The story of Mannie Jackson’s life has been chronicled in both a book and a documentary of the same name, “Boxcar to Board Rooms,” a title that hints at an inspiring narrative of a man who moved from humble beginnings to humbling accomplishments.
But today Jackson is developing a new narrative – one that includes protecting access to education as part of his legacy.
Through a $2 million gift to the College of Applied Health Sciences at Illinois, Jackson helped create the Mannie L. Jackson Illinois Academic Enrichment and Leadership Program, known as I-LEAP. The program, in place since 2007, boasts a six-year, 94 percent graduation rate and a retention rate in the high 90th percentile. It provides help for first-generation college students, those from groups underrepresented on campus and student-athletes.
First-year I-LEAP students also get paired through the Promoting Enriching Experiences and Relationships Mentoring Program with I-LEAP upperclassmen for personal support, information about college resources and services and help getting involved with campus activities. It also helps ease the transition for students from non-traditional backgrounds.
Jackson was born in Illmo, Missouri, and spent his first three years living in a boxcar and sharing it with as many as 12 family members. After earning a basketball scholarship and later his degree at Illinois, Jackson – who had seen the Harlem Globetrotters play when he was a young boy – landed a spot on the team.
He climbed the corporate ladder to hold several senior management positions at Fortune 100 company Honeywell; he has since served on the boards of six Fortune 500 companies. In 1993, Jackson became the first African-American to own a major international sports/entertainment organization when he purchased the Harlem Globetrotters.
“I don’t think that would have been possible 25 years earlier when universities were mostly for the wealthy and for the privileged,” Jackson said. “My family – parents and wife – contributed immensely to my surviving and succeeding in life and business with a positive attitude as I faced many racial hurdles and roadblocks.”
Jackson, having sold his interest in the Globetrotters, now focuses on his philanthrophy. Among the students benefiting from his I-LEAP program is Jordan McCann, who attended high school on the South Side of Chicago and was the first of his immediate family to go to college. After walking in the May 2013 graduation ceremony, McCann said he sat down and cried.
“Without the I-LEAP program, I would not have gotten that diploma,” said McCann, now working toward a master’s degree while serving as assistant women’s basketball coach at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Florida, an NAIA school. “I couldn’t believe all the stuff I’d been through, and it came true just because I stuck with it and the people around me believed in me and I believed in myself.”
McCann recalls meeting Jackson during his freshman year, when the young student was struggling. Knowing that Jackson wanted him to succeed and make the most of his opportunity helped McCann persevere, he said.
Krystal Andrews, I-LEAP senior program coordinator, said Jackson’s connection with students wasn’t unique to McCann: “He really makes an effort to come and see the students that he’s beaming with pride about.”
Although Jackson spends much of his time traveling for his philanthropic and business pursuits, he is still a presence at Illinois, where he was the first African-American starter and letter winner, along with high school classmate Govoner Vaughn.
Jackson, who describes his current endeavors as being a venture capitalist and philanthropist, donated $3 million in support of the Mannie L. Jackson University of Illinois Basketball Hall of Fame earlier this year. He tries to return to campus at least once a semester.
Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise said that while Jackson’s leadership on the basketball court guaranteed him a place in Illinois athletics history, she is an even bigger fan of his lifelong focus on opening doors to educational and career opportunities for others.
“He inspires excellence through his philanthropy and through his personal commitment to leaving the world a better place for the generations to come,” she said.
Jackson’s fan club also includes the likes of longtime friend and noted sports executive Jerry Colangelo, who started at guard alongside Jackson as a sophomore at Illinois.
“He always carried himself with grace and dignity, and in my mind I saw nothing but good fortune and success for him later in life because he appeared to be the entire package,” Colangelo said.
Jackson credits his success to his education, hard work and the help and lucky breaks he received along the way. But he is also quick to note that if not for federal legislation, he would “probably be laboring in a brickyard or factory someplace in southern Illinois or in jail.”
And even with opportunities provided by integration, without basketball no one would have known who he was or cared, he said.
He published his autobiography in 2011; in November, his life story aired as a documentary on the Big Ten Network.
“It does feel like a movie,” Jackson said of his life, “because much of it, I don’t have a lot of control over.”