The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jesse Jackson’s rainbow coalition paved the way for the Biden-Harris ticket

Jackson recognized the diversity of the modern party and saw it as a strength

The Rev. Jesse Jackson speaks during the Democratic National Convention at the Moscone Center in San Francisco on July 17, 1984. (AP)

The Democratic Party’s 1984 presidential campaign appeared to be memorable only for the scale of the defeat suffered by Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro. Only narrowly winning Mondale’s home state of Minnesota that year (and the District of Columbia), Democrats found themselves more dispirited than ever, having suffered the third whopping election defeat in 16 years. However, a bright star was on the horizon, even if they would not be aware of its importance until many years later. The Rainbow Coalition campaign of Jesse Jackson, and his 1984 Convention address, provided a blueprint for the party’s future. In the process, however, Jackson also laid bare fissures within the Democratic Party that still divide it — and define it — in 2020.

When Jackson announced his run for the presidency on Nov. 3, 1983, he made it clear his campaign represented all Americans — not just African Americans. According to Jackson, he was running “to help restore a moral tone” to the United States at the height of the Ronald Reagan years. Jackson also said he wanted people to understand “leadership is colorless and genderless,” laying out his idea for a “Rainbow Coalition” that could lead a diverse coalition of Americans to positions of political power all across the nation.

Jackson wasn’t the first to build a multiracial political coalition. During the abolitionist movement of the 19th century, Frederick Douglass and Maria Stewart worked alongside William Lloyd Garrison and the Grimke sisters. The Republican Party of the Reconstruction-era South briefly provided a home to both former Confederate general James Longstreet and former enslaved person Robert Smalls. The Communist Party USA in the 1920s and 1930s provided a home for radicals, like Harry Haywood, who pursued African American freedom as part of a larger struggle for all races against class oppression. Organizations such as the Southern Negro Youth Congress of the 1940s, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee of the 1960s, were additional examples of coalitions of Americans of every skin hue and ethnic background coming together for a common cause.

But Jackson’s inspiration came from Martin Luther King Jr., who drew together African Americans, poor Whites from Appalachia, Indigenous people and Latinx populations in the Poor People’s Campaign. Jackson participated in “Resurrection City,” the encampment of poorer Americans created in Washington, D.C., in May 1968 to bring attention to their plight. The movement’s gains were limited, with many activists viewing it as a failure years later. Jackson himself, however, wrote in Ebony in its October 1968 issue that Resurrection City was critical because “we were allowed to hear, to feel and to see each other for the first time in our American experience.” It brought together the poor of all races, leaving a lasting impression on Jackson that many Americans needed a champion.

In 1984, Jackson wanted to bring values of inclusion and equal economic opportunity to the Democratic Party. Amid the conservative tide of the 1980s, Democrats themselves were doing serious political soul-searching. Liberalism, long at the heart of the party, seemed to be yesterday’s news with Jimmy Carter’s landslide defeat as an incumbent president in 1980. By 1984, new voices in the party articulated what they believed to be a fresh vision for the its future.

Neoliberalism became the hot topic of the era for some Democrats, such as Gary Hart, who argued the party’s future depended on leaving the New Deal in the past. The neoliberal idea was defined by Charles Peters, then-editor of the Washington Monthly as a need for liberals to “Free ourselves from the old liberal prejudices such as being prolabor or antibusiness, while retaining the liberal tradition of compassion and caring.”

The Rainbow Coalition offered a counterweight to the neoliberal tide threatening to engulf the party. Running in the 1984 primaries, Jackson won several Southern states and caucuses, including South Carolina, and won 21 percent of the overall Democratic primary vote. By the Democratic National Convention of 1984, in San Francisco, Jackson had the opportunity to articulate his vision of a Rainbow Coalition to a national audience. Much of that vision lay in seeing America’s diversity as a strength, not a liability to be papered over.

“America is more like a quilt,” Jackson said during this convention speech. “Many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread.” Jackson included in his American “quilt” a wide range of groups — not just broken down by race and ethnicity, but also “the young, the old, the lesbian, the gay, and the disabled” that he argued needed to be included in the Democratic Party of 1984.

Some of these, especially the LGBTQ members Jackson mentioned, were groups fighting for civil rights and their very survival because of the AIDS epidemic at the time. Still others — namely, disabled people — struggled for recognition and acceptance in American society, still six years away from the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Jackson called on the spirit of movements past and present to paint for his audience the political picture of the Rainbow Coalition. “From Fannie Lou Hamer in Atlantic City in 1964 to the Rainbow Coalition in San Francisco today; from the Atlantic to the Pacific, we have experienced pain but progress, as we ended American apartheid laws.” This combination was striking. Founded in 1964, the MFDP challenged the segregated, ‘all-White’ Democratic Party in Mississippi. The national party’s refusal to recognize them — only offering them two seats at the Convention while allowing the regular Mississippi party its full seating — damaged relations between the party and impoverished Black communities in Mississippi. By referencing the MFDP in his 1984 speech Jackson was sending a warning to the party establishment: recognize the diversity of the modern party and see it as a strength, otherwise marginalized groups would retreat and allow the party to suffer more defeats.

Jackson also used his speech to patch up strained relations with Jewish Americans, who were still angered by the revelation that Jackson used derogatory language in reference to them earlier in 1984. While Jackson apologized for his statement, he continued to mend fences with the Jewish community. Where he had been blasted for referring to New York City as “Hymietown,” Jackson reminded his audience of the shared struggle of African Americans and Jewish Americans and the importance of Black-Jewish alliances: “Twenty years later, our communities, Black and Jewish, are in anguish, anger, and pain. Feelings have been hurt on both sides. … We may agree to agree; or agree to disagree on issues; we must bring back civility to these tensions.”

In 1984, when Jackson delivered this speech, the Democratic Party was at a crossroads. One road led to the neoliberalism that would later propel Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton to the White House in 1992. The other envisioned a party that was multiracial, multicultural and devoted to fighting for all Americans, especially on economic grounds. As he closed his speech, Jackson exhorted the audience that “We must leave the racial battleground and come to the economic common ground and moral higher ground.” Jackson’s run for president in 1984, and again in 1988, would showcase the cleavages within the Democratic Party between more moderate elements and a progressive wing dedicated to racial, social and economic justice.

In some ways, these two visions are still at odds within the party. The recent nomination of Joe Biden and Kamala D. Harris, however, signals that Jackson’s fight was not in vain. The multiracial and multicultural vision of the party is also Jackson’s legacy. It is difficult to imagine Harris referring to “a Beloved Community” — a term often used by civil rights activists — in her acceptance speech as the Democratic nominee without it. Nor could her forthright talk of structural racism be possible without the earlier efforts of Jackson. We are now in a Democratic Party shaped by, among others, Jesse Jackson. His 1984 speech was one of the seeds of the modern party.