Some knew Helen Burns Jackson as their hairdresser. Others knew her as a choir member. Most knew her as the mother of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the civil rights activist who was born and raised in Greenville.
But at her funeral Monday, most who spoke called her by her most familiar name, “Mama Helen.”
They spoke of her work ethic, of her devotion to family, of her desire for equality, of her musical gifts, of her willingness to help others, of her knowledge and use of the Scriptures to educate and of how she passed each of those characteristics down to her two sons, Jesse and Charles.
“Your mother was a national treasure,” former President Bill Clinton told the crowd of hundreds who gathered inside Springfield Baptist Church in Greenville.
Jackson died Sept. 7. She was 91.
Life didn’t have to turn out as well as it did for Jackson, Clinton said.
She was an unwed 16-year-old when she gave birth to Jesse, and she poured her life into both Jesse and Charles “Chuck” Johnson, who became an award-winning songwriter and producer.
She was a cosmetologist, a feminist, a community servant who served on the boards of a number of local nonprofits.
She was a mentor to many. And she used verses from the Bible for nearly every bit of advice, friends said.
“She managed to keep working for the right things the right way, standing for the right things the right way and be a truly free human being by living her life by her gifts and imparting all that to her children, her family,” Clinton said.
Politicians, civil rights leaders and preachers from across the country spoke during her four-hour funeral service, which was interspersed with rousing musical pieces.
Rev. Jackson said his mother passed along her bent toward equality and social justice to him. Chuck inherited all of the musical ability, he said.
She was honest to a fault, he said.
Once, someone surprised the family with groceries left on their front step when the boys were young. She wouldn’t let them take the groceries inside because she didn’t want someone to later accuse them of stealing.
She only let them bring the groceries inside once a war veteran whom she had been teaching to write showed up and asked why her boys hadn’t put away the groceries he’d bought for them.
The Rev. Frederick D. Haynes III of Friendship West Baptist Church in Dallas, said if you dig deep into the roots of who Jesse and Chuck Jackson are today, you will find the characteristics of “Mama Helen.” The strong will, sharp mind and musical gifts.
Her sons are the fruit of her labors, Haynes said.
“They are the fruit but today I want to roll back and thank God for the root,” Haynes said. “The root is Mama Helen.”
Rev. Jackson used to call his mother each time before he made a speech or went on television. Sometimes, if he was in a hurry, he would have a protégé who traveled with him make the call. That person was the Rev. Al Sharpton, who said he would often call Mama Helen for his own advice.
“She would not do most of the talking, but all of the talking,” Sharpton said. “And no matter what was going on, she had a Bible verse for you and she would quiz you on it. And she would tell me, she said ‘What you see in your mentor, he got from me. I taught him dignity and integrity. … They ridiculed me when Jesse was born, but they don’t ridicule me no more.'”
Davida Mathis, a family friend and Helen Jackson’s attorney, said for the last year she was asked to provide counsel to Jackson, “and all of you who knew Mrs. Jackson knew it would be impossible to counsel Mrs. Jackson.”
Mrs. Jackson did most of the talking and most of the teaching, Mathis said. But one thing she said stood out to Mathis.
“Motherhood is a profession all by itself,” Mathis recalled her saying. “And Mrs. Jackson elevated that profession.”