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Religious leader Social activist (1941-)

Jesse Jackson is officially Washington's special envoy to Africa but his skills as a negotiator have become useful in political hotspots across the world.  The Baptist minister, who ran for the US presidency in 1984 and 1988, has previously secured the freedom of captives held in Syria, Cuba, Kuwait and Iraq.  In 1999, he added the release of three US soldiers held as prisoners of war in Yugoslavia to his mission with a delegation of religious leaders. Was strictly unofficial and the Clinton administration made clear he was not acting on its behalf.  Suprisingly for a man so long at the forefront of American public life, Reverend Jackson, has never held an elected position.  In 1984, he ran for the Democrats presidential nomination.  Four years later he tried and failed again but the campaigns established him as the country's best-known African American political leader.  Both campaigns made party colleagues pay more attention to civil rights and he was credited with increasing Black voter turnout.

Born in Greenville, South Carolina, he became active in the civil rights movement while at college and went on to join Martin Luther King Jr's Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  He was put in charge of SCLS's Operation Breadbasket aimed at securing jobs for African Americans.  Throughout the 1970s he became a powerful voice for civil rights, speaking out against drugs and for education.  By the late 1970s he was taking on international roles campaigning in South Africa against apartheid and arguing the case for a Palestinian state in Israel.  Back in the U.S., he launched The National Rainbow/Push Coalition, which presses for equal rights and seeks to generate private sector investment to help start business in poverty-stricken areas.  His biographer, Marshall Frady, described him as a "fretful, extravagantly troublesome, exhorting, chiding, restless, gospelteering outsider."  At the same time, Mr. Frady said: "One can come across any number of chaps holding forth on street corners who imagine themselves prophets to their time, but what makes Jackson fascinating is that he has actually held the wherewithal for it."

In 1984, Mr. Jackson secured the release of a captured US Navy officer, Lieutenant Robert Goodman, from Syria.  Three years later, he traveled to Cuba and won freedom for 48 Cuban-American prisoners.  In 1990, he was the first American to bring hostages out of Kuwait and Iraq.  Mr. Jackson was named in October 1997 as a special US envoy to Africa, leading to further successes there and elsewhere, including the release of three US soldiers in Yugoslavia.  In 2000, Mr. Jackson  took the lead in demanding a revote in Florida's Palm Beach county, saying the ballot paper in the presidential election was confusing and potentially unfair.  Although his demands were not met, his anger over the election remains.  When Republican George W. Bush was inaugurated as president, the Rainbow/Push Coalition joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and labor groups on a march in the Florida state capital.  The Rainbow/Push protest was part of the group's Week of Moral outrage that began that Monday with the holiday commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.  Jackson is the author of two books and a TV host.  His son, Jesse Jr, is a Democratic Congressman for Illinois.

Revised: July 18, 2013.