This Day In History: July 17

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On July 17, 1984, the Reverend Jesse Jackson delivers his famous "Rainbow Coalition" speech in San Francisco at the Democratic National Convention, which presents the upcoming election as a stark choice between a future of justice for all or advantages for some under another term for President Ronald Reagan. He is the first African American to stand at the podium of a major party convention as a presidential candidate.

“Tonight we come together bound by our faith in a mighty God, with genuine respect and love for our country, and inheriting the legacy of a great party, the Democratic Party, which is the best hope for redirecting our nation on a more humane, just and peaceful course,” Jackson told the audience.

“This is not a perfect party. We are not a perfect people,” he continued. “Yet, we are called to a perfect mission: our mission to feed the hungry; to clothe the naked; to house the homeless; to teach the illiterate; to provide jobs for the jobless; and to choose the human race over the nuclear race.”

The audience applauded frequently for Jackson, who called his constituency “the desperate, the damned, the disinherited, the disrespected, and the despised. They are restless and seek relief.” To vote for him on the first ballot, Jackson said, is both a vote for a new direction in the Democratic party, along with a vote of conviction and a vote of conscience.

Professors Stephen E. Lucas and Martin J. Medhurst asked leading scholars to rank the best American political speeches of the 20th century, and Jackson’s speech was ranked No. 12 in their list.

While Jackson asked the delegates to vote for him, he expressed respect for his competitors, and Jackson pledged to support whomever the convention nominated. He also said he was elated that Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman in history, would be recommended for the Democratic ticket.

Jackson emphasized the diversity of the United States, hence the analogy of his Rainbow Coalition campaign that drew on the country’s racial, religious and economic diversity.

"Our flag is red, white and blue, but our nation is a rainbow—red, yellow, brown, black and white—and we’re all precious in God’s sight," Jackson said.

The rainbow also includes disabled veterans, said Jackson, who threw in this zinger comment to applause: “I would rather have Roosevelt in a wheelchair than Reagan on a horse.” As to the widening divide between rich and poor Americans, Jackson said: “We must not measure greatness from the mansion down, but from the manger up.”

Former Vice President Walter Mondale of Minnesota edged out Senator Gary Hart of Colorado and Jackson, who came in second and third, respectively. Mondale faced Reagan in the 1984 election, held four months later on November 6. President Reagan won re-election, carrying 49 states. Jackson ran for the Democratic nomination again in 1988 and earned broader support, but he lost to Michael Dukakis, who lost in a landslide to President George H.W. Bush.