A Matter of Degrees

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CBS/The Early Show
Jesse Jackson holds many titles besides that of Reverend: civil rights leader, negotiator, former presidential candidate. On Saturday, add another to the list: scholar.

Jackson left the Chicago Theological Seminary in 1966, just a few courses shy of earning a Master of Divinity degree. He had good reason to leave; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked him to commit full-time to the civil rights movement there. More than three decades later, Jackson will finally receive his diploma in a ceremony that will also draw attention to one of his more recent efforts.

Seminary President Susan Thistlethwaite, who a Seminary spokesman describes as “a big fan” of Jackson’s, began looking into his school records about two years ago. She felt Jackson had more than fulfilled the requirements for his missing courses in pastoral care, preaching and international relations through his life experiences.

“He hadn’t quite turned in all his sermons,” said Thistlethwaite. “I laughed and said, ‘this is a no-brainer.'” The Seminary allowed Jackson to earn credit for the remaining coursework after a faculty committee reviewed the whole body of his work since leaving the seminary. Jackson was also required to take an hour-long oral exam on a large scope of subjects, including hiss writings on the theological underpinnings of the death penalty

Jackson told CBSNews.com he was “deeply touched” by the Seminary’s recognition. “It was a dream deferred. I always wanted to go back but there was always something that seemed to prevent it,” he said.

Jackson began the master’s program in 1964, after graduating from North Carolina A&T State University. During his third and last year, he said Dr. King came to Chicago to recruit him. When Jackson said he had just six months left of study, the civil rights leader told him he would “learn more theology with me in six months on the road than six years at the seminary,” Jackson said. So the theology student took a leave of absence from the seminary and took a grade of “incomplete” on his final three courses.

In 1968, Jackson was ordained a Baptist minister. He directed Operation Breadbasket in Chicago (an organization focused on improving the economic state of the Black community), Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity) and later the Rainbow Coalition. Jackson ran for president in 1984 and 1988 and currently serves as the President and Secretary of State’s Special Envoy for the Promotion of Democracy and Human Rights in Africa.

As the President of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, Jackson led protests last fall on behalf of several black Decatur High School students who were expelled for fighting at a high school football game. He was arrested and paid a $10,000 bond. Two of those students recently graduated after finishing their studies through an alternatie program that Jackson helped arrange. By court order, Jackson was barred from attending their graduation. The school said Jackson and other protestors would detract from the event.

“We were not coming to demonstrate, we were coming to celebrate… for them to deny us a chance to go to the graduation was just more of their anger,” he said.

Jackson invited all seven expelled students and their families to his own graduation on Saturday. He says they all plan to attend the private event.

“The seminary is about redemption and reconciliation. It’s our mission to reclaim our youth. That’s why I left the seminary, to search for lost sheep (and) those left behind,” said Jackson.

The ceremony will also be rich in symbolic significance. Jesse Jackson, Jr., a graduate of the seminary and a member of the board of trustees, will hood his father at the graduation. And former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young will give the commencement speech. Jackson says Young was with Dr. King when he asked him to leave the seminary. “For Andrew to speak is like coming full circle for Dr. King’s request,” said Jackson. “I wish Dr. King could be there.”

Jackson’s appearance at the Seminary will not likely be his last. Officials would like to see Jackson teach a course at the school. Jackson says he’s looking forward to it.

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