Second act: Tuscaloosa man finds faith amid hardship
By Sam West | Staff ReporterBy Sam West | 09/14/2015 7:59am
Joe Jackson shakes hands with the governor of Mississippi, Ronnie Musgrove. Photo courtesy of Joe Jackson
Gone were the days Jackson spent in the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion and on Hollywood movie sets. Being homeless in downtown Tuscaloosa was certainly a change of pace for him.
“I never thought I’d end up there,” he said. “It really hit me, you know, hey, this is where I am at because I’ve kind of let myself get out of control.”
Joe Jackson grew up in Pearl, Mississippi. For a time he worked in the ministry, but he struggled to fit into the bureaucracy of established churches. Jackson decided he’d rather serve the public through government, so he refocused his studies on political science and began to get involved locally.
The first time he attended a meeting of the state Democratic Party, the idealistic student spoke out against bickering within the group.
“I basically told them, ‘You guys are arguing like a bunch of school kids, this is ridiculous,’” he said.
A representative of Mississippi Governor Ronnie Musgrove took Jackson aside and told him he liked what he said. Later, he got a call from the governor’s office and soon had a job on the politician’s private campaign staff.
“It was really fun,” Jackson said. “Going to these fundraising parties and seeing some people that worked in Congress or bigwigs in Mississippi politics, working with the Governor - it was pretty heady stuff for me. It was high cotton.”
It was when Jackson left the governor’s employment in 2006 to attend The University of Alabama for graduate school that his oldest son Brett started complaining of headaches. They took him to many doctors, all of whom dismissed his illness. Eventually, he was diagnosed with a rare, inoperable, terminal form of brain cancer.
A hospital in New York, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, was doing an experimental treatment, but the Jackson family’s heath insurance wouldn’t cover the expense. They reached out to people online, using websites like TideSports.com and Fark.com to help raise money. Within a few days, they had around $30,000. But the hospital still refused to admit Brett.
“That did not sit well with me,” he said. “We started calling on all these people that had been following Brett’s story, and by this time, it had been picked up all over the world.”
Jackson and supporters of the family began a campaign of calling Sloan Kettering. Thousands of calls came in, so many that the hospital’s switchboards went down. Sloan Kettering eventually agreed to take Brett, but by that time he had taken a turn for the worst. His condition was deemed so critical he wasn’t allowed on an airplane.
“It ended up being a situation of too little, too late,” Jackson said. “It was a lot of hoops to go through, and by the time we finally got approval for everything, he just wasn’t able. It would’ve killed him on the way up there.”
Brett Jackson died in 2009.
During the tragedy, Jackson’s son Josh found solace in bringing joy to others.
“In the hospitals with my oldest son Brett, Josh would be outside telling jokes to people, playing instruments,” Jackson said. “He would literally have a crowd of doctors and nurses around him.”
Josh auditioned for an acting class in Tuscaloosa, and during a showcase for the students in front of various agents, he was signed. He eventually got a part in “The Butler,” where he acted in a scene alongside Forest Whitaker.
Joe ended up getting involved in acting as well through his son’s agent. He sent out a headshot just to see what would happen, and to his surprise, he received a call from a Hollywood agent.
“At first I thought it was somebody playing a joke, one of my friends, but it was actually Spike Lee’s assistant,” he said.
In Lee’s film “Old Boy,” Jackson played the part of a coroner. Jackson said that Lee’s reputation for being intense is actually untrue.
“I had interaction with him, and he was very gracious, very kind, outgoing, very helpful,” he said.
Jackson then went on to appear in “Hateship Loveship,” a drama featuring Kristen Wiig, Guy Pearce and Nick Nolte.
Lisa Fuller, Jackson’s talent agent, believes he is a skilled actor who started his career at the right time in his life.
“Everybody has their specific time that’s their prime time for acting,” she said. “Some people it happens when they’re older, sometimes it happens when they’re young. I think each individual person is different.”
But the actor couldn’t run from the pain of his loss. After his second feature film role, Jackson’s marriage dissolved and he found himself at the YMCA.
“At that point I realized I could do one of two things: I could continue down that path or I could get my head out of my rear end and get back on track, which is eventually what I did,” he said.
Jackson quit drinking, moved into his own residence and has started classes at the University to finish his master’s in consumer quality management. The actor is also looking at auditioning for movies and commercials.
Perhaps the biggest recent change for him, though, is his rekindled faith in Christianity. After his son passed away, Jackson lost his faith.
“When he died, for me, the idea of God died as well,” Jackson said.
For a few years, Jackson identified as agnostic.
“I was mad,” he said. “My son had passed away and my marriage was dying. Everything was out of control. I wanted to be mad at God, but yet, I didn’t want to even acknowledge he existed.”
Eventually, in despair, Jackson said he called out to God and felt an answer.
“I was lying in bed one night, just miserable, and I was like, ‘God, if you’re there, you’ve got to show me, man.’ And I just had the strangest sense of peace come over me,” he said. “And it had been a long time since I felt that. You know, his son died as well. That’s something that, when I realized, it kind of clicked with me.”
After that, Jackson got involved with the First Freewill Baptist Church in Northport. He did a bit of ministry in a retirement home in Tuscaloosa. Reverend Tim Baumgarten remembers helping Jackson talk through some of his struggles over meals at Waffle House.
“We just talked about some of the difficulties going forward after the loss of a son like that, through cancer,” Baumgarten said.
“I feel like God kinda had me go down in the gutter just to show me what I had,” Jackson said. “It made me be more appreciative of the things I had. I feel like even though I felt alone, he was there with me. The relationship with my other two boys, Josh and Matthew, is stronger than it’s ever been. I really feel like things are looking up now.”