Jesse L. Jackson
As founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. developed the PUSH for Life HIV/AIDS program in March of 2000. The purpose of the program is to develop a political platform to assist the HIV/AIDS community in its efforts to garner broader support both nationally and globally. However, his work with HIV/AIDS began long before that. In 1984, during his first presidential campaign, combating HIV/AIDS was a prominent part of Rev. Jackson’s platform. He says that he saw even then the need for a better response to an epidemic characterized by long-term consequences.
“First, AIDS is an equal opportunity disease,” Rev. Jackson explains. “This is a global issue, a pandemic. Therefore, it is not one group versus another. The human family must be involved in HIV work. However, for African Americans, the issue of HIV/AIDS is of paramount importance to the future of our community.
“Currently, Black people are disproportionately dying at a rate higher than any other group. HIV is now the number one killer of Black men and the second leading cause of death for Black women. Sixty percent of all reported adolescent AIDS cases are African American, and the majority of pediatric cases are Black infants. Our future tells us that if we as a community do not heed the message of prevention and/or abstention from the behaviors that put us at risk, our future will be lost.” Rev. Jackson strongly believes that clergy can assist in prevention by decreasing the stigma associated with HIV testing. “As we grapple with the devastation of HIV disease,” he says, “we must also grapple with its spiritual destruction. Many individuals are looking to men and women of God for guidance, support, nurturing, and understanding. As a minister, I believe that all men of God should use their influence to persuade people that they must be tested for HIV.”
To bolster this declaration, Rev. Jackson and his Rainbow/PUSH coalition, in association with other organizations, hosted a Ministers’ HIV Testing event in June of 2000. Over 50 ministers agreed to participate by taking public HIV tests and talking about the experience with their congregations.
Rev. Jackson began his activism as a student leader in the sit-in movement and continued as a young organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as an assistant to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He subsequently directed Operation Breadbasket, and in 1971 founded People United to Save Humanity, or PUSH, in Chicago, Illinois. He founded the National Rainbow Coalition in 1984, and the two organizations joined in 1996, becoming the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. He was a presidential candidate in 1984 and 1988, and has often been an unofficial U.S. envoy in diplomatic missions. He was instrumental in securing the release of three American military prisoners from Yugoslavia in 1999, and obtained the release of 48 Cuban and Cuban-American prisoners in 1984. In October 1997, former President Bill Clinton appointed Rev. Jackson Special Envoy of the President and Secretary of State for the Promotion of Democracy in Africa.
PUSH for Life’s work reflects this commitment to global work. The organization’s “Adopt an Orphanage” program, under the direction of James T. Meeks, Vice President of the Rainbow/ PUSH Coalition and Senior Pastor of the Salem Baptist Church of Chicago, is designed to develop relationships between African Americans and the citizens of South Africa. Hence, an alliance was formed with Rev. Kenneth McDillon, Senior Pastor of Community Care Ministries International in Cape Town, South Africa. The goal is to match 100 African American churches with 100 South African orphanages.
Rev. Jackson’s long-term concern is that the epidemic will continue to be the most explosive public health issue affecting civilization. “Our current preoccupation with anthrax will pale in comparison,” he warns, to the devastation that AIDS has left in its wake and the destruction it will continue to wreak. And he believes this is a particular reality for people of African descent. AIDS, he says, will be at the center of both our struggle and our advancement. Yet, he notes, there are agencies serving people living with HIV or AIDS that can barely maintain their daily operations. He warns that we must find more resources, and distribute them more equitably, or we will be forced to deal with the consequences of HIV disease throughout the 21st century.
But Rev. Jackson also believes there are no quick fixes in this epidemic. Attitudes must change. Conversations between the sexes, between parents and their children, and among the churches must be constant. We must revisit strategies to reach populations deemed “hard to reach.” “As a world community,” he says, “we must remember that the health and the wellness of the least of us is predicated on the health and the wellness of all of us. Dr. King referred to this as ‘the world is a massive garment:’ we are all connected to one another.” The solutions, he says, really start with changes in individual behavior. African Americans must begin to value each other, despite differences. He urges the community to “be intolerant of the fears and hatred that separate us. Our children are our future. And when we lose sight of that, we lose sight of where we have been, why we struggled and what our struggle was for.”