PUSH is the acronym used first for People United to Save Humanity, and later for People United to Serve Humanity. As the founder and President of Operation: PUSH, Reverend Jesse Jackson began this national civil rights organization in Chicago on December 25, 1971. The main thrust of Operation PUSH was to enhance the living conditions of working and poor black people by helping them obtain economic power. In March of 1972, a regional office was opened in New York, and later offices were opened in other major cities.
The choice of December 25—with its religious symbolism—for the inception of Operation PUSH was intentional and is characteristic of Jackson's leadership style, which is deeply rooted in his training as a Southern Baptist minister. It is impossible to separate Jackson's charismatic and forceful personality from Operation PUSH, as the two are deeply intertwined. Operation PUSH was Jackson's idea, and as a young ambitious activist with the oratorical skills of a preacher and a belief in autocratic leadership, he became the main decision maker within the organization. In the area of civil rights, he chose to change the administrative strategy from nonviolence to militancy for Operation PUSH. Less tolerant in his beliefs of equality, Jackson leaned more toward social justice and shared resources, in contrast to Martin Luther King Jr.'s philosophy of civil rights through nonviolent demonstrations. Jackson publicly stated that under his direction, Operation: PUSH would embrace a philosophy of nonviolence if possible, but violence if needed.
Jesse Jackson's Leadership
Jackson was gifted at organizing boycotts and gained national recognition as one of the top lieutenants within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He had become the director of Operation Breadbasket (1966–1971), an economic arm of the SCLC, and had worked closely with King. Effecting change through boycotts, demonstrations, and controlled consumer spending, Operation Breadbasket was an economic movement designed to lessen the grubstake and dominance that major corporations had on black and underserved communities. Ironically, the word breadbasket is slang for stomach, and this endeavor was aimed at restricting or tightening corporate profits.
However, Jackson's life changed on April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. The tragic death of the most recognized African American civil rights leader startled the world. The movement for racial equality needed a new leader and immediate supervision to safeguard the newly won rights in the areas of politics, social status, and economics. When Ralph D. Abernathy, Vice President of the SCLC and one of its founding members, as well as a close activist friend of King's, became King's successor, Jackson returned to Chicago and began to distance himself from the organization. Jackson's complete break from the SCLC came later, however, when Jackson worked with black businessmen in the Chicago area to organize the fourth annual Black Expo under the auspices of Operation PUSH instead of SCLC, its prior sponsor. In December of 1971 he was chastised by Abernathy with a 60-day suspension for “administrative impropriety” and “repeated violation of organizational discipline.” He later resigned from SCLC to devote all of his attention to Operation PUSH.
Strongly committed to the picketing and demonstration strategies so successful in Operation Breadbasket, Jackson used the same model for Operation PUSH with added divisions for housing, welfare, politics, education, and youth affairs. He was aggressively persuasive at enlisting the support of major corporations to hire African Americans and invest in black communities by forewarning of possible boycotts and picketing demonstrations. Burger King, 7-Up, Coca Cola, Southland, Adolph Coors, Heublein, Avon, and Montgomery Ward were some of the many corporate sponsors convinced by Jackson to take their corporate responsibility within African American communities seriously. However, later some of the corporate heads complained that they had been coerced by Jackson for financial contributions. Yet, even with millions of dollars contributed to Operation PUSH in federal grants and corporate funding, there were still administrative problems that plagued the organization. The accusations of financial mismanagement and poor bookkeeping resulted in federal audits and civil claims being brought against the organization.
The Political Agenda
Jackson was well aware that keeping a vigil on program and policy development in the White House and Congress was important to the economic goals of Operation PUSH. The importance of having political relationships directly with presidents or top ranking presidential aides to monitor national social and economic policy affecting the living conditions of poor and working people could not be underestimated. President Richard Nixon's administration was known to be callous and unsympathetic to African American issues. This served to galvanize black leaders to organize picketing demonstrations. Jackson put aside any philosophical and personal differences with Abernathy and other black leaders to contribute staff from Operation PUSH in many demonstrations against Nixon's programs on welfare, education, and children's rights. In March of 1972, there were over 25,000 people (many of whom were children) at the demonstration in Washington, D. C., against Nixon's proposed $2,400 a year supplement for a needy family of four—instead of the $6,500 recommended by the coalition of national black leaders. When President Gerald R. Ford took office, he immediately arranged a series of meetings with black leaders to improve the White House's communication with the black community. Jackson's Operation PUSH was just one of the civil rights groups encouraged by the optimism of the new president. However, as top man at Operation PUSH, Jackson's defiant public image often hindered his ability to be an effective political insider on a national scale. On one occasion, he stood alone in his charge of “callous neglect” against the administration of President Jimmy Carter in the area of full employment for all blacks. In direct contrast, other black leaders were more optimistic and agreed to be “moderate and reasonable” in their comments.
In 1985, Jackson broadened the scope of Operation PUSH and turned his attention to problems in public education by creating an affiliate group called Push for Excellence (commonly called PUSH-EXCEL). The goal was to upgrade the quality of education on a national scale, with an emphasis on building teenagers’ self-esteem. Jackson was very active in visiting schools across the country and speaking to students to promote self-esteem and self-discipline. A campaign of getting signed pledges of parental involvement was one of the strategies employed by Jackson to increase students’ commitment to learning. However, in spite of having the support of the media and the federal government, and of having been granted a 3-year funding grant from the National Institute of Education of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, PUSHEXCEL did not sustain its luster. Racial tension, neighborhood politics, mismanagement, and federal auditing problems rendered the program ineffective.
When Jackson made a bid for the presidency in 1984 and in 1988, without the endorsement of many black political leaders and without adequate financial resources, the political infrastructure of Operation PUSH became a vital component in his campaign. Voter registration drives gathered a large population of Jackson supporters. However, during the campaign, federal auditing of Operation PUSH and PUSH EXCEL yielded profound inconsistencies in the administrative structure of the organization, and in newspaper interviews, PUSH officials were critical of Jackson. There was some concern that Jackson's political aspirations could cripple the legitimacy of the organization.
In 1985, Jackson announced the formation of the National Rainbow Coalition, and in 1996, 25 years after the beginning of Operation PUSH, he announced the merger of Operation PUSH and the National Rainbow Coalition into one organization called the Rainbow PUSH Action Network, or the Network. He vowed that the merger would strengthen the ability to effect change in the lives of working and poor people on a local and national level.
- Operation PUSH
- National Rainbow Coalition
- grants (funding)
- working poor
- civil rights
- Collins, Sheila D. (1986). From Melting Pot to Rainbow Coalition: The Future of Race in American Politics. New York: Monthly Review Press. This is a well-balanced assessment of Jackson within the political and social environment of the United States.
- House, Ernest R. (1988). Jessie Jackson and the Politics of Charisma: The Rise and Fall of the PUSH/Excel Program. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. House gives a historical overview of Reverend Jackson's Operation PUSH and its evolution into PUSH/Excel.