Jackson was born to an unmarried woman. His birth father was her next-door neighbor, but he was married with children and had very little contact with Jesse. His mother married when he was still young, and he was adopted by his step-father in 1956.
Since 1963 he has been one of American's most important civil rights activists, working for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Operation Breadbasket, Operation PUSH, PUSH/Excel, and The National Rainbow Coalition, the last three of which he himself founded. In 1968 he was ordained as a minister. He was instrumental in obtaining the release of American pilot Robert Goodman from Syria in 1983 and of the foreign hostages of Saddam Hussein in Kuwait in 1991.
He ran for president in 1984 and 1988.