Twenty years ago, at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, Jesse Jackson began his historic speech by bringing Montgomery bus boycott heroine Rosa Parks up to the podium with these words: “All of us who are here think that we are seated. But we’re really standing on someone’s shoulders. Ladies and gentlemen, Mrs. Rosa Parks–the mother of the civil rights movement.”
We should keep that thought in mind Thursday night, as we watch Barack Obama accept the nomination of the oldest political party in the world in a stadium in Denver–because Senator Obama, as he himself has often said, is also standing on lots of shoulders.
And one of those sets of shoulders belongs to Jesse Jackson.
I know what you’re thinking–didn’t Jackson criticize Senator Obama on Fox recently? Yes, he did, a bad mistake for which he has repeatedly apologized.
But Jackson also endorsed Senator Obama long ago, when it mattered. And over the long arc of history, Jesse Jackson’s real contribution to progressive politics will include, in the words of Timothy, that he “fought the good fight…kept the faith.”
Using the metaphor of the relay race, which seems appropriate with the Olympics in the background, Jackson ran his leg brilliantly, faster than anyone would have imagined when he took the baton from Dr. King four decades ago, and far closer to victory when Barack Obama picked up that same baton last year.
What do I mean? Well, consider what Jackson left on the table after his two important runs for President in 1984 and 1988:
• A Democratic Party expanded by millions of new young and African-American voters, base voters who are still helping Democrats win elections–and Barack Obama win primaries.
• The concept of the “rainbow coalition,” a quilt made up of a variety of different movement patches, none of them big enough to change America unless they are sewn together into one piece.
• Rules changes, which brought the Democratic Party much closer to proportional representation, and did away with winner-take-all primaries.
When the Clinton team complained that they would be winning the 2008 primaries if they were held under Republican rules, though I found it a strange complaint to make to Democratic voters, it was also a true statement. If the two Jackson campaigns had not changed the rules, eliminating winner-take-all and “bonus” primaries, it is clear that the Obama campaign would have suffered much heavier delegate losses in states like California, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The delegate totals would have been much different, and slanted heavily against urban districts–which is exactly why we did away with those systems in 1988. They were not fair.
(Truth-in-advertising point: I was Jackson’s national delegate coordinator in 1988, and worked on changing the party rules in the run-up to the convention.)