The Rainbow's Gravity | The Nation


The Rainbow's Gravity

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That black establishment "wanted very much not to anoint Jesse Jackson," recalls Ron Walters, a political scientist who would be Jackson's deputy campaign manager for issues. And indeed Jackson ran in 1984 without its support. He was considered too brash, too much the maverick, untutored and untested. But Jackson was the candidate of opportunity, and in any case no one else had the moxie to try. Plus Jackson knew the terrain.

JoAnn Wypijewski was a volunteer for the Jackson campaign in the 1988 New York primary.

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JoAnn Wypijewski
JoAnn Wypijewski, who writes The Nation’s “Carnal Knowledge” column, has been traveling the country...

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"The guy had basically spent the twenty years before that campaigning," says Steve Cobble, who started working for Jackson in 1987 and most recently advised the Kucinich campaign. "No one thought of it as that, but the point is he wasn't showing up the first time as a candidate. That was one of Al's problems this year. It was one of Dennis's problems. Even if people liked you, they liked you on paper; they didn't know you. Jackson they knew. In every state he'd visited, he had people that would offer their church or do volunteer work or bring people out." He knew the deejays, knew how to use free media, so by the time he ran, says Eric Easter, who dealt with the press during the campaigns, he'd begin each day calling black radio shows in about twenty states.

More directly, in 1983 Jackson had toured the South, registering voters in political revival meetings that would contribute to a 30 percent increase in black registration there between 1982 and 1984. In 1980 he'd been on the primary campaign trail, leading rallies on issues he'd hoped the Democrats would embrace. He called it a Third Force Strategy. "We were in Ames, Iowa, before the caucus," says Watkins, now communications director for Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. "Seven hundred fifty people had come out for Kennedy; 1,000 came for Jackson, and people couldn't get in. But we were ignored by the press, ignored by the candidates. I'd actually tried to get Reverend to run in 1979, but he wouldn't do it. Now I told him, 'Unless you're a candidate, no one will pay attention.'"

So he ran. "I ran then to challenge our progressive white allies to accept our issues and our pain, not just our votes," Jackson said recently. "We're still convinced, and still trying to convince the party, that expanding the pool of voters is key to winning--but also dealing with the issues that matter to them. Many people want their votes but don't want their issues. Conservatives try to oppress them; progressives want to wave at 'em but not get involved in the grease and the blood and the grit of dealing with their issues, because their issues create a weighty matter of substance."

Looking back, people with the campaigns say it was the amplification of issues, and the bolstering of ground forces driving them, that are Jackson's profoundest achievements. Walters coordinated twenty-three issue desks in the '84 campaign. "It was like a school right in the middle of the campaign headquarters," he says. "No one else at that level was talking about environmental racism, 'no first use' of nuclear weapons; antiapartheid (remember, the ANC was a 'terrorist organization'); the Arab-Israeli situation." No other candidate had an economic policy based on major investment and cuts in the military, a program Bill Clinton would run on in 1992 (though abandon forthwith). None advocated extension of the Congressional health plan to all Americans. None regarded gay rights as inherent in a larger moral claim and not simply something to be pandered to. None twinned race and class so naturally. None had ever been black.

"Without Jesse, I don't think the antiapartheid movement would have occurred with the strength or vigor that it had," the historian Manning Marable observes, noting the relationships forged in the campaign that boosted that movement and others as well. A full accounting of everyone who "took what they learned and ran with it" can probably never be done, says Eric Easter, who consulted with Dean's campaign in 2003-04. They range from Paul Wellstone, whose 1990 senatorial campaign came out of the Rainbow; to gay activists, who created consciously multiracial projects; to family farmers and Southerners, who planted a garden of organizations; to Latinos and Asian-Americans, who pumped up their political volume; to Tammy Baldwin, who worked for the Rainbow in Wisconsin, entered politics and fashioned a coalition of students, farmers, workers, environmentalists and progressives that would, by 1998, elect her to Congress, the first woman in the state's history and the first openly gay nonincumbent in the nation's. When Baldwin talks about building support both inside Washington and outside in the communities for universal healthcare or daycare or civil rights, she echoes Jackson's campaigns.

Certainly, says Ron Daniels, who was organizing the Rainbow Coalition after '84, became deputy campaign manager in '88 and now directs the Center for Constitutional Rights, "in terms of synthesizing a reformist and radical message, and linking vision to policy to action, those were tremendous contributions," and--especially on the Middle East--"pretty heavy stuff."

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