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Mother of civil rights pioneer Jesse Jackson dies


Helen Burns Jackson, who at 16 gave birth to one of the most influential civil rights icons in American history, has died. According to her son, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, she listened to all of his weekly radio broadcasts from Chicago in the early days of his career, and she never missed an opportunity to appear with him on television.

Helen Jackson died Monday while in hospice care at Greenville Memorial Hospital in South Carolina. She would have turned 92 in November.

“I’ve known the family for years,” Greenville County Councilwoman Xanthene Norris said. “She will always be known for how well she stuck by her son and kept him going.”

Jackson had been in declining health for several years but didn’t suffer from any chronic disease, her son explained. Last week, he told reporters, “Mom is hanging on. She was on life support. Now she is on heavy medicine to keep at ease. It’s a very tense moment. But yet we thank God for her.”

On the day of his mother’s passing, Jackson tweeted “My loving mother Mrs. Helen Jackson has made her transition to be with God. My family thank you for your love & prayers.”

A lead singer in the choir at Springfield Baptist Church, Jackson gave up a promising career in music to rear her children, according to those who know her personally. She married Charles Henry Jackson, a post office maintenance worker who adopted Jesse when he was 16. Jesse was given his adoptive father’s last name, but he maintained a close relationship with his biological father, Noah Louis Robinson, a former professional boxer in 1941. Both men played significant roles during Rev. Jackson’s formative years, he says.

Councilwoman Norris, who was Rev. Jackson’s teacher and counselor at Sterling High School, recently praised the work ethic that Mrs. Jackson instilled in her son.

“One thing I can say Mrs. Jackson always taught him, that I admired in Jesse, and I still admire: Everybody else who was playing football would always have an excuse. But he would always come to me when he got ready to go on a trip,” she said. “He’d say, ‘Ms. Norris, I’m going to be out of town. What is my assignment?’ … It was because he had a mother who revered the idea of being good academically.”

Jackson parlayed her experience at cosmetology school into a full-fledged business, opening a shop in Greenville and providing her services to locals until she retired.

“She helped a lot of people,” Jackson said. “That’s mostly what I remember about mother is some people would call and say ‘I need my hair to be dressed but I don’t have any money.’ She would say ‘come on anyhow.’ She was into that.”

On top of the kindness that she showed others, Jackson has vivid childhood memories of the sacrifices his mother made for he and his brother, Noah.

“I think what impresses me is I think she wanted maybe [two] things in life,” Jackson said. “She wanted her soul to be saved. She wanted my brother and I to grow up and have an education. Everything else was surplus.”