Jesse Jackson and the Democratic Party

Jesse JacksonTell me if you relate to this: You're only half-paying-attention to the Republican presidential contenders right now. You're not looking forward to the primary season - surely it'll be less exciting than the last. After 20 years of Bush-Clinton-Bush, it was exciting to hope for an end to the dismantling of social safety nets, criminalization of youth, mass deportation of immigrants, and erosion of worker's rights. But the limited reforms these last couple of years did not meet even your most modest expectations.

Well, did you know that during the Reagan years, in the midst of imminent nuclear war and willful denial of HIV/AIDS, there was a presidential primary candidate with a truly ambitious agenda? This candidate wanted to redistribute a chunk of the Pentagon budget to domestic programs, expand anti-discrimination laws to include sexual orientation/gender identity, strengthen affirmative action for women, create single-payer health care, and unconditionally oppose U.S. intervention in the global south. The candidate was black. And none of his major positions made it into the party platform.

If you're my age or younger, you may not know that in 1988, Jackson came in second in the Democratic primaries with 1,218.5 delegates, more than any runner-up in history. At one point, he was even the front-runner. The history of Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition of 1984 and 1988 is a story that needs to be told - because of what was created, what was achieved, and the lessons for activists today. His presidential runs inspired millions, unified a broad progressive coalition, and shook the political establishment to its very core.

Jackson made a run for President just 20 years after the Voting Rights Act, when blacks were barely attaining political office in significant numbers. Throughout both campaigns, the Rainbow spotlighted systematic violations of voting rights and political party rules that favored front-runners. They faced intense harassment by police and extremists. When he started his run, large organizations and elected officials of every background refused to support Jackson. Black churches were the only exception. These churches, with millions of members, were centers of organizing against Jim Crow a generation before and became Jackson's initial base.

Due to the lack of establishment support, committed activists and radicals driving grassroots social movements across the country filled the ranks of Rainbow leadership. Jackson and the Rainbow urged unification across nationality, class, race, and gender lines for a common progressive vision. New alliances were formed and communities mobilized. Across the country there were banners such as "Latinos for Jackson," "Asians for Jackson," "Small Farmers for Jackson," and "Gays and Lesbians for Jackson." In Homestead, PA, seven thousand steelworkers defied their national union and endorsed him. Autoworkers in Wisconsin did the same.

It's true that no demographic gravitated to him as much as blacks - often voting 90% for Jackson and forcing those who claim black constituencies to turn around and support him. But even in 1984, he received 15% of the vote in Vermont, a state where less than 1,000 blacks lived at the time. Jackson gave hope to people ready for change. He also struck fear into elements of the Democratic Party leadership.

In 1985, the Democratic Leadership Council was created, partly to make sure Jackson and those like him could never get the party nomination. The DLC and conservative Democrats advocated to create Super Tuesday - one big southern primary that would squash candidates with fewer resources. It backfired because Jackson swept those states in 1988. In 1989 the DLC recruited Bill Clinton to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. That gave us NAFTA, the "Defense of Marriage Act," "Welfare Reform," the Crime Bill, and other disasters.

By July of next year, the primary season will be over. Before then, let's take a moment to look backwards to two moments in time - July of 1984 and 1988 - moments that concluded primary campaigns like we've never seen before or since.

"My constituency is the desperate, the damned, the disinherited, the disrespected, and the despised. They are restless and seek relief. They have voted in record numbers. They have invested the faith, hope, and trust that they have in us. The Democratic Party must send them a signal that we care...We must leave racial battle ground and come to economic common ground and moral higher ground. America, our time has come."

Jesse Jackson, July 18, 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco

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