Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition

April 12, 2013

Lee Sustar recounts the history of Jesse Jackson's 1980s presidential campaigns.

ONLY A few days after being elected president in November 1988, George H.W. Bush invited Jesse Jackson over for lunch. The defeated Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis had to wait his turn.

Some on the left were uncomfortable with this move by Jackson, who had twice run for the Democratic presidential nomination, winning far more votes than anyone expected. But now, Jackson was saying he would have considered taking the job of "drug czar" in the new Republican administration. Still, most people viewed Jackson's audience with Bush as a sign that the left was being taken "seriously" in Washington.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Far from representing an opening for the left in U.S. politics, Jackson's emergence as a central figure in the Democratic Party during the Reagan era signaled the hold of electoral politics on what remained of the Black movement from the 1960s and '70s.

Jackson was following a phenomenon that first emerged on the local level with efforts by Black leaders--some with a considerable history in the civil rights movement--to gain a place in the Democratic Party leadership and to win local elections, particularly the mayor's offices of major cities.

The History of Black America

Wilson Goode in Philadelphia, Harold Washington in Chicago, Coleman Young in Detroit, Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young in Atlanta and others got the enthusiastic backing of African Americans who believed their rise signaled both a blow to the racism of the Democratic Party machines that ran most big U.S. cities and an opportunity for Blacks to finally get their interests served.

But the reality is that these mayors ended up presiding over cuts and austerity. Republican President Ronald Reagan was instituting huge cutbacks in federal aid to cities--such as the virtual elimination of support for public housing. This forced Black mayors and other elected officials to cut the social services that Black neighborhoods needed most, usually while beefing up law enforcement. While formally liberal, Black elected officials were compelled to become administrators of right-wing social policies.

As for the two dozen Black representatives in Congress, they were powerless to stop Reagan's attacks on civil rights and affirmative action. And since their political careers depended on remaining loyal members of the Democratic Party, the Congressional Black Caucus seldom criticized conservative Democrats for backing Reagan's cuts in social spending.

Jackson's "Rainbow Coalition" campaigns took the model of a crusading electoral campaign built around the enthusiasm of African Americans to the national level. But the result was similar, even though Jackson was never really close to becoming the Democratic presidential nominee--in particular, with the shift of Black political activity into the electoral arena and away from the grassroots struggles.

JACKSON'S OPPORTUNISM after the 1988 election would be no surprise to anyone familiar with his history. From his days as a young aide to Martin Luther King Jr. in the late 1960s, he had been on the conservative wing of the civil rights establishment, estranged from what Andrew Young called the "Black leadership family."

Although Jackson's efforts to win corporate backing for new Black businesses kept him in the headlines throughout the 1970s, his enthusiasm for "Black capitalism" made him an object of criticism for those struggling for the interests of Black workers. He even flirted at this time with Republican Party, sections of which had revived the rhetoric used by Richard Nixon about "Black Power" as Black capitalism.

But by the early 1980s, with the traditional Black leadership presiding over austerity in the cities and blocked from any real influence in national politics, Jackson recognized the huge vacuum on the left of U.S. politics--and he moved to fill it. Overnight, he scrapped his pro-business strategies of Black entrepreneurship in favor of a new message.

For the next few years, he traveled across the country almost constantly, arguing that the "coalition of the rejected"--Blacks, Latinos and poor whites--needed a Black presidential candidate to fight for their interests. As he said in a speech in the spring of 1983:

Blacks have their backs against the wall and are increasingly distressed by the erosion of past gains and the rapidly deteriorating conditions within Black and poor communities. As Black leaders have attempted to remedy these problems through the Democratic Party--to which Black voters have been the most loyal and disciplined group--too often they have been ignored or treated with disrespect...

An increase in voter registration and political representation would have a profound impact upon the status quo of the Democratic Party...Never again should Blacks live and operate below their political privilege and rights.

Although Jackson did not at first propose himself as a candidate, chants of "Run, Jesse, Run" were heard at the predominately Black meetings and rallies. Against the backdrop of recession, Reagan's racist policies and the inaction of the Black establishment, Jackson seemed to offer a fighting alternative. In late 1983, he made his candidacy official.

From the outset, the Black political establishment was overwhelmingly hostile. In Detroit, Coleman Young said, "The major task of Black America today is to get rid of Ronald Reagan. We cannot afford to support a Black candidate who cannot win." Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington first backed South Carolina's Dixiecrat Sen. Ernest Hollings for the Democratic nomination, before switching to the frontrunner and eventual nominee, former Vice President Walter Mondale. U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel of New York served as vice chair of Mondale's national campaign.

With virtually all of the leading Black Democrats opposing him, Jackson had no choice but to rely on a network of Black nationalist and left-wing activists to turn out the vote.

His success stunned the Democratic Party. By the end of the primary campaign, Jackson had won 3 million votes and come in first in 60 congressional districts. Black elected officials committed to Mondale were unable to prevent their constituents from voting for Jackson. By speaking out against racism and the policies of the Reagan administration and conservative Democrats, Jackson stood out in sharp relief from the right-wing political landscape.

For the party bosses who backed Mondale attempt to be a clone of Regan, Jackson's Rainbow campaign was intolerable. The more the Democratic Party was identified with Black issues, they reasoned, the more likely conservative white voters would support Reagan for a second term.

The Democratic leaders got their break with the "Hymietown" incident. Jackson's use of an anti-Semitic slur to refer to New York City provided a cover for a racist attack on the Black candidate--despite Jackson's repeated apologies for the statement.

But it was Louis Farrakhan's anti-Semitic "defense" of Jackson that provided Democratic bosses with the means to marginalize Jackson. Farrakhan, now the head of the Nation of Islam, who had publically threatened Malcolm X with death in the early 1960s when Malcolm was driven out of the Nation, had made a highly public endorsement of Jackson in order to advertise a reconstituted Nation. Jackson, who lacked organizers independent of existing Black machines, needed Farrakhan's help.

Although Mondale shut out virtually all of Jackson's party platform proposals at the San Francisco convention, Jackson had won a victory that would become apparent in the next four years.

The boos of Jackson delegates for pro-Mondale Black officials such as Andrew Young and Coretta Scott King warned Black Democratic officials that Jackson was more popular with the majority of Black Americans. If they continued to spurn him in favor of the Democratic establishment, they risked being turned out of office by pro-Jackson candidates. And so the Black political establishment reluctantly accepted Jackson as the national spokesperson.

Of course, this support came at a price. When Jackson ran again for the nomination in 1988, the Rainbow was a much more moderate vehicle. The Black nationalists and leftists who played an important role in 1984 were shut out by machine politicians such as Harlem Rep. Charles Rangel.

Jackson's subsequent moves to the right in the 1988 campaign were many. He criticized Reagan's intervention in the Gulf War between Iraq and Iran for risking "our boys" in an ill-defined mission. He denounced the administration's efforts to unseat Panamanian President Manuel Noriega for being too mild and sounded an anti-drug theme that provided left-wing cover for police crackdowns in poor urban neighborhoods.

And pandering to Zionist voters in New York, Jackson hedged his longstanding support for Palestinian rights by saying he would not talk to the Palestine Liberation Organization until it renounced "terrorism."

Many on the left argued that Jackson's calls for "economic justice" during this campaign injected "class consciousness" into the campaign. Indeed, thousands of Black and white workers turned out for Jackson rallies and voted for him, delivering him a victory in Michigan's crucial primary. Jackson's talk about the "coalition of the rejected" had some real substance in this case.

The fact that some white workers were willing to break with racism to vote for Jackson was welcomed by anyone committed to interracial unity. But at the same time, Jackson was steadily downplaying his anti-racist rhetoric. At the Rainbow Coalition convention, he even went so far as to say that the question of racism had been "solved."

Jackson's selection of Ron Brown as his chief negotiator at the 1988 Democratic National Convention showed where Jackson had taken the Rainbow. Brown was a California Democrat with no history at all in grassroots struggles, but a long record of working inside the party machine. He had once made his living as a lobbyist for Jean "Baby Doc" Duvalier during Duvalier's murderous dictatorship in Haiti.

Thus, the fate of the Black Democrats can be seen in sharp relief. Even those who set out with the intention of taking the radical demands of the civil rights and Black Power movement into the electoral arena found themselves pulled and shaped by their participation in the Democratic machine and local and federal government.

A version of this article first appeared in the February and March 1989 issues of Socialist Worker.

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