The Rainbow's Gravity
"Madeleine Albright told me at the '84 convention, 'If you even raise this issue [Palestine], you'll destroy this party,'" says Jim Zogby, a deputy campaign manager in 1983, senior adviser and vice chair in 1988, who went on to start the Arab American Institute. "The debate then was, Could you even talk to Palestinians? In the middle of all that, for Jackson to say 'our time, your time, has come' was empowering. There was a raw excitement about being included. But those were difficult years. After the convention, Mondale sent back the money Arab-American businessmen contributed to his campaign. After the election the political director of the DNC told me, 'We can't deal with you because if we do, another group will be angry with us.' I said that's not only insulting to us, it's anti-Semitic. Jackson urged us, Don't give up; the threat you pose is to stick around and fight. In 1988, I led the platform fight for a plank on mutual recognition and territorial compromise. We had a debate but no vote. We made a dent, but what it took to get there was huge."
"One of the things that I loved about Jackson, and still do," says Bill Fletcher Jr., now head of TransAfrica Forum and at the time involved in labor efforts in the Rainbow, "is that Jackson refused to be pigeonholed. In that sense he represented the best in real black political leadership. It wasn't simply ethnic leadership; it was a leader speaking on all the issues of the day from the perspective of being an African-American, so that that African-Americanness infused his viewpoints. What I have found in most white institutions is a failure to accept that and respect that in people of color, and I think it was one of the things that was infuriating to much of the Democratic Party officialdom about Jackson."
Including plantation-mentality black officialdom, stresses Gwen Patton, a longtime Alabama activist and former Rainbow Coalition board member. In Montgomery black politicians collaborated with the white media to attack Jackson and his supporters, even working the polls against him, offering "unsolicited voter's assistance." But Jackson won the black vote in the state, as he did nationwide. As Patton wrote in a biting 1984 analysis in The Journal of Intergroup Relations: "Jackson restored human dignity--the essence of freedom which had been sapped by Black politicians in the wake of the people's victory to wrest their citizenship rights from the segregationists. Jackson's candidacy proved that...true leaders are advocates--are waves, as Shirley Chisholm so eloquently says, pushed ahead by the Movement ship steered by the masses." In 1988 Jackson won the Alabama primary outright; this time black officials were on board ship, and grasping at the controls.
Overall, Jackson placed third in 1984, with 3.5 million votes, and the pundits who'd said he would be the party's ruin watched as Walter Mondale, heedless of Rainbow constituents and their issues, crashed in defeat. In 1988, Jackson placed second, winning over 7 million votes, more than Mondale had scored in 1984; and 1,218.5 convention delegates, more than any runner-up in history. Again the pundits, here in The New Republic, warned of "certain and apocalyptic defeat" if Jackson were given a spot on the Democratic ticket. He wasn't, and Michael Dukakis, as heedless as Mondale and hitched to Lloyd Bentsen, a DLC Democrat, suffered his own private apocalypse.
Jackson likes to recount a story from 1989, about a visit to Camp Solidarity in Virginia, where miners were in the midst of the historic Pittston strike. They were, for the most part, large men, white, partial to camouflage, 10,000 strong. Jackson thought they looked pretty fierce. Rich Trumka, then president of the United Mine Workers, told them, "Y'all probably wondering why Jesse Jackson is here. Last year we were told to be scared of him. And this year the folks we gave our money to are nowhere to be seen. So I want you to ask yourselves, Which would you rather have, a black friend or a white enemy?"
It was a question other Southern white trade unionists had raised during the campaigns with their memberships, many of them Reagan Democrats. As elsewhere, the miners listened and responded enthusiastically. Jackson always maintained that a progressive candidate could reach such Democrats with straight talk, empathy, class-angled economics and an appeal to common human values--what veteran activist Anne Braden, who'd organized Rainbow rallies in Appalachia that drew thousands of poor white nonvoters or registered Republicans, called "appealing to the best instincts of Southern whites as opposed to the worst, which is what Bill Clinton played to."
The Pittston story provokes a question now. After all the energy, vision, galvanizing presence and new voters Jackson brought to the scene, can it be said that the party and established progressive institutions answered in the same way as the plain people? Or did they, perhaps, prefer the white enemy to the black friend?