Jesse Jackson has long been a household name, but few people — even here — realize that he went to NC A&T University.
Jackson came of age as a college student in Greensboro, shortly after the successful sit-in movement to desegregate downtown businesses including Woolworth’s. He played quarterback for the football team and was even elected student body president. Yearbooks with his photo and archived copies of the student newspaper with letters by Jackson are publicly available through A&T’s library, providing a fascinating portrait of the civil rights leader from the crucible in which he was formed.
Jackson remembers A&T and aspects of his time in Greensboro fondly, including seeing live music at venues on the chitlin- circuit and meeting civil rights luminaries who visited the city. During his recent trip to the Gate City last summer — to help raise money for the suffering International Civil Rights Center & Museum — he dined at Summit Café near campus and led a group of schoolkids in an impromptu rendition of his classic “I Am Somebody” mantra.
William Chafe wrote all about the movement in Greensboro at the time, including extensively covering Jackson’s involvement, in his seminal book Civilities and Civil Rights.
Jackson has an indescribable energy around him, at once disarming and awe-invoking. It’s the kind of charisma people only describe rarely, when meeting figures like Jackson or Bill Clinton, the kind that lingers long after he has left the room.
It is beyond celebrity, though it is easy to imagine that Jackson’s radiance played a role in his meteoric rise as a civil rights figure while many other local movement participants — who were equally or more important to the struggle’s success in Greensboro — don’t occupy the same limelight. But Jackson is quick to share the credit and appears to lack the hubris of celebrity.
Anyone with the privilege to meet him that wants to get him talking, though, is well advised to start out with some questions about being an Aggie.