Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH

Founded in Chicago, Operation PUSH has been one of the most important social justice organizations in the United States since 1971.

Chicago History Museum

Fairness in Sports Leadership conference (1987-05-29) by Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum

December 2021 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Chicago-based civil rights organization Operation PUSH. Established by the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson Sr., the organization has fought for economic empowerment from its headquarters on the city’s South Side.  

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Richard Daley at open occupancy housing summit (Aug. 17, 1976) by Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum

As a college student at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical University in the early 1960s, Jackson became involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

His leadership and organizational skills caught the attention of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
Jackson marched with Dr. King and the SCLC from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, and when the organization joined the Chicago Freedom Movement in 1966, Jackson was appointed the director of Operation Breadbasket, the economic arm of SCLC that focused on securing employment opportunities for Black people.

Jesse Jackson during an open-housing march near Bogan High School (Aug. 12, 1966) by Declan HaunChicago History Museum

After King and the SCLC left Chicago, Jackson remained to lead Operation Breadbasket. After graduating from NC A&T in 1964, he enrolled in Chicago Theological Seminary, but left in 1966. Jackson was ordained as a reverend in 1968, but elected to devote himself to full-time civil rights activism.

Under Jackson's leadership, Operation Breadbasket worked to open up economic opportunities to disaffected Black people in Chicago. Their methods, using boycotts or the threat thereof against businesses to extract jobs and other economic investments from large white-owned companies, proved controversial but effective. Early on, Jackson and Operation Breadbasket targeted grocery stores chains with a large presence in the Black community, demanding these companies hire more community members in both entry-level and management positions and provide shelf space for products made by Black-owned businesses.

Burial service for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Apr. 9, 1968) by Declan HaunChicago History Museum

When Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, Jackson was there with him. After the tragedy, and not without controversy, Jackson sought to assert himself as Dr. King's natural successor as the moral leader of the Civil Rights Movement.

Over the years after the assassination of Dr. King, Operation Breadbasket continued to grow under the leadership of Jackson, providing him with a platform from which to lead the Civil Rights Movement in the urban North.

Revs. Clay Evans, Calvin Morris, Jesse Jackson open the Black & Minorities Business & Cultural Expo (Oct. 3, 1969) by Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum

Jackson’s most public program was the Black Expo, first held in 1967 in Chicago to promote Black-owned businesses and connect them with large corporations who would hopefully purchase their products. 

The Black Expo grew larger in each successive year, creating a large monetary influx for Operation Breadbasket, and in turn, the SCLC. Rev. Jackson and other Operation Breadbasket leaders decided to incorporate the Black Expo separate from the organizational auspices of Operation Breadbasket and the SCLC, allowing them to better control the use of the funds they raised.

SCLC ousts Jesse Jackson from Operation Breadbasket (Dec. 3, 1971) by Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum

This led to Jackson having a public falling out with Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, who was one of Dr. King’s closest confidants and his successor as president of the SCLC. Abernathy suspended Jackson as director of Operation Breadbasket and demanded that Jackson relocate to Atlanta to better align the organization with the SCLC. 

Operation Breadbasket (1971-12-04) by Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum

After much deliberation, Jackson decided to separate himself from the SCLC and resigned from the organization in December 1971. 

Reverend Jesse Jackson, president of Operation PUSH, announces the first PUSH Expo (May 18, 1972) by Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum

Rev. Jackson named his new organization PUSH, an acronym for People United to Save Humanity (later revised to People United to Serve Humanity). 

Jesse Jackson, Thomas Todd, Louis Stokes, and Julian Bond press interview regarding the PUSH Expo (Sept. 28, 1972) by Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum

Despite formally resigning from the SCLC, PUSH's activities were very similar to those of Operation Breadbasket. Nearly all of Operation Breadbasket’s materials, resources, staff, and board members followed Jackson to PUSH, and Jackson continued to host the annual Black Expo, renamed the PUSH Expo.

Scenes of the PUSH Expo businessmen's breakfast (Sept. 19, 1973) by Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum

The PUSH Expo continued to grow in prominence and scale during the early 1970s. Prominent political leaders, including Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley, made annual appearances. 

Jesse Jackson meets with Standard Oil Co. Executive (Jan. 2, 1974) by Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum

Jackson and PUSH continued to advocate for the economic interests of Black people among major corporations. Here, Jackson and PUSH discuss concerns that Black gasoline dealers were being shortchanged with Standard Oil.

As a sign of the organization’s clout, Standard Oil agreed to investigate Jackson's claims that Black gasoline dealers were receiving less gasoline and paying more for it than white dealers.

Jackson and PUSH continued to leverage the threat of boycotts to extract concessions from major corporations. These agreements, called “Covenants,” often required businesses to hire more Black workers, deposit money into Black-owned banks, purchase products and services from Black suppliers, and to add Black people to the senior-most levels of management, including the board of directors. While PUSH argued that these measures were vital to achieving economic equality, Jackson’s detractors referred to these tactics as “shakedowns.”

Cabrini Green housing rally in the Loop (July 25, 1970) by Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum

As the 1970s progressed, Jackson and PUSH seemed unfocused and constantly searching for another cause to support. PUSH would turn its attention to improving the conditions in Chicago’s public housing.

Welfare and campaign rally (May 30, 1974) by Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum

And to providing additional funding for welfare programs to aid the poor.

People protest racist behavior outside police headquarters (Aug. 27, 1977) by Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum

And to fighting police brutality and other forms of racial bias in law enforcement. 

The lack of focus put a strain on the organization’s finances. Ultimately, PUSH reinvented itself to focus on urban education. Its PUSH-Excel programs were designed to improve educational attainment, allowing it to access government contracts to provide crucial funding. This type of reinvention has become the hallmark of the civil rights organization, as it has adapted to the changing political, social, and economic landscapes in the United States to remain active during these last fifty years.

Credits: Story

Special thanks to the following individuals who made this Google Arts & Culture exhibit possible:

Peter T. Alter
Charles E. Bethea
Julius L. Jones
Heidi A. Samuelson
Esther D. Wang

Credits: All media
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