The Rev. Jesse Jackson (center), flanked by his oldest son, Jesse Jackson Jr., mourns his mother, Helen Burns Jackson, who died Sept. 7, 2015, at age 91.
John H. White

When the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s mother gave birth to him as an unwed teen, “I guarantee you where she was going to church didn’t look like this,” said former President Bill Clinton in his signature, conversational style during homegoing services Monday for Helen Burns Jackson. Mrs. Jackson died Sept. 7 at age 91.

Springfield Baptist Church in Greenville, S.C., was filled with love, laughter and tears for the woman who gave the world the civil rights icon, twice presidential candidate and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, and his younger brother, Charles “Chuck” Jackson, a Grammy-winning singer and songwriter credited with launching Natalie Cole’s legendary career. 

Mrs. Jackson’s story could easily have stopped with her being a teen mom, but because she didn’t treat life like a “dress rehearsal,” noted Clinton, she was responsible for depositing great gifts to the world, namely, two accomplished sons.

“Your mother was a national treasure,” Clinton told the Rev. Jackson, his friend and longtime political ally from the pulpit of a church organized by former slaves, as about 500 onlookers cried, laughed and cheered as they heard heartfelt anecdotes about the woman affectionately known as “Mama Helen.”

In addition to Clinton, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), the Rev. Al Sharpton, TV’s Greg Mathis and former South Carolina Gov. Richard Riley were among those in attendance. Among those sending proclamations were President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, South African President Jacob Zuma, Guinean President Alpha Condé, former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and the British House of Commons.

Advertisement

Tears flowed from the heartbroken Jackson brothers moments before they closed their mother’s casket, where she lay dressed in pink, flanked by floral displays also featuring pink. Singer Kim Stratton captured the celebratory yet mournful mood with her signature rendition of “Jehovah Jireh.” Later, Santita Jackson, the reverend’s oldest daughter, recalled that sorrowful scene in the movie Imitation of Life with her own piercingly rich version of “Trouble of the World.” 

Clinton talked about all the times the Rev. Jackson told him stories of his childhood and how challenging it was growing up poor in segregated Greenville. He imagined how his mother’s life could have “gone off the tracks 15 times in 15 different ways” if she had not been a woman of great faith.

“What could have been bad luck, she turned into God’s great fortune. These sons didn’t have to turn out like they did,” Clinton said. “Thank you, God, for this great free woman.”