Rev. Dr. Frederick D. Haynes III is still adjusting to following in the footsteps of Reverend Jesse Jackson, one of the last living leaders of the American Civil Rights Movement.“It still remains surreal because of the fact that, Reverend J. Jackson, and his heroic service has achieved iconic status,” said Dr. Haynes, 62, and the new CEO and President of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition (RPC). “I never ever dreamt that he would tap me or see enough in me to ask me to succeed him—that is still mind blowing.”

Last month, Rev. Jackson, a seasoned civil rights leader, announced that Dr. Haynes would replace him as the leader of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition (RPC). The Chicago-based organization formed by Jackson in the 1996, combined the People United to Save Humanity (PUSH) and the Rainbow Coalition, both founded by Rev. Jackson.

Rev. Jackson now 81, made his name as a young member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization established by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957 to advance civil rights in the United States.

It was as an undergraduate at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University that Rev. Jackson became involved in SCLC. He gained prominence in the SCLC and was a member of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s entourage in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, the day of King’s assassination. 

According to Haynes, the legacy Rev. Jackson has built contributes to the daunting task of stepping into a position previously filled by such a figure. Still, it has also contributed to the warm reception he’s gotten. “The response of so many has been wonderfully warm,” said Haynes. “Wherever I go now, the congratulations not so much reflect what I’ve done, but who he is and what he means to so many.”

Among those offering their congratulations has been Vice President Kamala Harris, who attended RPC’s annual international convention in July.

“I have known and worked with Dr. Haynes for over 20 years, including when we worked together years ago in the early days of the criminal justice reform movement,” the Vice President said in her speech during the convention. “I am so confident in his leadership and ability to carry on the greatest traditions of this organization and meet the challenges of his moment.”

Leadership is nothing new to Dr. Haynes. For decades, the reverend has led a congregation of thousands at the Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. Haynes plans to continue leading the Dallas congregation while heading the Chicago-headquartered RPC.

Although publicly announced shortly before it became official. Haynes stepped into this new leadership position at RPC and noted that the discussion with Jackson of that eventuality has been ongoing since at least 2019. 

“The NAACP convention was meeting in Detroit, and I was addressing the convention, and Rev. Jackson asked to speak with me afterward,” Haynes recalled. 

Before that, Jackson had occasionally floated the idea to Haynes after having him speak for RPC, but Haynes had laughed those off as “a nice joke.” 

When Jackson approached him after that NAACP meeting, he gave Haynes the hard pitch. “On one level, I felt I was being sold an idea by the most persuasive salesman in the history of sales,” Haynes recounts. “At the same time, I felt his sincerity, which resonated with me because I’ve learned so much from him—I feel called to do this work.

Those meetings of the past few years, and his relationship with Jackson before that, Haynes recounted instances of wisdom and leadership from Jackson that stuck with him. However, one particular quality that stuck out to Haynes is Jackson’s ability to embody the Robert Kennedy quote: “Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.”

“He sees things as they are, but at the same time, he sees things as they ought to be [and asks] why not,” Haynes said.

It’s a vision Hayne’s has been trying to adapt. He’s tried to peer into the operation of systems while asking questions like “What are we aiming toward? What is the possibility that we should be impregnated with and working toward?” 

One thing that stood out to him in these early days of his RPC leadership is fighting environmental injustice.

“As we feel, the planet is experiencing a slow-burn, as it were. Some people could even say the planet is on fire.” said Haynes during what may be the hottest July human civilization has yet seen. “Unfortunately it’s poor Black, brown, Indigenous, and poor white communities that experience being on the front lines of climate change. Being termed as environmental injustice, in many instances environmental racism, Rainbow PUSH is going to be on the front lines of the fight against environmental injustice. It has not been a priority in the past, but it will be moving forward.”

It’s a topic that Haynes noted as demonstrable in his own home. Haynes mentioned “A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind,” as a text that helped to bring some of this to light for him. In particular, Texas leads the nation in children who have missed the most school days because of asthma.

“Right in Dallas where I am it’s been interesting to discover as there’s an attempt to build a truck yard in our community, next door to our church, across the street from a high school, as well as across from both single-family homes and an apartment complex,” he said. “This truck yard, is supposed to house 18-wheelers coming down our street—we have a fresh example of how zoning laws that are archaic and have often contributed to kinds of ill health of our communities.”

It is issues like this on both a large and small scale, in arenas that are both familiar and new, that Haynes plans to continue to do the work RPC has spent decades doing.

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