Jesse Jackson Sr. shares hopeful message with Cook County Jail detainees during visit

Jesse Jackson Sr. visited the Cook County Jail Saturday morning to speak to a gymnasium filled with inmates.

Despite a voice growing quieter in an eight-year battle with Parkinson’s disease, the civil rights leader’s message of hope rang clear.

“I want you all to plan to get out,” Jackson said.

The 81-year-old shook the hands of dozens of the 241 incarcerated men and women in attendance as he was pushed in a wheelchair around the drab white room that became suddenly filled by a band’s joyful gospel music.

Visiting the jail after rescheduling his annual Christmas Day trip, the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition founder led inmates in pledges focused on accountability and change.

Jackson was at first seated as he spoke, but rose to ask detainees to promise to care for their families, focus on leaving jail, get training for jobs and stay away from guns.

His son U.S. Rep. Jonathan Jackson, who on Jan. 3 was sworn in for his first term in Congress, held the microphone and gave an arm for support as his father spoke.

“We want to make sure that just because you don’t have money doesn’t mean you don’t have equal rights to justice,” the younger Jackson told detainees.

The congressman called on them to reclaim their voting rights, fight for livable wages and focus on looking forward instead of shame.

“Behind these cinder blocks, there is good news for those who are poor and locked up: You won’t be here long,” he said.

The speakers of Jackson’s coalition shared consistent messages of hope, self worth and individual responsibility. Many inmates shouted their accord in call-and-response. Others got up to dance as the band played Kirk Franklin’s “Melodies from Heaven.”

“Do not stay where you are,” activist Afrika Porter told the incarcerated women filling one half the gym. “This is only a minute. This is not it for you all, my beautiful queens.”

The warm messages stuck with 23-year-old Paul Jones, who is incarcerated at the jail ahead of a February trial on a weapons charge.

“It made me feel good about myself and my living situation,” Jones said. He often gets sad about his incarceration, he added. “It made me feel very uplifted and just gave me hope that I’m going to be home soon, and that this is not the end,” Jones said.

Visits like Jackson’s make it a better day for everyone in the jail, Cook County Jail Executive Director Jane Gubser said.

“It does make people hopeful. When people are hopeless, disasters happen, especially in jail,” Gubser said. The jail has added educational programs and an in-person voting site as part of its efforts to make similarly-focused “humanistic reforms,” she added.

Bishop Tavis Grant, who took over as Rainbow/PUSH’s acting executive director in September, acknowledged Jackson now faces a “daily battle” with Parkinson’s after the event. The longtime collaborator of Jackson’s said he was proud to see his civil rights leader friend struggle to stand.

“He still has the willpower, still has the thirst and the passion to fight at all costs,” Grant said.

jsheridan@chicagotribune.com