In November 1983, Rev. Jesse Jackson announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, becoming only the second Black presidential candidate (after Shirley Chisholm in 1972) to compete at the national level. In doing so, he claimed to be fighting for the rights of a “Rainbow Coalition” of diverse Americans—including Blacks, whites, Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans; men and women; straight and LGBTQ.
An ordained Baptist minister and longtime civil rights activist who had served as a close aide to Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackson would try and fail twice to win the Democratic nomination, but drew a historic level of support, including nearly 7 million votes in 1988. Though not without controversy—particularly over his use of derogatory language toward Jewish Americans—his candidacies and vision eventually helped register new voters and pave the way for a more progressive wing within the Democratic Party.
Roots in the Civil Rights Movement
Jackson got involved with the civil rights movement while still a teenager, and was arrested for the first time in 1960 while demonstrating to integrate a public library in his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina. In 1965, the year after his college graduation, he marched with King and others at Selma to demand Black voting rights.
After leaving his graduate studies at the Chicago Theological Seminary to join King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Jackson became director of the organization’s economic arm, Operation Breadbasket. He traveled to Memphis with King in April 1968, and was with him at the hotel where he was assassinated. After King’s death, Jackson clashed with other SCLC leaders, and he left the organization in 1971.
Announcement of the ‘Rainbow Coalition’
Jackson never finished his graduate studies, but was ordained as a Baptist minister at a Chicago church. As founder of Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity, later changed to People United to Serve Humanity), which sought to help Black Americans improve their economic situations, Jackson gained increasing attention on the national stage in the 1970s and early ‘80s.
After Harold Washington won election as mayor of Chicago in 1983, becoming the first Black mayor of that city, some leaders in the Democratic Party began to argue that the time was right for a Black presidential candidate. Jackson stepped forward to answer this call. A diverse group of campaign aides joined him and his wife, Jacqueline, on the dais when he declared his candidacy. With the support of this “Rainbow Coalition,” Jackson declared, he sought to “help restore a moral tone, a redemptive spirit and a sensitivity to the poor and the dispossessed” to Reagan-era America.
Jackson’s use of the term “Rainbow Coalition” referred back to the alliance of that name formed in the late 1960s by Fred Hampton, leader of the Chicago branch of the Black Panther Party, with the Puerto Rican group the Young Lords, and the Young Patriots, a group of poor white migrants from the Appalachian region. Hampton was killed in 1969 as part of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program (which had also surveilled King for years).
As historian Robert Greene II wrote in the Washington Post, Jackson’s National Rainbow Coalition, which grew out of his first presidential campaign, also drew inspiration from King’s efforts to unite diverse Americans in his Poor People’s Campaign.
Controversy & DNC Speech
As the sharpest critic of incumbent Ronald Reagan in the Democratic field, Jackson didn’t attract widespread support from other Black leaders, many of whom chose to support Walter Mondale for the 1984 Democratic nomination. He also lost support for his controversial stance toward Jewish Americans, particularly after using the ethnic slurs in reference to Jews and New York City in an interview with the Post in January 1984. Amid protests, Jackson was forced to apologize for his remarks, but continued to draw criticism for his past support of the Palestinian cause and his refusal to disavow Louis Farrakhan, a Black Muslim leader who had also made anti-Semitic remarks
Still, Jackson achieved historic success in the 1984 presidential race, winning five primaries and caucuses for a total of more than 3 million votes. Given a key slot at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco that summer, he spoke memorably of the nation’s (and the party’s) diversities as a strength: “America is...like a quilt,” he said. “Many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread.”
The Future of the Rainbow Coalition
After Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro (the first woman to be nominated for vice president by a major political party) lost big in the 1984 general election, Jackson’s vision helped shape a more progressive wing of the Democratic Party. He fared even better in his second presidential run in 1988, winning seven primaries and four caucuses and nearly 7 million votes, and finishing second to the eventual nominee, Michael Dukakis.
Jackson never mounted another presidential run, but kept up his work on behalf of racial and economic justice, merging his National Rainbow Coalition with PUSH to form the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition in the 1990s. Meanwhile, his success in encouraging Black voter registration and political engagement in his two presidential campaigns paved the way for a new generation of Black leaders, while his inclusive vision came to form a vital part of the modern Democratic Party.