON: I am...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: I am...

JACKSON: ...Somebody.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: ...Somebody.

JACKSON: I am...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: I am...

JACKSON: ...Somebody.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: ...Somebody.

JACKSON: Keep hope...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Keep hope...

JACKSON: ...Alive.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: ...Alive.

CORLEY: Jackson explained that he was not having anything to do with the R-word - retirement - that while he may no longer be in the limelight, he would still be around.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACKSON: I'm not retiring. I am pivoting to another...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hey.

(APPLAUSE)

CORLEY: Pivoting, not retiring - still a historic moment. And a woman who made history herself - the country's first female vice president, Kamala Harris - called the day a celebration for one of Chicago's greatest patriots.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: In his life's work, he has reinforced that no matter who we are or where we come from, we have so much more in common than what separates us.

CORLEY: Jesse Jackson is 81. In late 2017, he announced he has Parkinson's, the neurological disease that affects movement. In many ways, his decision marks the end of an era. Born in Greenville, S.C., Jackson became a Civil Rights activist as a college student and would go on to become a protege of Martin Luther King Jr. He formed Operation PUSH - People United to Serve Humanity - in 1971. It later became the Rainbow-Push Coalition. Its goal to this day has been to agitate for a greater share of political and economic power for African Americans and the poor. Jackson has led boycotts of stores and corporations and numerous voter registration drives. In 1984 and again in 1988, Jackson sought the Democratic nomination for president. John Norris, who served in federal and state roles promoting agriculture, was the Jackson campaign's Iowa director in '88. He says Jackson's focus on farm policy and inclusion won over skeptical white farmers.

JOHN NORRIS: Because of how he connected with them and how he connected the economic justice of rural Iowa with urban Chicago.

CORLEY: Jackson didn't become the Democrat's nominee, but he was the first African American presidential candidate to win major primaries, and the Rainbow-Push Coalition gave Jesse Jackson a bully pulpit. He has crisscrossed the globe, spotlighting a plethora of domestic and international problems. In 2000, he received the highest honor a civilian can receive - the Presidential Medal of Freedom. There have been controversies, though, in Jackson's career. In 2001, it became known that he had fathered a child out of wedlock. In 2008, there was a firestorm after he made disparaging remarks about Barack Obama, but later he cheered as Obama won the presidency. Many say it was Jesse Jackson's success changing Democratic Party rules during his groundbreaking campaigns that shaped so much of what was to come.

RAE LEWIS-THORNTON: You know, there is a need for an organization like Rainbow-Push.

CORLEY: AIDS activist Rae Lewis-Thornton worked as a youth organizer during the Jackson campaigns, and she says many of the problems Jesse Jackson fought against still exist.

LEWIS-THORNTON: I'm just hoping that a new surge of young leaders will come through PUSH and give it the life that it so desperately needs to keep going.

CORLEY: New Rainbow-Push CEO Dallas Minister Frederick Douglass Haynes III says he will continue to bring young people into the organization and fight for equality like his mentor Jesse Jackson has for so many years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FREDERICK DOUGLASS HAYNES III: I stand here on his shoulders because no one with sense would try to stand in his shoes.

CORLEY: Both Haynes and Jackson say there is still much work to do, including fighting the efforts to roll back civil rights victories of the past. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.