The Rainbow's Gravity
The day that Ronald Reagan died, Jackson was preparing for a barnstorm through Appalachia. There was a telling symmetry about it. Twenty years ago, as Reagan lashed out at "welfare queens" and projected a fantasyland America, Jackson was in those same hills and hollows, pressing against the flesh and suffered facts of the real thing. It was the children of Appalachia about whom Reagan had said, Let them eat ketchup! and whom America today has sent to kill and die in Iraq. "Why are we going to Appalachia?" Jackson said. "Because that's where our soul is." Our shame, too; along with the Black Belt South, it is the region with the most unemployment, the poorest people, the sickest people, the most persistent underdevelopment, whichever party holds power and however prosperous the time. Urging "Reinvest in America" and co-sponsored by a host of unions that never put their names to a Rainbow campaign, the tour was Third Force all over again, including the blackout from a press gorging on the myth of Reagan, man of the people.
"I do not approach America cynically," Jackson said, "because I did not know a day where we did not have to struggle. People ask about anniversaries--fifty years since Brown, forty years since the Civil Rights Act--and say, 'What happened in fifty years?' It's a good question, but what about what happened before fifty years? For 335 years race supremacy was the law of the land. Then the law changed but the culture didn't. The idea of a nonracist society, legally, is just fifty years old. When we ran, the Voting Rights Act was just nineteen years old. So it's still early in the morning. And it's a bit different between African-Americans and our white progressive allies. For us, liberals and conservatives are often two sides of the same coin. No liberal ever had to fight to use a toilet. No liberal ever had to fight for the right to vote, fight to stay in a hotel, fight to buy ice cream at a Howard Johnson's with money. No liberal is scared today because there are so many ways the constituency can be killed. And there's a culture that goes with that. So you're always fighting two battles. You're fighting the culture in your own huddle as you're fighting the other side. You're pushing political ideas and cultural transformation at the same time. What was gratifying about the campaigns was moving that process, and that process is irreversible."
Electorally, this year's Illinois Senate race is another stage in the process. Barack Obama, 42, is likely to become the only black senator come November. At the Rainbow/PUSH convention in June, the mere mention of his name by John Kerry prompted a standing ovation. As Marable notes, Obama (like Baldwin and Jesse Jr.) is representative of "that generation of the left that came to political maturity in the 1980s informed by three pivotal motions, around AIDS, antiapartheid and the Jackson campaigns." Coming up his own way--Harvard, local elective office, "the Rainbow via Tiger Woods," as journalist John Nichols aptly put it--Obama nevertheless followed a Jacksonian strategy, solidifying his black base, then appealing to Latinos, Asian-Americans, white liberals, farmers, gays and lesbians, labor, with a message of economic justice and opposition to the war that, again, presents an alternative to DLC politics. For a party in search of stars, Obama could be it. But as his friend Camelia Odeh, a 1988 Jackson delegate, longtime Palestinian organizer and executive director of the South West Youth Collaborative in Chicago, cautions: "I wouldn't put so much on the individual. We need more than that on the left--a discourse around ideologies and, beyond only activism, genuine grassroots community organizing. Then when the individual can't pull through or has to compromise, people don't get demoralized."
Perhaps it will take the generation behind Obama for that. At a recent conference of Democratic progressives, the younger cohort, more reflective of rainbowism than their elders, were talking about technology but also "beauty parlor/barbershop" organizing; about voter registration but also about using electoral politics tactically, because "our issues don't go away after the election"; about remembering that "the people need hope" but also regarding the Democratic Party without illusion. The name Kerry never came up. Their issues fell within what Jackson had called "the trilogy of racism, exploitative capitalism and militarism," what Martin Luther King had first named "the triple evils." In their 20s mostly, they weren't quite advocating a "restructuring of the whole of American society," as King had, but they did speak of imagining a different world. In their discussion there was the resonance of something I'd heard from Jack O'Dell, an old soldier of the left, who'd worked with Dr. King, worked with Jackson shaping the international agenda. "There are moments," he'd said, "and we have to take from those moments all that is positive, because that's our inheritance. Because of Jesse Jackson's campaigns, we know how to build a grassroots campaign. Without them, we might have the analysis but not the experience. We must still ask ourselves how we can reinvigorate electoral democracy. We can't drop out, as if what we don't like about electoral politics will go away because we abstain. Movements are directed toward political power, and wherever we can get a piece of it, we have to try to get it and hold on to it. Now, we know what Bush is. If we are victorious in defeating Bush, then our assignment is to make what we can of Kerry. And our job begins the next day."