The Ill-Fated Journey of Jesse Jackson
What next for the Rainbow Coalition?
Tom Boot
volume 9
issue 1
Autumn 1984

Jesse Jackson threw his hat into the presidential ring last fall as the self-proclaimed champion of this nation’s dispossessed. He called for the formation of a Rainbow Coalition of people of color, women, lesbians and gays, and other “outsiders” to help him sweep Reaganism from the White House in November.

Jackson promised to actualize the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King — as a Democrat. The Democratic Party, he said, is still “the best hope for redirecting our nation on a more humane, just, and peaceful course.”

Most people realized that Jackson had no real shot at the nomination, that the Democrats weren’t about to let a Black man be their standardbearer. Jackson himself stressed that just the chance to “make our voice heard” at the convention would represent victory. He promised to “renegotiate relations” with the Democratic powers-that-be and make them “receptive” to Black and Rainbow Coalition concerns.

His oftimes radical-sounding rhetoric exerted strong appeal among the myriad victims of Reagan’s social and economic policies. With invaluable assistance from the U.S. Left and erstwhile “progressives,” he coaxed significant portions of a potentially radical constituency onto his Freedom Train for the ride to San Francisco.

Pundits predicted that the Democrats would have to bargain with Jackson for the Black and progressive votes if they wanted to win in November. Jackson emphasized he wanted “respect” and an “equal voice” in making party policy. He promised a platform fight on voting rights, affirmative action, and for reduction of U.S. military spending. He said that the degree of his support for the eventual nominee would depend on the party’s treatment of the Rainbow Coalition demands.

The party bosses, meanwhile, selected the Humphrey/Carter retread Walter Mondale as their candidate. They showed no inclination to bargain with Jackson on anything substantive. And at the convention, they gave the Rainbow Coalition nothing. They reason, correctly, that to save capitalism from its deepening social and economic crisis, an “austerity” program must be imposed on U.S. workers and poor. The Democrats, bought and paid for by the banks, are committed to the survival of capitalism, regardless of the costs to the welfare of the majority.

Jackson did get to make a speech on the second night of the convention. He used it to get his troops in line — if not yet ready to march — for Mondale.

It shouldn’t have surprised a soul that Jackson toed the line. Early on, he had disavowed all intentions of waging an independent third-party effort and insisted it was his duty to bring the Rainbow Coalition into the political “mainstream.” As an openly pro-capitalist politician, Jackson recognized clearly the necessity to channel and defuse any potential radical challenge to the electoral status quo, not to mention the advantages to himself in doing so. Thus, he committed himself to the Democrats. And tailored his candidacy to serve the political ends of the Dixiecrats, bankers, and businessmen who run the “Party of Fairness.”

The kingmaker

Jackson, however, wants more from the Democrats than just the chance to make a speech at their convention. He does want enforcement of voting rights in the South. He does want an equal (and visible) role in shaping party policy. And he wants more Blacks in power inside the party organization.

He got none of these things at the convention. But Jackson is still bargaining with the party higher-ups. He knows that the Democrats need all the Black and Rainbow votes he can muster, and he hopes that sooner or later the party will have to grant him concessions.

Jackson wants to be kingmaker, broker, dispenser of patronage, the man to whom all seekers come for favors. If he can bring Blacks into key party positions, if he can leverage the extension of voting rights, he will have attained the status of power-broker.

His problem: the Dixiecrats will never allow full voting rights for Blacks in the South. They know that if Blacks (together with poor whites) could utilize their voting power, the Dixiecrats would be toppled: extension of voting rights in the South would almost immediately catalyze the demand for complete social and economic equality, and bring the South to the brink of revolution.

Dixiecrats are keenly aware of American political reality. Jackson, on the other hand, seems to think that voting rights will merely provide for the rise of Black politicians and capitalists — as if even that were possible to any significant degree under the racist status quo.

The Dixiecrats’ final trump is this: Jackson, too, fears any real move away from the two-party system, toward independent, anti-capitalist politics. He wants only to make a deal and take his cut.

And so he must haggle with the Democrats, on their terms, for crumbs.

Twin Party politics

Jackson’s candidacy generated wide excitement among the groups that compose the Rainbow Coalition. As a Black man, civil rights leader, and “heir” to the dream of Dr. King, he reflected the hope for social justice and Black political empowerment.

He helped unleash a wave of political energy not seen in the Black community since the ’60s civil rights movement. And his campaign not only brought to the fore the issues of Black power and unity among all the oppressed, it raised the question of how these could be achieved; through support for the Democrats or through independent, radical mass action, inside and outside the electoral arena?

Black power and the Rainbow Coalition are radical concepts which challenge the social, economic, and political framework of capitalist America. But Jackson campaigned like a ward heeler, soliciting votes with promises of brokering for justice in back-room deals with the powers-that-be. His alliance with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and his appeals to various Rainbow constituencies were charades of radicalism, designed to co-opt and stifle the real thing.

Already some Jackson activists — who only yesterday were hailing his campaign as a new dawn of radicalism in American politics — are saying that the only thing that counts now is to get Reagan out of the White House and Mondale in.

Jackson himself has pledged his “broad based” support to Mondale while reserving only the right to express his own views. He plans to strengthen his “coalition of the rejected” in order to “expand and redirect the Democratic Party.” Campaign aide Lamont Godwin sees the coalition as “a force within the party.” And it is — much like the labor bureaucracy that feathers its nest at the expense of the movement it purportedly represents.

While it remains to be seen if the Jacksonites will be able to herd the multitudes onto Mondale’s bandwagon, they have in any case weakened the movements against “Reaganism,” whether of the Republican or Democratic variety. They have miseducated and misled people by preaching that change can only come about from within the Democratic Party and by attempting to restore the Democrats as a “viable alternative” to the Republicans. They have prepared the ground for mass demoralization no matter who wins. By dint of their capitulation to boss party politics, they have dimmed belief that a real alternative to capitalism’s twin parties can be mounted.

The Democrats needed Jackson as much as he needed them. Only a Jackson — a man with the civil rights credentials — could have captured Leftists and progressives for the Democrats. While vice-presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro will boost the women’s vote, the Left would never have supported her as they did Jackson. Too much of the Left is liberal enough to play skin color politics, but too sexist to be similarly liberal regarding a woman’s candidacy. Ferraro is an obvious Mondale hack as well. And her current pulling power would be considerably less than it is, had not most of the Left already destroyed the possibility of a strong third-party alternative by helping siphon their constituency into Democratic channels through the Jackson campaign.

The road to San Francisco

Many Rainbow Coalition supporters were sincere in their belief that Jackson represented a real force for change. But the history of his campaign shows that Jackson was carrying out a sleight-of-hand which substituted charisma and trickery for a program that spoke to the needs of the dispossessed. The key factor is Jackson’s bottom line defense of the profit system which, because that system cannot and will not accommodate Rainbow demands, left his rhetoric hollow and made sellout inevitable.

Jackson flouted conventional political wisdom by surviving the primaries and consolidating the third-place position behind Mondale and Hart. Then, in March, came Jackson’s now-famous “Hymie” remarks, followed by Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan’s alleged death threat against Milton Colemen, the Black reporter who revealed the comments.

The press went wild, demanding that Jackson answer charges of anti-Semitism and that he repudiate Farrakhan’s support.

Jackson denied he was anti-Semitic and refused to dump Farrakhan. His supporters denounced the publicity as racist and asked why the press hadn’t similarly zeroed in on the unsavory connections of other candidates, for example, Mondale’s connections with South African firms.

The points were valid. Still, Jackson’s remarks were anti-Semitic. His apology was belated and forced. And his long-standing refusal to condemn Farrakhan’s open anti-Semitism, antigay bigotry, and misogyny not only raised doubts about his commitment to all the oppressed, but showed his willingness to split Blacks from their natural political allies for the sake of Black nationalist support.

The media furor temporarily boosted Jackson’s support as the Black community closed ranks and the nationalists blasted as traitors any who hesitated or dared to raise embarrassing questions. In primaries from March to June, Jackson turned out an increasing percentage of Black voters and appeared to many as a candidate who would take formidable bargaining leverage to the convention.

Thus Jackson enjoyed almost totally uncritical support in the Black and Left presses. Few cared to reflect that his “moral imperative” to provide justice to the dispossessed is negated by his commitment to the system that dispossesses.

No one seemed to notice, for example, that his ardent support of Israel and his commitment to U.S. troop deployment in Europe underscored an essentially pro-imperialist world outlook. Or that his solution to joblessness and poverty — tax breaks for business, rather than increased social spending — was rehashed Reaganism.

Few seemed to realize that his ties to the homophobic and male-supremacist Farrakhan belied his “progressivism” on women’s and gay rights issues.

Jackson on workers’ issues? His attacks on “big labor” during the campaign, specifically his refusal to distinguish the bureaucrats from the whole union movement, fed common anti-labor prejudice, in accord with the right wing’s current anti-worker assaults. Yet hardly anyone said so. Or pointed to the fact that, while Jackson expressed concern for workers of color, he has twice tried to break strikes by the Chicago Teachers Union, which is 55070 Black.

On the whole, Jackson spoke and acted as a conservative on foreign and domestic issues. But by skillful use of radical-sounding rhetoric and emotional appeal, and by carefully tailoring his pitch to specific audiences, he managed to come off as the progressive who could, by virtue of his presence within the Democratic Party, “reform” the two-party system.

Yet widespread uneasiness about Jackson persisted, and even deepened, because the candidate refused to criticize his “surrogate” Farrakhan or to address the issue of anti-Semitism squarely. Farrakhan’s continued outspokenness did nothing to still this uneasiness, and as the convention approached, the Muslim minister’s defects began to jeopardize Jackson’s image as spokesman for all the oppressed. Jackson was finally forced to repudiate Farrakhan after the latter’s scurrilous June 24 designation of Judaism as a “gutter” religion.

In July, Jackson entered into “delicate negotiations” with Mondale over platform proposals and for changes in the party’s delegate selection process which, Jackson claimed rightly, had cheated him of his share of delegates.

Jackson had stated that he would fight to the end for changes at this convention. Yet on July 3, he said he was satisfied with the Democrats’ offer to “examine” the rules for possible changes — in 1986.

This action pre-signalled Jackson’s sellout on the issues at the convention. His subsequent refusal to endorse Mondale “with enthusiasm” meant only that he intended to bargain further in his quest to be kingmaker.

The Farrakhan connection

Jackson could have gone nowhere at all in the primaries without the solid support of the Black community. And he owed this support in large measure to his alliance with Louis Farrakhan, who speaks to nationalist moods among Blacks.

Only when Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic pronouncements threatened Jackson’s game plan did Jackson repudiate the Muslim minister’s support. Even then, the repudiation was only for public consumption.

One week after Jackson made his announcement, Farrakhan’s chief lieutenant, Minister Akbar Muhammad, was feted by Jackson’s organization, PUSH, in Chicago. Farrakhan himself said that the “rebuke by my brother” was worth it if it allowed Jackson to represent the Black vote. He than stayed uncharacteristically quiet through the convention.

Jackson and Farrakhan still seek to benefit by association. For Jackson, there is the leverage that Farrakhan commands in the Black community. For Farrakhan, there is the prestige and patronage that Jackson, as Democratic kingmaker, can bring him. The Democrats don’t mind — if only relations can be kept somewhat discreet. Farrakhan’s broadsides against Mondale for his treatment of Jackson at the convention should be seen as a negotiating ploy, in line with Jackson’s gambit to “redirect” the party.

The alliance, however, is significant beyond its impact on the elections. Each man looms large in Black political life, and their prominence as antiradicals reflects deep political crisis, in the Black community and the nation as a whole. Even more: their emergence deepens the crisis. Both are champions of skin color politics, and so help exacerbate race polarization.


During the primaries, Jackson and Farrakhan’s alliance was looked on as the historic coming together of the “integrationist” and “nationalist” wings of the Black movement. It represented, according to Jackson supporters, the unity necessary for Black political empowerment.

The two men were hailed as the respective “heirs” of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X — as the ’80s representatives of the moral authority and militance that powered the ’60s Black movement.

This was the sheerest of mythmaking for voter appeal. Jackson and Farrakhan praise the two slain leaders — in order to bury them. They are not the heirs, but the usurpers of Black leadership traditions.

King, like Jackson, was a reformist. But he headed a movement that was hurtling past reformism and was pushing him leftwards. King came out against the Vietnam War and was forging links between civil rights and labor struggles. This had revolutionary implications in 1968, and the U.S. government killed him for it.

Jackson, in contrast, is in retreat from the demands of the times. Early civil rights leaders always recognized the need for mass confrontation of the institutionalized social, economic, and political barriers to Black equality. Jackson, as head of PUSH in Chicago, has eschewed confrontation, preferring instead to broker with the powers-that-be for a bigger share of the pie. While he has, for example, hammered out deals with Coca Cola and Burger King to provide distributorships and franchises to Black entrepreneurs, never has he mounted a concerted assault on segregated housing or discriminatory hiring in Chicago, or anywhere else.

The struggle for equality led Martin Luther King to the threshold of revolution. The search for a bigger slice of pie led Jackson to cut deals with the capitalists and now, he hopes, the Democrats — with no improvement whatever for working Black people.

Farrakhan stands at an even greater distance from Malcolm X than Jackson does from King. Malcolm explicitly repudiated everything Farrakhan stands for in the last year of his life, moving swiftly from Muslim separatism to the realization that united, multi-racial struggle against capitalist oppression was a necessity.

The Muslims killed him for this, as he had predicted. Farrakhan today admits grudgingly that, as a Muslim higher-up, he helped “create the climate” for Malcolm’s murder.

Where Malcolm X expressed a growing affinity for socialist ideas (a fact downplayed in both the Black and “mainstream” presses), Farrakhan has stayed glued to the infinitely regressive philosophy of Muslim founder Elijah Muhammad, a philosophy based on race separatism and Black capitalism. Farrakhan believes openly in women’s subordination, promotes anti-gay bigotry, and, as the world knows, is virulently anti-Semitic. He calls for a separate Black nation in North America. But he hasn’t disclosed where or how it is to be established, a sure sign the demand is a demagogic charade, designed to appeal to the resurgent “nationalist” mood among Blacks — primarily intellectuals, professionals, and small businessmen.

Farrakhan blasts the “betrayal” of Blacks who refuse to support the Democrat Jackson. He forgets that Malcolm X roundly condemned Black leaders who hustle votes for Democrats as traitors to Black people.

Jackson and Farrakhan dare to pose as latter-day saviors of Black people only because a vacuum of leadership has existed in the Black community since the ’60s civil rights movement was smashed by government murder and cooptation. Also, because the U.S. Left and labor have failed to build with Blacks an anti-capitalist program for the liberation of all.

These defeats ushered in an eclipse of militance and radicalism. Reaganism and reaction are now upon us, and many Blacks are again convinced that the color line is invincible. Separatist and anti-Marxist sentiments in the new middle class Black community have grown accordingly, despite the continuing respect given the memories of King and Malcolm X.

What could be better for Jackson and Farrakhan? Nothing less than the current Black/white race polarization could have enabled the unification of their different constituencies around a political figure whose only real selling point is his skin color.


It is the responsibility of U.S. leftists in any election to challenge the two-party system. We must demonstrate that Democrats as well as Republicans have started imperialist wars, broken strikes, promoted discrimination, and cut social welfare in the interest of profits; that as electoral bulwarks of the capitalist state they cannot do otherwise; and that only a socialist alternative can speak to the needs of workers and the oppressed.

Yet most of the Left this year supported Jackson. The need to “defeat Reagan” was their most frequently offered rationale for doing so.

There is more to that choice than simply myopic “anti-Reaganism.” Why have these leftists supported the anti-communist Jackson so blindly, so uncritically? Why have they so eagerly and thoroughly repudiated themselves?

There is an explanation: racism, the liberal variety, which views Black people as undifferentiated, politically homogenous, and right-on, regardless of actual political program. Jesse Jackson is Black; he is oppressed; he is therefore supposedly different and better than the rest of the Democrats.

Behind these leftists’ romantically racist illusions lies a deeper inability or unwillingness to deal with class differences in the Black community, to intervene on behalf of Black workers against capitalists of all colors.

What does this signify but that these leftists believe that race, not class, is the primary unifier and divider of people? What does it reflect but their lack of belief in their own ideas, and in the ability of workers to overcome, with proper leadership, the race polarization that afflicts them? Where can it lead but to support of anti-radicals like Jackson and Farrakhan — and through them, the Democrats?

For a real Rainbow Coalition

The Rainbow Coalition is not a new concept. Marxists — especially socialist feminists — have long advocated united action by all the oppressed against their oppressors. But Jackson’s plan to hitch his coalition permanently to the Democrats would mean sure death to the emancipation movements.

The oppressed need a real Rainbow Coalition — one that is totally divested of reformist illusions; that centers on the demands of the specially oppressed; that deals with the causes of our afflictions. They need a permanent coalition — more than that, a party — that proceeds from the realization that the exploited have a common interest in fighting their common capitalist enemy; that battles inside and outside the electoral arena; that will not stop until its demands are fully realized; that will fight, in short, for socialism.

It is up to radicals to build this Rainbow Coalition. Radicals must begin to build an alternative to the capitalists’ electoral shell game and agree to take some united steps to attract their natural, radical constituency.

The socialist alternative is real. We must pose it to all those Jackson has pretended to represent. If we dare, the pot at the end of the Rainbow can be ours.