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From the NS archive: Next time the rainbow

6 January 1989: How the US establishments combined to stop Jesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign for the Democratic nomination.

By June Jordan

In this article, June Jordan – whom the magazine described as “the best political writer in the west today” – wrote a passionate account of Jesse Jackson’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988. “The phenomenon of a black man bidding for the most powerful office in the world” irreversibly changed the expectations of Americans, Jordan wrote. Jackson’s campaign was popular; he made a point of travelling across the country to talk to farmers in Idaho, students in east Los Angeles, people with Aids in San Francisco. Yet the media did not report on the extent of his popularity. And when it came to New York State, TV and newspaper commentators made one question “key”: “what was Jackson’s relationship to the Jews?” Jackson lost New York, and so the nomination. Yet Jordan saw Jackson’s leadership as a historic moment: “The reasons for a Third American Revolution have not gone away.”


Revolution always unfolds inside an atmosphere of rising expectations. Given the unexpected, hard-won success of Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign, the Third American Revolution may well be on its way. Certainly the phenomenon of a black man bidding for the most powerful office in the world has raised, irreversibly, the expectations of Americans who, prior to Jackson’s candidacy, never even dreamed about accurate, or responsive, political representation. Indeed, the compelling personal history of Jesse Jackson must inspire the least powerful and the most despised segments of the American body politic.

Born to an unwed teenage mother in South Carolina, Jackson came of age when no black man or woman would ever request a public cup of coffee, or enter a public lavatory, or undertake to register to vote, without calculating the easily fatal risks attached to such simple acts. Jackson’s example illuminates the value of an aggressive and rallying self-respect that will not yield to hostile stereotypes, or worse. In addition, his tendency to formulate policies on the basis of geopolitical facts rather than the other way around, his fastening to justice as the touchstone for policy evaluation, galvanised the otherwise dormant political energies of young and well-educated Americans from Berkeley, California, to Madison, Wisconsin.

Moreover, 1988 election results suggest that Jackson will take the presidency in 1992, over the deservedly dead body of the Democratic Party. Or, put differently, it seems that the American voter does not find a Democrat – striving to become a Republican – necessarily as attractive as the real thing, ie a card-carrying Republican. In view of the drastic discussion aroused by both Bush and Dukakis (the lowest voter turnout since 1924), and in light of the belated rally for the lamentable governor of Massachusetts, a rally sparked by his (reluctant) mouthing of the populist/Jackson agenda he had earlier shunned, the next Jackson campaign for the US presidency ought to fly all the way home to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, hitherto known as “The White House”.

I know about Jesse and the US because I travel across America, rather incessantly. At least once a week I am on a plane bound for some destination a thousand or more miles remote from New York City’s Mayor Ed Koch and $275 monthly fees for parking your car in a garage. I knew Jackson was going to surprise the hell out of a whole lot of people. I could sit back and wait for Jackson to break through media censorship.

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I sought to convince a leading black magazine of the good news growing up around Jesse’s indefatigable, coast-to-coast campaign appearances: he really had a shot at the title; white Americans were listening to him, and they really liked most of what they heard. But we, black folks, needed to jump in, fast, and get the word out: this was not some symbolic trial run towards another sorry and foregone conclusion. Jackson could win!

But black media dependency upon white media judgments prevailed. And, in addition, there were other impediments to early, independent black media coverage that might have countered the intentionally soporific and paralysing effects of white censorship:

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1. Seven years of Ronald Reagan had not provided for the positive decline of racist habits or attitudes in America, and yet Jackson’s developing national triumph would seem to have required, or to have implied, just such a decline as a precondition for his victorious rise into national consciousness: the success of Jackson’s campaign did not make sense and therefore, could not, in fact, have been happening.

2. On the other hand, if Jackson’s appeal to white Americans depended upon coalition thinking and work, if, for example, Jackson’s broadening appeal resulted from his neglect, or diminishment, of issues centred upon racial inequities (ie “economic justice” in place of “racial justice”), then whose candidate, whose representative was he, anyway? Was he “ours” or “theirs”?

If you stood directly in front of Jesse Jackson while he propounded his programmes for change, you could quiet these quandaries or answer these questions. But otherwise, white media reporting on Jackson’s campaign failed to disseminate even halfway accurate accounts of his proposals, or live audience-response to his ideas, until the very beginning of 1988.

In short, national white media colluded with Democratic Party bosses to silence, to slander, and finally, to stop Jesse Jackson. Black radio and print executives – handicapped by having comparatively meagre resources to commit to Jackson’s campaign in Minneapolis, Minnesota, or Fairbanks, Alaska – were slow to believe the good news that they could neither see nor hear for themselves, first-hand. White media moguls censored Jackson because they thought he just might accomplish “the impossible” and become the Democratic nominee. Black media executives moved their personnel too slowly into reporting positions, in part because they could not believe his victory was possible or that his victory, won on national terms, would not compromise Jackson’s wholehearted devotion to the racist jeopardies with which black Americans must contend.

But media aside, hundreds and then thousands and thousands of white and black Americans found themselves standing in front of this indisputably charismatic orator. From his own mouth they understood that, regardless of ethnic or regional identity, they would have to surrender nothing in order to gain a great deal: that alliance need not produce merger or submergence, that even racist habits of mind became beside the point – you could vote for a black man not because you wanted a black man in your family, but because you thought he might save your family farm. Countless multitudes of white Americans eschewed stupidities of racist reflex for the sake of their own self-interest. More and more listening Americans realised that you don’t have to be black to become “an outsider” in your own native land: our democracy. Divorce or the death of a husband is enough to catapult a middle-class white woman and her children into poverty. One plant closing or relocating is enough to terminate the employment future of an entire city.

Twenty years after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, the Reverend Jesse Jackson was standing up, by popular vote, as the front-running Democratic candidate for the presidency of the United States. This was the situation for more than half of the official primary season! He was standing on the principled vision of his predecessors whose humanity had persuaded an awesome number of white Americans to re-examine their notions about “minority” and “majority” issues. Was hunger a black problem or an American disgrace? Was equal access to good housing and education a black demand or a necessity in a democratic state? Was “Jobs or Income” an unreasonable, left-wing slogan, or a matter of human survival? I look upon the political phenomenon of Jesse Jackson as vindication of Dr King’s deepest faith in collective potential as a democracy. And, what’s more, Jackson’s own radiant temerity in the face of negligible funding, press censorship, and attack has elicited the respect, and restored the activist self-respect, of a new American majority: a multiracial populist coalition of citizens intent upon the humane expansion of their citizen entitlements.

But Jesse did not only stand; he ran all over the place. By the time the Democratic primary campaign became official, he was the only candidate who could say, Next week I’m going back to talk with the farmers in Idaho, I’m going back to talk with the high school students of East Los Angeles about drugs, I’m going back to talk with the auto workers closed out of the factories in Detroit, I’m going back to talk with people with Aids in San Francisco.

Jackson had been there: on picket lines, in living rooms. He had been everywhere in America, again and again. He had excoriated the sitting administration for its failure to protect homosexuals against discrimination, women against male violence, the American worker against economic violence perpetrated by corporate flight, and he was clearly just at the top of a long, long list of wrongs and remedies that, passionately and confidently, excluded nobody at all.

I remember a friend of mine telling me that when in 1984, at the Democratic National Convention, Jesse spoke on behalf of lesbians, that moment was absolutely the first occasion on which she had heard “a politician say my name, he said the word lesbian.”

Jackson was the first presidential candidate in 1988 repeatedly to plea the plight of 650,000 American farmers who had lost their farms within the eight years of Reagan’s reign. He was the first to identify drugs as the number one menace to domestic security. He was the first and only contender for the US presidency to demand that South Africa be designated a terrorist state and treated accordingly. He was the first and only candidate to call for self-determination and statehood for Palestinians – these beleaguered, taboo human beings.

Jesse Jackson was the first and only candidate for the Democratic nomination to assert that there must be a single standard for the measurement and protection of human rights throughout the world; that no country – not France, nor Israel nor Nigeria nor South Korea nor Iran nor South Africa – should be exempt from the requirements of that single standard. He was the first and only presidential contender to propose a worldview profoundly alternative to the traditions of an imperialist perspective. Jackson proposed that the majority of human life, the peoples of the Third World, be accorded proportionate political respect, economic aid, and inventive consideration as potential social and economic partners. The Third World should no longer serve as a playpen for greedy, killer interventionist manoeuvres by ageing cold warriors. And he was the first and only candidate, Republican or Democratic, to propose an international minimum wage.

Obviously Jackson could have proposed these many things plus the obliteration of the moon and none of it, none of his isolated and courageous and visionary ideas would have mattered, but for the huge national endorsement he received.

After the “stunning” Jackson victory in Michigan (26 March 1988), in which he took 55 per cent of the votes and delivered a 2-1 defeat to Michael Dukakis, the currently powerful went crazy. America was out of (their) control. He had to be stopped.

Rivers of money rushed into the coffers of the Dukakis camp. Top Democratic Party officials rid themselves of every pretence of neutrality, of letting “the people” choose their candidates. “Superdelegates” (ie, nonelected persons invested with voting power at the Democratic National Convention and accountable only to Democratic Party officials likewise operating “above” the irksome fray of determination by popular vote) found themselves besieged by party demands for preconvention commitments to Dukakis, whether or not he emerged as the choice of “the people”. Nobody dared to claim that Dukakis represented anything in particular or that he could reliably arouse anything more than a snore, but that was not the point. In the media, the message quickly telescoped into Vote for Dukakis or… and here the message tended to become diffuse and difficult, in fact, to summarise: or what?

And despite the concerted rallying of the formidable host of Jackson’s enemies after Michigan, he proceeded, one week later, to win more votes in Wisconsin (a state with less than 4 per cent total black population) than Gary Hart did in 1984, when Hart carried Wisconsin. America was out of (their) control.

In the teeth of his winning populist support, national white media based in New York or Washington, DC, released hysterical cover headlines such as “Jesse?” or, ad nauseam, they broadcast clearly invalid “expert” opinions to the effect that Jackson was “unelectable” – a disgusting neologism invented specifically to discredit Jackson’s gathering success. They cut him off during televised debates. They stressed his “lack of experience”. They referred to his dependency upon the black vote (as though the Democratic Party, itself, could win anything without the black vote, and as though Alaska and Vermont were strongholds of black populations rather than white snow). When none of these tactics worked, they insinuated that Jackson’s good looks must point to marital infidelity (although, as it happens, there was no evidence forthcoming for such envious suppositions). And they attempted to clear the mythical American mainstream of his contamination: he was “radical” and ”hare-brained” and “naive”, even though opinion polls taken during Reagan’s reign repeatedly showed, for example, most Americans opposed to intervention in Central America and opposed to collaboration with Pretoria. Most Americans favoured exactly those federal programmes of social support that Reagan tried to eviscerate or eliminate altogether. Most Americans viewed official policies of deceit and constitutional evasion as hazardous to our national health.

Jesse was swimming in the mainstream alongside a new American majority: a populist, politically unrepresented, politically uncontrollable mass of angry and needful and internationally embarrassed white and black, rural and urban, straight and gay American citizens. He had to be stopped. But none of the multiple outraged interests arrayed against him were eager to say why. That revelation could simply add millions to Jackson’s already dangerous score. Then how would they do it?

Racism could not kill the Jackson campaign. Any rational analysis of the outcome of the Democratic primaries makes it clear that Jackson’s racial identity did not and could not defeat him in the voting booth.

Yes, the prospect of a black man wielding power over white life, the prospect of black power commensurate with the presidency of the United States, undoubtedly appalled if it did not terrify a host of white Americans still crippled by racist attitudes and habits. But Jackson was out here, everywhere, testing his faith in a democratic America. And his courage, his passionate good will, was causing an extraordinary multitude of white folks to obliterate the colour line for the sake of their own, best self-interest.

American powers threatened by the content and the constituency of Jackson’s campaign had little to do with asinine prejudice or any other emotional disorder. Anti-democratic politics-as-usual and the Democratic National Party and multinational corporations and the American banking community and the American Medical Association and the Pentagon and right-wing fundamentalists rightly assessed Jackson’s explosive arrival as a comprehensive, coherent programmatic, moral and populist rejection of government unrelated to the welfare of the governed, of labour at the mercy of “the marketplace”, of the sick kneeling to those who should heal them, of the weak systematically abandoned to the streets and the bully violence of random/crackpot America.

He had to be stopped. And, measured by the number of delegates at stake, the next, the pivotal, battleground after Wisconsin was New York. This was where Jackson’s enemies needed to break the neck of his campaign. But how? I think it looked easy. For Jews, there is no subject more profoundly freighted with fear and with hope than Israel. Israel was, therefore, an ideal “issue” for malevolent, divisive manipulation. In New York you had the largest Jewish community outside Israel. Constituting 23 per cent of the voting electorate, this community tended to deliver a monolithic yea or nay. You had a big-time lunatic in the office of the mayor. You had the New York Times which saw fit to publish only one black op-ed about the Democratic primary. You had the national headquarters of Time, Newsweek, NBC-TV, and so forth. The showdown was set. The goal was burial of a startling upstart.

Ah, Israel. Such a tiny sovereign state with about as many inhabitants as the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens combined. Could you reduce a national, populist uprising, and its leader, to “one issue”, the issue of Israel? Well, evidently. But here the clouds converge and blur and mist falls and general miasma overtakes the public brain. What “issue”, exactly?

It seems that Jesse thought that the “parties in conflict” – the Israelis and the Palestinians – ought to negotiate their differences directly with each other. It seems that Jesse thought that the Palestinian people should have somewhere other than atrocious “refugee camps” to live. It seems that Jesse thought that human rights do not lose their relevance whenever any of us decide we detest somebody else. Every one of these ideas occupies a commonplace status within the fiercely divided community of Israel itself.

Jackson avowed and reiterated his abhorrence of anti-Semitism, as well as racism and homophobia. He affirmed his commitment to the security of Israel. He thought – he said more than once – that peaceful relations with your neighbours would better assure national security than armed occupation. He did not address, he never addressed, the spectacle of human rights violations carried out by Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, simultaneous with the battle for the Democratic nomination. He did not assert, he never asserted, that Israel, along with South Africa, should be declared a “terrorist state”, and treated accordingly. And meanwhile, from January 1988 to 19 April 1988, Israeli armed forces and Israeli “settlers” adopted a “broken bones policy” of repression, and they furthermore broke down doors, tear-gassed pregnant women, buried Palestinians alive, closed more than 800 schools in the West Bank, deported several Palestinians without trial, demolished homes, “closed” Palestinian towns, and killed more than 200 Palestinian men, women and children – none of them armed.

Early in 1988, the US Congressional Black Caucus composed and publicly released a letter challenging the logic whereby Israel receives more US aid than any other country in the world, on unconditional terms. But this was the Congressional Black Caucus, not Jesse Jackson.

Jackson did publicly question the meaning of Israel’s military, nuclear and commercial partnership with South Africa. And what about that?

In New York State, where 25 per cent of the electorate is black, where more than 40,000 Americans live homeless, where drug dealing and drug addiction terrorise every neighbourhood, where bridges collapse and subways defy your tolerance for filth, and where public schools fail to teach the ones who stay, what was “the issue of Israel”?

The media made it happen. Television and newspaper commentators never tired of raising “the key question”, as they were pleased to term it: what was Jackson’s relationship to the Jews? According to the media, this was not only the key question, this was the sole question for examination. And then, New York’s City mayor, Edward Koch, saved the ugly day: Jews Would Be Crazy to Vote for Jackson. And, having determined the question, the media now brandished “the answer”. Page one/top of the TV news/ubiquitous to the eyes and ears of New York residents, the fight for the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency of the United States has become a media-induced fight between two minorities: Jews and Blacks.

As they say in New York, “Very nice.”

Except for notably brave and outspoken Jewish dissent from this hate-mongering formulation, dissent by Rabbi Balfour Brickner, the group calling itself Jews for Jackson, Barry Feinstein, head of New York City’s Teamsters’ Union, and, at the last minute, Norman Mailer, who endorsed Jackson one day before the New York primary on the op-ed page of the Times, the national Jewish community kept silent.

The national Democratic Party kept silent. New York’s Governor Mario Cuomo said nothing. In response to the abominable blatherings by Mayor Ed Koch, there was no editorial outcry in the New York Times or on TV prior to Fateful Tuesday. Evidently you could not affirm the humanity of Palestinians, but you could abuse your public office to impugn the sanity of any Jewish man or woman who might choose to support Jesse Jackson.

Within this inflamed, special-case scenario, on 19 April 1988, Jesse took New York City, including virtually all of New York’s black vote and 60 per cent of the Hispanic vote. He did not win the Jewish vote. And he lost the state. To win, he would have needed Democratic National Party support at least commensurate with his demonstrated “electability”, and he would have needed a mass media environment that succumbed neither to manipulation of a one-issue alarm nor to the pressure of cowardly power afraid to publicly duke it out with Jackson.

If he had taken New York State, Jackson’s nomination by the Democratic Party would have been assured – unless the Democrats had decided to mutilate their own rules (not unlikely) or California voters had opted for Dukakis a month before the Democratic convention in July (very unlikely).

It was that close. He had almost made it. And nobody knew how close Jackson had come to changing American history better than his most devoted enemies. He had already changed our history and they knew it. With no money, and no Democratic Party support remotely proportionate to his demonstrated “electability”, Jesse Jackson had emerged, the most familiar, popular, and small-d democratic candidate in the public mind and eye. But New York had cost him the Democratic Party’s nomination.

The rest is not history. America is not the same old anything it was prior to the 1988 leadership of Jesse Jackson. The reasons for a Third American Revolution have not gone away. The needs of all the Americans who propelled Jackson to the front of our own uprising have not been met. Our distinctively humane values have neither been erased from our hearts, nor honoured by those who scramble to maintain power over our lives. New York is not the US: we persist, neither stupid nor satisfied.

And we have not lost the war.

Jackson has transformed the nature and the substance of acceptable political discourse in America. Even the Republican presidential candidate, George Bush, now the president-elect, had to struggle to enunciate metaphors about “a thousand points of light” while his narrow eyes sting and water from his own rhetoric about a “kinder, gentler nation”. And the keynote speaker at the Republican convention, Thomas Kean, governor of New Jersey, apparently felt it necessary to assert that “we will search out bigotry and racism – we will drag it into the sunshine of understanding and make it wither and die.”

Up against Dukakis and the Democratic Party, Jackson set the agenda for the platform debate. And, while many of the demands of the programme were met with resolute derision, he did succeed in gaining the Democratic Party’s designation of South Africa as a terrorist state, and he did push Dukakis into a posture of unequivocal opposition to aid to the contras, unequivocal support for child care, and, alas, equivocal support for universal health insurance. He did embarrass the Democrats into public refusal to establish a “no first strike” nuclear policy, and he did force the Democratic Party to reduce by nearly 40 per cent the number of “superdelegates” to be appointed for the next Democratic primary. He did, irreversibly, tutor American consciousness about the continuing antidemocratic political structures that block our decisive exercise of the vote, and he did, again, embarrass Dukakis into publicly waffling on Dukakis’s own promise to fund a nationwide voter registration drive and to vastly simplify the whole voter registration process. He did lead the re-entry of concepts of right and wrong into the centre of political deliberations. He did meet with Israel’s ambassador to the United States.

And on 7 August 1988, Israel’s ambassador to the United States did meet for more than two hours, with the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and, you know, Jesse just really came really, really close to opening up the White House to the world’s best barbecue and general/populist celebration of all time.

And, as for those millions and millions of us who chose Jesse Jackson as our candidate, we would have to be deaf, dumb, and blind, not to notice how much we scared the currently powerful: literally, we scared them almost to death!

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).