How Jesse Jackson Remade The Democratic Party

Jesse Jackson (Wikimedia Commons)
August 5, 2023

On July 16, Vice President Kamala Harris delivered the keynote address at the Rainbow People United to Serve Humanity (PUSH) Coalition Convention. Standing behind the lectern at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago, she spoke primarily about the organization’s founder and former leader, Jesse Jackson, who had just stepped down after more than five decades at the helm.

Harris reminisced about Jackson’s influence on Democratic Party politics and "the power of the coalition." The vice president was so inspired by him, she said, that in the late 1980s she drove a car with a "Jesse Jackson for President" bumper sticker on it. The two later collaborated on issues from criminal justice reform to voting rights.

"And so, in the spirit of your ongoing work, Rev, I do believe that it is critically important that we who have been inspired by your leadership take on our responsibility to see clearly the moment we are now in," Harris said as she turned towards Jackson. "And let us acknowledge that the fight is more important than ever."

The story of Jackson’s life, as Harris made clear, is in many ways the story of the Democratic Party over the past half century. Once seen as a far-left, race-baiting anti-Semite, Jackson is now a mainstream figure in Democratic politics. So too with the Rev. Al Sharpton, whose anti-Semitism has been memory-holed as he has been rehabilitated as a respected clergyman and conscience of the Democratic party on MSNBC.

"One way to measure Jackson’s success is to look at where those who worked for Jackson ended up," former two-time Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile, who worked on Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign, told the Washington Free Beacon.

Jackson’s "rainbow coalition" of minorities, gays and lesbians, and whites with graduate degrees now forms the bedrock of a party that for many years mostly tolerated him as a necessary evil.

At one time, even left-wing magazines like the New Republic and Dissent deemed his rhetoric and prescriptions for tackling the "unfinished agenda of social justice" too extreme, with the New Republic writing shortly after George H.W. Bush’s presenting election victory in 1988 that Jackson embodied "the excesses of liberalism" that plagued the Democratic Party.

Now 81 years old, Jackson can see the ideas from his failed presidential runs in 1984 and 1988 embraced everywhere Democrats hold power. From a push for reparations in California to fights over curricula on college and high school campuses—Jackson was a central figure in the push to expunge Stanford University’s introductory humanities program on Western Civilization—to a burgeoning anti-Israel caucus on Capitol Hill, Jackson’s views have prevailed.

It wasn’t always this way. In 1986, then-senator Joe Biden urged Democratic voters to "reject" Jackon’s message of black radicalism and the idea "that whites and Catholics and Jews no longer care about your problems." Even after gaining a foothold in party politics, Jackson found himself largely iced out of both the Clinton and Obama White Houses, the latter of which indicted Jackson’s son and political heir-apparent, Jesse Jackson Jr., in 2013 for fraud.

"He’s always been a bullshit artist," said Martin Peretz, the former New Republic editor in chief and publisher throughout the 1980s and 1990s. "But Jackson developed a type of politics where people were afraid of him."

Jackson predicted the country’s demographic changes would favor the Democratic Party and understood that race would become a defining feature of its politics. When campus radicals at places like Stanford were considered politically toxic, Jackson led them in protest: "Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture's got to go.''

At home and abroad, Jackson endorsed once-radical ideas that have now taken hold in the Democratic mainstream. When Rep. Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) demonizes Israel as an "Apartheid state" and cozies up to pro-Palestinian extremists, she is making good on Jackson’s threat—delivered in 1979 at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport—that her faction in the Democratic Party is "a political reality that Israel should not ignore."

It was Jackson, too, who initially brought the concept of reparations for African Americans into presidential politics. The descendants of slaves needed more job security, Jackson said in 1982. "Full employment by itself isn’t enough. We already had that—on the slave plantations."

And it was Jackson who used his platform to invoke the legacy of the civil rights movement as a justification for increased federal spending and the new legal regime created by the Civil Rights Act that followed. When those same welfare programs and affirmative action laws have failed to bring about racial and economic equality, Democrats today follow Jackson in arguing that this only proves the need for more spending and legal protections.


Jackson, a South Carolina native, introduced himself to the nation on April 5, 1968, when he appeared on NBC’s Today Show telling Americans that Martin Luther King Jr. "died in my arms." He repeated that story for seven years until a Chicago reporter published interviews with members of King’s entourage, all of whom disputed Jackson’s tale.

In reality, they said, Jackson ran from the motel where King was killed—the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn.—as soon as shots rang out. The almost biblical story that Jackson used as proof that he was King’s rightful heir was part of his realization that racial politics were his ticket to success.

"My guess is that Jesse smeared the blood on his shirt after getting it off the balcony," said Chicago musician Ben Branch, who was with King when he died. "All I can say is that Jesse didn’t touch him."

In the ensuing decades, Jackson made the case that bigotry held blacks back in every corner of American society, citing his own experience.

A star high school athlete, Jackson won a football scholarship to play quarterback for the University of Illinois but was relegated to a lineman position after playing a single season. Jackson would go on to say the school told him "blacks could not be quarterbacks" when, in reality, he was replaced by another black player. His former coach later blamed Jackson’s poor grades for the switch.

Drawn to the political machine, Jackson moved to Chicago in 1966 and was taken under the wing of Chicago Theological Seminary president Howard Schomer. There, Jackson learned from Schomer how to boycott businesses and demand they adhere to "corporate social responsibility" policies. A favored strategy was buying small amounts of stock and then demanding political concessions at shareholder meetings.

Years before controversial transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney was born, Jackson organized the first boycott of Anheuser-Busch in 1982 over their lack of corporate diversity. The beer company eventually agreed to establish a nearly $16 million fund to "help finance minority-owned beer distributorships and to work with a black university to detect distributorships changing hands."

"I would say Martin Luther King was the moral voice and Jesse and the people he brought were the anger," said former Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman.

Jackson founded Operation PUSH in 1971 after a falling out with black activist Ralph Abernathy, King’s anointed successor at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. (Jackson once referred to Abernathy, his former partner, as a "ni—.")

Black Panther leader Fred Hampton first coined the term "rainbow coalition" in 1969, although Jackson later stole it a few years later for his own activist army dedicated "to a greater share of economic and political power for all poor people in America in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr." But after just four years, Operation PUSH was sputtering—and $400,000 in debt.

Jackson sensed a solution to his financial woes in the wake of the Watergate scandal with Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign. He began an aggressive voter black voter registration campaign and their relationship that year was compared by columnist Mary McGrory to that of the prophet Nathan and King David.

Carter’s subsequent victory earned Jackson two prizes: conventional political respectability and four years of lucrative government contracts for a variety of education and urban renewal projects.

At the end of Carter's first and only term, Jackson and his affiliate groups had won $25 million in today’s dollars of taxpayer money. The Carter White House took particular interest in Jackson’s PUSH-Excel program, which aimed to raise black literacy rates in inner-city schools.

Federal auditors later concluded that the initiative "had little impact on the atmosphere or opportunity dimensions" and that there was "no pattern of change positive or negative with behavior, homework, or drop out levels." In a majority of schools where students were exposed to the problem, grades actually went down. The only tangible results of the program appeared to be the certificate and voter registration form students received when they graduated high school.

Despite those conclusions, which mirror so many others, Jackson pioneered a new model for left-wing organizations. With a convincing message, an activist like Jackson could access a stream of money from Democratic politicians, lawmakers, and donors. That remains true to this day: Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge proclaimed her agency would "carry the baton" of Rainbow PUSH in the years to come.

By 1979, Jackson’s associates were launching their own "diversity consulting" firms, precursors to today’s diversity, equity, and inclusion consultants, which coordinated closely with Operation PUSH. Jackson, meanwhile, set his sights on the White House, and began working to burnish his foreign policy credentials and left one of his most pernicious marks on the Democratic Party.

Jackson sensed that anti-Semitism in the black community could be a political weapon when married with existing left-wing critiques of American foreign policy. He argued that there was no functional difference between Arab demands and those of black South Africans, and claimed both groups had common cause with allegedly oppressed minorities in the United States.

Yasser Arafat and other Arab leaders who wanted to win sympathy in the West embraced Jackson as an ally. The Arab League wound up donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to the PUSH Foundation. Receipts from the Arab League comprised 80 percent of the PUSH Foundation’s fundraising in 1981.

"This played out on the international scene because Palestinians tried to project themselves as people of color, whereas the Israelis and Jews were white," said Foxman. "It worked in the Third World. And it spilled over here."

But according to the Marxist political scientist Adolph Reed, Jackson’s "simple-minded anti-Semitic discourse" gave way to "a meanness of spirit and small-mindedness." That spirit was on display when Jackson returned home from a controversial 1979 trip to Lebanon. Facing criticism for the trip, during which he kissed Arafat on the cheek, Jackson complained about the "the persecution complex of many Jewish people" and falsely claimed that all of his critics were Jewish. There was a conspiracy, Jackson maintained, centered on how the Jews "do not share with us control of wealth, broadcasting stations and other centers of power."

Comments like those dogged Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign. Jackson’s anti-Semitism was revealed again the same year when a Washington Post reporter overheard him refer to Jews by the slur "Hymies" and to New York City as "Hymie Town." Jackson later apologized at a New Hampshire synagogue, where attendees left questioning his sincerity. He won just over 18 percent of the vote in that cycle's Democratic presidential primary.

That impressive showing allowed Jackson to secure a major concession from the Democratic Party: a formal endorsement of affirmative action, a policy which is now in many ways a bedrock. He also motioned to have Palestinian statehood adopted as an official position of the party. It failed at the time, but the party would adopt it in 2004.

A dazzled media, whose liberal reporters, Reed wrote, "anointed Jackson’s attempt to gain paramountcy as a black spokesperson," followed Jackson into his 1988 presidential run, which was far more successful. Despite his explicit partnership with black nationalist and anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan and endorsements from then-fringe groups such as the Democratic Socialist of America, his share of the white vote tripled, in large part because of gains among those with a college degree or higher.

Jackson ultimately won nearly 30 percent of the primary vote. He received more than twice the support of future vice president Al Gore, and placed second behind Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis. His improvement among white voters could be best seen in states such as his surprise victories in the Michigan primary and the Vermont caucus, where Burlington’s socialist mayor Bernie Sanders was among one of Jackson’s most fanatical supporters.

The Democratic Party rewarded Jackson with a primetime speaking slot at its convention in Atlanta, where he received a standing ovation from the audience, and an "at-large" membership for his son, Jesse Jackson Jr. That 1988 speech, with its references to scripture intertwined with plaudits for civil rights icons such as Rosa Parks, is considered one of Jackson’s best.

It was also a declaration of the Democratic Party’s future. Rather than promote the traditional American ideal of a melting pot, Jackson proclaimed that Democrats must "build ... a quilt" of black, Hispanic, Asian, and gay voters, each of whom would advocate for their particular group's interests. He also called on the party to "fight economic violence" and pass universal voting registration, as well as make Washington, D.C., a state.

A new Democratic Party, Jackson declared, must cultivate "doctors who are more concerned about public health than private wealth" and "lawyers [who are] more concerned about justice than a judgeship." Politics, Jackson said, must transform into a "moral arena."

American politics inhabits that moral arena today, Brazile told the Free Beacon. Differences over health care, immigration, or taxes are no longer a matter of opinion, but what Joe Biden would later describe as fights over "the soul of the nation."

The moral arena, as Jackson made clear, extended internationally as well. A new generation of Democrats "must offer leadership to the real world," which was mostly limited to support for left-wing governments in South America and Africa, as well as the PLO. It was up to the next Democratic president, Jackson said in 2008, to eliminate the "Zionists who have controlled American policy for decades."

Just two days before Omar and 10 of her Democratic colleagues boycotted Israeli president Isaac Herzog’s speech to Congress, she spoke at a Rainbow PUSH conference. Omar called Jackson "a man who showed that you can build a national political movement based on progressive ideas and a vision of radical love."

That movement’s "radical love" would seem to exclude those whom Democrats have labeled as "bitter" and "deplorable." But it was an undoubtedly successful movement, one that delivered two terms for Obama, provided "wisdom" for Biden, and now fuels the progressive "Squad" as it drives the Democratic Party ever leftward.

To Jackson’s supporters, those electoral victories are all that matters. But whether today’s members of the "rainbow coalition" benefit more than the Chicago public school students who are left with nothing but a certificate and a voter registration form is an unanswered question.

"Jackson’s not being given credit for seeing the Rainbow Coalition as a power vehicle in political games," said Foxman. "And he did it all without 100 consulting firms."