Book cover of book

It must have been somewhat difficult to grow up as the namesake of one of the most prominent and controversial human rights leader in American history, Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., and his wife, Jacqueline Brown. Yet the younger Jackson followed in his father’s footsteps, graduating magna cum laude from North Carolina A & T University, earning an MA at the Chicago Theological Seminary. After attending Georgetown University Law Center, he transferred to the University of Illinois College of Law in 1993, where he finished a semester early, but declined to take the bar exam.

A career in politics was all but certain, and in 1996 he ran for the United States Congress in the 2nd Congressional District, which includes part of the infamous South Side and Southland, a collection of southeast suburbs; Jackson’s wife, Sandi, was elected an alderman to the Chicago City Council, representing the 7th ward in 2007. The Jacksons’ future political aspects looked bright; he was often touted as a future mayor of Chicago or a United States senator. Some even spoke of the possibility that he would be the first African American president. They were Chicago’s black Camelot.

By all accounts, Jackson was a diligent elected official who only missed two floor votes in more than a dozen years in the House. Predictably liberal and somewhat prickly, he was not looked upon as a team player. Jackson championed election reform, an increased federal minimum wage, transportation issues, and the improvement of the district’s water quality. He helped elect Barack Obama to the United States Senate, and was co-chair of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. His prime-time speech during the Democratic National Convention offered a ringing endorsement of the first-term senator.

It was during Obama’s presidential campaign that his famous father, the Lion in winter, groused unknowingly on an open microphone that “Barack’s been talking down to black people . . .I want to cut his nuts off.” The comment earned a swift, public, and stinging rebuke from the younger man, and showed he was no puppet of his father. And then the wheels fell off.

President-elect Obama resigned his seat in the U. S. Senate in mid-November, and it fell to Chicago governor Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, to appoint a successor to finish out Obama’s term. There were a number of candidates interested, and Blagojevich was intent upon appointing the highest bidder to the seat. It was the typical “pay to play.” Taped phone calls show that Jackson was interested, and allegedly a family friend let it be known that if he were awarded the seat, Blagojevich would receive help in raising six million dollars. At the same time, Jackson was being investigated for using campaign funds for his personal expenses, and there was talk that he had engaged in an extra-marital affair. His office announced that he would be on a medical leave of absence, and for several weeks he dropped out of sight, his whereabouts unknown to his constituents. Even though he did not campaign in the general election, he won.

After the election, Congressman Jackson issued a statement in which he admitted to “my fair share of mistakes,” and that he was being investigated by the federal government. He assured his constituents that he was cooperating with the investigation, and then, citing health issues–he was being treated for bipolar depression and gastrointestinal issues–he acknowledged that he would be unable to serve them effectively, and resigned.

Jackson pleaded guilty to violating federal campaign laws; his wife pleaded guilty to one count of filing false tax returns. He received a sentence of thirty months in prison; she, one year. They were allowed to serve their sentences one after the other as they were the parents of small children. His mother, Jacqueline, promised she would write him every day, and made good on her promise.

While Jesse Jackson, Sr., spoke publicly of his son’s troubles, Mrs. Jackson did not talk to the media. She has always retained a low profile, insisting that the rearing of her children took precedence over politics and fame. Later while promoting the book with her son, she said "All parents have high expectations for their children. You don't give birth to trash. Mothers love their children," Jacqueline said.

Congressman Jackson shut down emotionally when he entered prison. He made it clear to his family and friends that he wanted no visitors or letters; he had caused them enough shame and embarrassment. One has to admire his determination to take responsibility for what he had done, and that he was willing to give up contact with his family so as not to cause further distress. But Mrs. Jackson looked past that. While she admitted to her son he had hurt her deeply, she loved him still, and saw a way to help him and others who are in prison. Mrs. Jackson understood that incarcerated people often lose the support of family and friends, and that even when families are reunited, the feeling of that loss never goes away. She was determined that would not be the fate of her son. And so began the daily letters.

Even in the midst of her own anguish, Mrs. Jackson thought about the other mothers whose children were in prison. She said, "And there are millions of women who shared the pain and still share the pain that I shared during this experience. And what we are trying to do now is put a dent into recidivism. Seventy-two percent of young men and women who are incarcerated return. And we don't want that to happen." Mrs. Jackson added, "Crime causes hurt. Justice repairs.”

The letters in Loving You consist of some of everything– disappointment, wisdom, humor, strength, encouragement, correction, and a fierce love for her son that only another mother can understand. She wrote about their birth family and the larger family of mankind; of the miserable Chicago winters and holiday dinners; of politics and prose. She reminded him that he was not only a human being, but a child of God, and that she and the family loved him dearly.  She willed her son to, as St. Paul wrote, “press on.” At the end of every letter, Mrs. Jackson penned, “Don’t forget to pray.”

Jackson admitted that during his successful days, he rarely thought to ask his mother how she was. But incarceration and the letters gave him the chance to atone for that and reacquaint themselves. For Jesse Jr., his mother’s letters were a lifeline. They gave him hope that in spite of his wishes, the family had not forgotten him, and served as an ultra-bright light during the dark days of incarceration. When he saw how little mail other prisoners received, he sometimes read his mother’s letters out loud, or allowed his fellow inmates to hold them in their hands and read them.  

On the tour supporting the book, Jackson talked about the solace those letters must have been for his mother.  He said, “. . .upon closer reflection, I see the pain and the cathartic and therapeutic representations in my mother’s own words that only a mother could feel.” At first, both had doubts about publicly sharing the letters. But in the end they thought that by talking and writing about their experience, they could contribute to the much needed reform at every stage of the criminal justice system.

No one who reads this book will be left untouched by the love, tenderness, and support in the letters. Also, I must confess that Mrs. Jackson’s commitment made me slightly ashamed of how I did not keep in touch with a family member after he was sentenced and imprisoned.

The younger Jackson said everyone knows about his father, but it was his mother who shaped and nurtured the family. Indeed, it’s almost always mothers who hold the families together; I see it so clearly now as I am coming upon the sixth year since my own dear mother’s death.

Proverbs 31:10-31 says, “Who can find a virtuous woman? She looketh well to the ways of her household.” Say Amen somebody.