In his speech the keynote for the university's Martin Luther King Jr. week observances Jackson, 71, laced his reminiscences with reminders that King was challenging the nation to "fulfill the unfinished business of the broken promise" made when President Lincoln ended slavery in 1863.
Using the call-response pattern of black Christian churches, he had the crowd repeat after him, "I am," he said waiting for the echo, "somebody." "I am," he said and the crowd repeated, "God's child."
Jackson told the university students, faculty and members of the community, including an estimated 2,000 school children, that the country suffers a deficit of dignity. "People lose their sense of self worth."
Much of his speech served to remind listeners that the civil rights movement King led was grounded in the Christian faith.
"He believed that suffering breeds character, character breeds faith, and faith will not disappoint," Jackson said. "Out of the roots of his faith, Dr. King is now the great prophet and transformer of America."
In a moving interaction with his audience, Jackson showed that much remains to be done in America.
He asked those in the crowd to stand if they had student loans, knew a classmate who has tried drugs or done jail time, or knew someone who has been shot or taken guns to school.
Each time, a sizable number stood.
The most sobering moment was in response to Jackson's last command: "If you know someone who has considered suicide, please stand." Hundreds stood.
"In a land so blessed, we are too stressed. Too gripped by fear," said Jackson. "We love what we should hate drugs, violence and guns and we hate who we should love each other."
When a woman wearing a head scarf typically worn by Muslim women asked how she describing herself as a minority several times over and other Utah Democrats can succeed, Jackson returned to his theme of faith. "The best news is Jesus was a minority, " he said.
It was not clear whether Jackson could see the woman from the dais.
Fifth graders George Okusi and Daniel Martinez enjoyed Jackson's speech especially when he had them stand and repeat his words of encouragement.
Their teacher at Jackson Elementary in downtown Salt Lake City, Glenda Woodring, said the message she hopes the children remember is this: "They are somebody, no matter what their color."
Darnel Haney of Ogden said Jackson's visit to Utah and the chance for school children to see him was a "historic moment for them to recognize a figure who lived through all the degradation and still has hope."
In a press conference before his speech, Jackson said unequal access to opportunity is holding the nation back, and government can play a constructive role in keeping the door open for those who face the biggest challenges. He issued a call to wipe out poverty as a necessary step to "leveling the playing field" for all Americans.
"The poor always assume the most responsibility, work the hardest, drive the farthest to work and have the least to work with, are under more stress and don't live as long," Jackson said. "Poor people aren't poor because they don't want to work and rich people aren't rich because they are so smart."