As the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson Sr. eulogized Aretha Franklin last month, I was reminded that he turns 77 in early October. And as he spoke of her service to the movement, I thought about his almost six decades of fighting for the dispossessed and disenfranchised.
Jesse was first arrested in a civil-rights action to integrate the public library in Greenville, South Carolina, in the summer of 1960—and he has never stopped marching since. Even with Parkinson’s, he gets up every day to take the early bus to fight for justice.
At his peak, he was known all around the world by his first name. He was regarded as the best campaign speaker of his era, carried on Dr. King’s advocacy of nonviolent resistance, and helped lead the progressive movement during the dark days of Ronald Reagan and the right-wing counter-revolution. With little money and no institutional backing, he ran for president twice, and in 1988 won 13 states, 7 million votes, and more than 1,200 delegates at the Democratic
National Convention in Atlanta—at the time, the highest second-place finish since the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965.
He put flesh on the spirit of Dr. King’s 1957 cry to “give us the ballot,” by registering to vote African Americans and the young everywhere he went, for literally decades. Even as he eulogized the great Aretha Franklin, he pointed out “the short lines for voting” that had helped elect Donald Trump.
Until perhaps the 2008 Obama campaign, no individual had inspired more new young and minority voters to register than Jesse Jackson—which means that he has played a direct role in electing Democrats and progressives at every level, in every part of the nation, for years.
The Jackson presidential campaigns of the 1980s opened the door to Barack Obama’s victory. Obama himself once told Jackson that after watching him debate in 1984, he knew it was possible for a black candidate to win.
But Jesse didn’t just inspire a young, talented candidate; nor did he stop with registering uncounted African Americans and young people to vote—he also forced the Democratic Party to change its rules during his campaigns, in ways that made them fairer and more proportional, thus opening the door to an African-American presidential nominee in the future. Jackson’s rules changes made delegate selection more proportional, and less winner-take-all, and thus made it possible for Barack Obama to defeat Hillary Clinton in 2008.
Jesse changed the Democratic Party, helping it evolve into its modern configuration as a diverse party, not a Dixiecrat party. In the 1980s, the prevailing pundit theory was that the ticket back to
relevance for the Democratic Party was to follow the lead of the DLC (Democratic Leadership Council, or as Jesse suggested, the Democrats for the Leisure Class): to try to win back white Southerners, reach out to “moderates,” and appeal to the corporate class.
But Jackson proposed a different way forward: the idea of the Rainbow Coalition, expanding the party to fully include a new party base of the young, African Americans, Latinos, women, labor union members, gays and lesbians, Arab Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, students, peace activists, environmentalists, all unified into one winning voting coalition.
With the help of Ross Perot splitting the Republican vote in 1992, Bill Clinton and the DLC won the early rounds of that argument. But Barack Obama’s victory was far more “rainbow” than “Southern white guy,” and the current version of the Democratic Party is clearly Jesse’s Rainbow metaphor writ large.
They may call it the Rising American Electorate or the New American Majority now, but it’s really a bigger, more powerful version of the Rainbow Coalition that Jackson prophesied back in the 1980s.
Steve Phillips is a frequent Nation contributor, and the author of Brown Is the New White, the book that makes a strong case for the New American Majority, with African-American and Latino voters as its core votes. Note that Steve Phillips graciously dedicates the book to (among others) Reverend Jackson, “who risked his life to show the world the power and potential of an electoral rainbow coalition connected to the movement for social justice.”
Maybe it’s because Steve was listening at the Democratic National Convention in 1984, when in his incredible speech, Jesse Jackson summed up the progressive game plan for winning elections in one paragraph:
“If blacks vote in great numbers, progressive whites win. It is the only way progressive whites win. If blacks vote in great numbers, Hispanics win. When blacks, Hispanics, and progressive whites vote, women win. When women win, children win. When women and children win, workers win. We must all come together.”
Thirty-four years later, it’s still a pretty good summary of our winning resistance electorate, right? So happy 77th birthday, Jesse. Keep on keeping hope alive…