CHICAGO — It was a celebration of life enjoyed by the celebrated.
The Rainbow Push Coalition’s convention in Chicago honored the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, its ailing, retiring, but engaged founder, starting with a retrospective spotlight on his campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988.
“I am somebody,” Jackson told the crowd on Saturday at the coalition’s South Side headquarters, repeating his oft-used slogans, but his time while seated. “Stop the violence. Save the children. Keep hope alive.” (Full disclosure: More than 20 years ago, between newspaper gigs, I edited publications for a Rainbow Push affiliate.)
Jackson retired as Rainbow’s president just before the convention’s start. But hope remains alive with him, and the many staffers and campaign volunteers who reunited to swap stories, reengage, and analyze. They were energized by the adoption of policies elevated by Jackson’s campaigns and the victories of Democratic politicians his movement fostered, while aggravated by the many right-wing successes and rollbacks, particularly during and since the Trump administration.
Jackson spoke little and softly. Parkinson’s disease, compounded by covid-19 and pneumonia, have stolen his passionate oratory and diminished his ability to speak, stand and move.
“It’s frustrating to be so dependent upon people,” he said during an interview, after being assisted from his wheelchair to a lounger in his office. At 81, his dark wavy hair, wily grin and strong recollections of an activist life remain.
While his uncooperative body has weakened, the determination and dedication of his supporters are strong. Reunion speakers cited many victories linked to the campaigns’ influence on politics and federal policies on issues like health care, day care and voter registration. It’s not that Jackson was the first or the only one to advocate these issues, but his campaigns coalesced the efforts of many groups. They all had a “patch,” a favorite Jackson metaphor, of the larger leftist effort. His presidential runs helped sew the separate patches into a united rainbow “quilt.”
Perhaps more important than Jackson’s advocacy on any one issue, “what he did was influence our decision-making,” Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia L. Fudge said during a Monday interview, two days after addressing the conference. She credits Jackson’s pressure in passage of the Fair Housing Act, following the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership after his 1968 assassination. That law was amended in 1988. Fudge called it “the most important thing to my work.”
Jackson’s 1988 campaign and his Rainbow Coalition concept “was revolutionary,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said in a video tribute. “It was transformative for American politics in the sense that it brought Blacks and Whites and Latinos, Native Americans, rural and urban together around a liberal agenda which said that government should represent all of the people and not just the people on top.”
As a candidate who commanded attention, while constantly exhorting voter registration and turnout, Jackson influenced not just policies, but politicians. “Like Shirley Chisholm 12 years before, Rev has widened the path for generations that would follow, including President Barack Obama and me as the first Black woman to serve as vice president of the United States,” Vice President Harris said to applause during the conference’s Sunday session. “I am clear about that,” she added, repeating for emphasis, “I am clear about that.”
Yet Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action, abortion, gun rights and voting rights, along with increasingly retrograde policies in red states, including on books about and the teaching of racism, slavery, and LGBTQ+ rights, obscures the optimistic rainbow view with heavy clouds of right-wing reality.
But there was more emphasis on Jackson’s influence than today’s struggles at the conference. There and during interviews, former campaign aides noted numerous policies candidate Jackson advocated and where they stand now:
Children and family. Robert Borosage, senior issues adviser during Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign, credits Jackson with giving children’s issues enough attention to get them included in that year’s Democratic platform, influencing the expansion of Head Start under President Bill Clinton (who awarded Jackson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor), and setting the stage for President Biden to make “the children’s tax credit a central push.” Paid family and medical leave, which Jackson also supported, has been adopted in the District and several states, but there still is no national plan, unlike in other developed countries.National health care. After being promoted by Jackson, “Clinton then picked that up,” Borosage said, “and made national health care one of the centerpieces of his campaign agenda.” National health care became “a Democratic staple,” leading to Obamacare, albeit a weaker program than many Jackson fans wanted.LGBTQ+ rights. Jackson advocated for gay rights and people with AIDS when it was considered a gay man’s disease. He did so in the face of “a hell of a lot of homophobia in the Black community,” said Ron Daniels, a former deputy campaign manager. As a Wall Street Journal reporter, I followed Jackson during the 1988 campaign. In one telling stop, he visited AIDS patients in San Francisco, when many, including most reporters on his campaign bus, did not want to be in the same room with them.Minimum wage. To Jackson’s dismay, the paltry federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour hasn’t moved since 2009, but Borosage noted the fight for a $15 wage “has really had massive success across the country” at the state and local level.Union membership. Jackson is a strong union advocate and pushed to make labor organizing easier. But Republicans are opposed, and more centrist Democrats, Borosage said, were “never prepared to spend any energy or any political capital” on it. Now, the union membership rate “is the lowest on record,” according to the Labor Department.Taxes. Trump’s tax cuts for the rich took this issue in the exact opposite direction Jackson wanted.
Jackson’s movement, in some respects, also has gone the opposite way of his energized campaigns. Gregory T. Moore, who in 1986 was a founding member of the Rainbow Coalition’s Board of Directors, said “we’re kind of in the retrenchment mode.” Moore, author of “Beyond the Voting Rights Act,” credits Jackson’s massive voter registration efforts with widespread ripple effects, then cited the Supreme Court’s 2013 evisceration of the Voting Rights Act “that by itself undermined a whole bunch of things.” Moore acknowledged successes, but said “the pushback is tremendous,” particularly after Obama’s second term.
But it’s not just issues that have suffered retrenchment, it’s also the movement.
Jackson’s presidential campaigns provided an organizing umbrella that blended disparate liberal organizations. When the White House runs ended, “there was a lapse,” Daniels said. “The rainbow concept was there, but the actual organizing of it and the facilitation of keeping it together was lacking.”
So where are things now?
Fudge worries about complacency in the movement for human rights, but she keeps hope alive.
“I’m always optimistic because, if I wasn’t I couldn’t do what I do,” the HUD secretary said. “But I would also say that I am as well concerned. I’ve never been more concerned about the future of this country as I am today.”