Last December, when the smart money was on Howard Dean for the Democratic nomination, when long-shot bettors were talking about Al Sharpton pulling a surprise in the South Carolina primary, when nobody but the Democratic leadership believed John Kerry was “electable,” Jesse Jackson was working the South as if a campaign depended on it. At South Carolina State, children with American flags and grown-ups in their Sunday clothes were waiting on him, while the pep band played and a clutch of aides talked into their cellphones. Jackson was late, traveling from a rally in Goose Creek, where police had raided a high school, forcing 107 kids to their knees, guns to their head, in a search for drugs that turned up nothing. Blacks make up less than a quarter of the student body, Jackson explained after finally bounding onstage, but accounted for two-thirds of those terrorized in the raid. Blacks make up 30 percent of South Carolina’s population, but account for 70 percent of its prisoners, who build auto transmissions while real-paying jobs drain away. Twenty years after his first run for the Democratic nomination, Jackson was in his natal state speaking truths on the rigged rules of race and class that the candidates couldn’t or wouldn’t, while stressing the imperative of an engaged citizenry. “Keep hope alive!” he urged yet again, and amid an exuberance of cheers there was something in the sullen silence of a row of teenagers that told the difference between the then and now. Jackson mightn’t have noticed. In a flash he was off–to a school, to a preachers’ lunch, cellphones a’ringing in the borrowed limo, on to Raleigh and thence to Birmingham, “mobilizing the masses,” as he put it.
Nobody else was going to do it. For all the candidates’ talk about grassroots power, nobody even tried. Explanations abound: the hurry-up primary schedule, the Dean campaign’s failure to translate its grassroots fundraising strategy into an investment strategy for indigenous organization; the flimflam of the Sharpton campaign (or “scampaign,” as one black South Carolina woman dubbed it) fueled by white Republican dirty-trickster Roger Stone; the relative poverty of the Kucinich camp and its tactical decision to bypass the South, hence African-Americans; the laurel of inevitability conferred upon Kerry after Iowa. But the political culture that ordered those choices owes to something older, deeper: to 1984, when Jackson launched a grassroots campaign the likes of which the country had never seen; and to the two roads that diverged out of the ultimate wreckage of that year’s general election. One was marked “Rainbow Coalition,” the other “The Backlash.” The former would launch another presidential campaign in 1988, the most formidable internal party challenge in modern times; the latter would constitute itself as the Democratic Leadership Council, a different kind of internal challenge, one hostile to the grassroots (it favored the term “special interests”) and determined to make the party safe, or safer, for white men. We live with the legacy of both efforts, and in a sense both coil back to Jackson. In the American dialectic of race, power and politics, the “legacy” of a black-led, left-leaning, populist challenge would never be a simple thing; if the side of the people was emboldened, so were the tribunes of what Jackson once called “the cash system dominated by white men.” If Jackson projected a vision and provided an example of a new kind of movement engagement in electoral politics, the failure to motor that forward must not be his alone. The vital questions on this anniversary, therefore, cannot be contained within the parenthesis of Jackson’s personal leaps and limitations. How did progressive forces discharge their responsibilities? How did the Democratic Party respond to the invitation of history? What was gained, and what remains lacking?
Those who did not live in 1984 and 1988 cannot know how sweet a national electoral campaign season can be. Not sweet in the ordinary sense, for there was abundant ugliness, but in that sense where ossification gives way to possibility, where something new appears on the scene that seems to rearrange the pieces on the playing table. It was Reagan time, and Democrats were in retreat. Jackson says now that he never had a mind to run for President, but then the leading Democratic liberals did something that had to be answered. Harold Washington was running for mayor of Chicago in 1983, and though his organization was distinct from Jackson’s, when news came that Ted Kennedy and Walter Mondale were coming to back Washington’s opponents, as Jackson tells it, “We thought, This couldn’t be true; these are our guys. So we got together about a hundred black leaders saying, Please don’t come. Please respect our alliance. And they came anyway.”