issue 200 - October 1989
The Third American Revolution
Jesse Jackson almost made it to the White House. Not only was there nearly
a Black President of the most powerful nation on earth but one committed to an entirely
new world order. And he could still make it in 1992. The Black poet and political essayist
June Jordan explains just how close Jesse came - and how he was stopped.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Revolution always unfolds inside an atmosphere of rising expectations. Given the unexpected, hard-won success of Jesse Jackson's 1988 Presidential campaign, the Third American Revolution may well be on its way.' Certainly, the phenomenon of a Black man bidding for the most powerful office in the world has raised, irreversibly, the expectations of Americans who, prior to Jackson's candidacy, never even dreamed about accurate, or responsive, political representation. Indeed, the compelling personal history of Jesse Jackson must inspire the least powerful and most despised segments of our body politic.
Born to an unwed teenage mother in South Carolina, Jackson came of age when no Black man or woman would ever request a public cup of coffee, or enter a public bathroom, or undertake to register to vote, without calculating the easily fatal risks attached to such a simple act. Jackson's example illuminates the value of an aggressive and rallying self-respect that will not yield to hostile stereotypes.
Moreover, 1988's election results suggest that Jackson will take the Presidency in 1992, over the dead body of the Democratic Party. In the light of the belated rally for the lamentable Governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis, a rally sparked by his (reluctant) mouthing of the populist Jackson agenda he had earlier shunned, the next Jackson campaign ought to fly all the way home to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, hitherto known as 'The White House'.
I know about Jesse and the US because I travel across America, rather incessantly. I knew Jackson was going to surprise the hell out of a whole lot of people. I could sit back and wait for him to break through media censorship.
But then, London surprised me. I could find no-one among my internationalist new acquaintances who understood what was happening in my country. Jackson's name elicited vague looks or angry gossip about caricature treatments of Jesse in the British press. Ultimately he would emerge as a controversial and entertaining personality. No-one supposed we might be talking about the possible next leader of 'The Free World'. Of course, London is not New York. But when I began to fathom the extent of British editorial obedience to America's New York Times and NBC-TV, I got scared. My complacency seemed altogether unwarranted. And I returned to the States in considerable agitation: if national white media continued their de facto denial of his campaign, Jackson might really lose the game on grounds of fair-play relentlessly circumvented in order to defeat him.
But media apart, thousands and thousands of white and Black Americans found themselves standing in front of this indisputably charismatic orator. From his own mouth they understood that, regardless of ethnic or regional or age identity, they would have to surrender nothing in order to gain a great deal: that alliance need not produce merger or submergence, that even racist habits of mind became beside the point - you could vote for 'the nigger' not because you wanted a Black man in your family but because you thought he might save your family farm.
Counted multitudes of white Americans eschewed stupidities of racist reflex for the sake of their own self-interest. More and more listening Americans realized that you don't have to be Black to become 'an outsider' in your own native land: in our democracy. at present, one major illness is enough to financially ruin and emotionally wreck a white middle-class family. Divorce or the death of a husband is enough to catapult a middle-class white woman and her children into poverty. One plant closing or relocation is enough to terminate the employment future of an entire city.
Twenty years after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, the Reverend Jesse Jackson was standing up, by popular vote, the front-runner Democratic candidate for the Presidency of the United States. This was the situation for more than half of the official primary season! He was standing on the principled vision of his predecessor whose humanity had persuaded an awesome number of white Americans to re-examine their notions about 'minority' and 'majority' issues. Was hunger a Black problem or an American disgrace? Was equal access to good housing and education a Black demand or a necessity inside a 'democratic state'? Was 'Jobs or Income' an unreasonable, left-wing slogan, or a matter of human survival? I look upon the political phenomenon of Jesse Jackson as vindication of Dr King's deepest faith in our collective potential as a democracy. And, what's more, Jackson's own radiant temerity in the face of negligible funding, press censorship and attack, has elicited the respect, and restored the activist self-respect, of a new American majority: a multi-racial populist coalition of citizens intent upon the humane expression of their citizen entitlements.
Jackson was the first Presidential candidate, 1988, to plead and repeat the plight of 650,000 American farmers losing their farms within the eight years of Reagan's reign. He was the first to identify drugs as the number one menace to domestic security. Jesse Jackson was the first and only candidate for the Democratic nomination to assert that there must be a single standard for the measurement and protection of human rights throughout the world; no country - not France nor Israel not Nigeria not South Korea nor Iran nor South Africa - should be exempted from the requirements of that single standard. He was the first and only Presidential contender to propose a world-view profoundly alternative to the traditions of imperialist perspective. Jackson proposed that the majority of human life, the people of the Third World, be accorded proportionate political respect, economic aid and inventive consideration as potential social and economic partners. The Third World should no longer serve as a playpen for greedy, killer interventionist maneuvers by aging cold warriors. And he was the first and the only Republican or Democratic candidate to propose an international minimum wage.
Rivers of money
Obviously Jackson could have proposed these many things plus the obliteration of the moon and none of it, none of his isolate and courageous and visionary ideas would have mattered but for the huge national endorsement he received. After the 'stunning' Jackson victory in Michigan in March where he took 55 per cent of the votes and delivered a 2-1 defeat to Michael Dukakis, the currently powerful went crazy. America was out of (their) control. He had to be stopped.
Rivers of money rushed into the coffers of the Dukakis camp. Top Democratic officials rid themselves of every pretense at neutrality, at letting 'the people' choose their candidate. Nobody dared to claim that Dukakis represented anything in particular or that he could reliably arouse anything more than a snore: that was not the point. In the media,the mesage quickly telescoped into Vote for Dukakis or ... and here the message tended to become diffuse and difficult: or what?
In the teeth of his winning populist support, national white media based in New York or Washington DC released hysterical cover headlines such as 'What Does Jesse Want?' or, ad nauseam, they broadcast clearly invalid 'expert' opinions to the effect that Jackson was 'unelectable' - a disgusting neologism invented specifically to discredit Jackson's gathering success. They cut him off during televised debates. They stressed his 'lack of experience'. They referred to his dependency upon the Black vote (as though the Democratic Party itself could win anything without the Black vote, and as though Alaska and Vermont were strongholds of Black populations rather than white snow).
Roger Hutchings / CAMERA PRESS
Racism could not kill the Jackson campaign. If you pumped hard enough you could probably find some jackass willing to say he'd be damned if he'd 'let the niggers hold a barbecue on the White House lawn'. But any rational analysis of the outcome of the Democratic primaries makes it clear that Jackson's racial identity did not and could not defeat him in the voting booth. Yes, the prospect of a Black man wielding power over white life, the prospect of Black power commensurate with the Presidency of the United States, undoubtedly appalled, if it did not terrify, a host of white Americans still crippled by racist attitudes and habits. But Jackson was out here, everywhere, testing his faith in a democratic America. And his courage, his passionate goodwill, was causing an extraordinary multitude of white folk to obliterate the color line for the sake of their own best self-interest.
He had to be stopped. And, measured by the number of delegates at stake, the next, the pivotal battleground would be New York. This was where Jackson's enemies needed to break the neck of his campaign. But how? I think it looked easy. For Jews, there is no subject more profoundly freighted with fear and with hope than Israel. Israel was, therefore, an 'issue' for malevolent, divisive manipulation. In New York you had the largestJewish community outside of Israel. Constituting 23 per cent of the voting electorate, this community tended to deliver a monolithic yea or nay. You had a big-time lunatic in The Office of the Mayor. You had the national headquarters of Time magazine, Newsweek, NBC-TV and so forth. The showdown was set. The goal was the burying of a startling upstart.
Burying the upstart
Ah, Israel. Such a tiny sovereign state with fewer inhabitants than the New York City Boroughs of Brooklyn and the Bronx combined. Could you reduce a national populist uprising and its leader to 'one issue', the 'issue' of Israel? Well, evidently. But here the clouds converge and mist falls and general miasma overtakes the public brain. What 'issue', exactly?
It seems that Jesse thought that the 'parties in conflict' - the Israelis and the Palestinians - ought to negotiate their differences directly with each other, It seems that Jesse thought that the Palestinian people should have somewhere other than atrocious 'refugee camps' to live. It seems that Jesse thought that human rights do not lose their relevance whenever any of us decide we detest somebody else. Every one of these ideas occupies a commonplace status within the fiercely divided community of Israel itself.
In New York State where 25 per cent of the electorate is Black, where more than 40,000 Americans live homeless, where drug dealing and drug addiction terrorize every neighborhood, where bridges collapse and subways defy your tolerance for filth, and where public schools fail to keep most of their students and also fail to teach the ones who stay, what was 'the issue of Israel'?
The media made it happen. Television and newspaper commentators never tired of raising 'the key question', as they were pleased to term it: what was Jackson s relationship to the Jews? According to the media, this was not only 'the key question', this was the sole question for examination. And then New York City's Mayor, Edward Koch, saved the ugly day: 'Jews Would Be Crazy To Vote For Jackson', he declared. And, having determined the question, the media now brandished 'the answer' On Page One, at the top of the TV news, the fight for the Democratic Party's nomination for the Presidency of the United States had become a media-induced fight between two minorities: Jews and Blacks.
As they say in New York, 'very nice'.
Within this inflamed, special-case scenario, on April 19, Jesse took New York City and virtually all of New York's Black and Hispanic vote. He did not win the Jewish vote. And he lost the state.
If he had taken New York State, Jackson's nomination by the Democratic Party would have been assured. It was that close. He had almost made it. And nobody knew how close Jackson had come to changing American history better than his most devoted enemies. With no money, and no Democratic Party support remotely proportional to his demonstrated 'electability', Jesse Jackson had emerged the most familiar, popular and small 'd' democratic candidate in the public mind and eye. But New York had cost him the Democratic Party's nomination.
The rest is not history. America is not the same old anything it was prior to the 1988 leadership of Jesse Jackson. The reasons for a Third American Revolution have not gone away. The needs of all the Americans who propelled Jackson to the front of our own uprising have not been met. Our distinctively humane values have neither been erased from our hearts nor honored by those who scramble to maintain power over our lives. New York is not the US: we persist, neither stupid nor satisfied. And we have not lost the war.
Jackson has transformed the nature and the substance of acceptable political discourse in America. Even President George Bush will struggle to enunciate metaphors about 'a thousand points of light' while his narrow eyes sting and water from his own rhetoric about 'a kinder, gentler nation'. And the keynote speaker at the Republican Convention, Thomas Kean, Governor of New Jersey, apparently felt it necessary to assert that 'we will search out bigotry and racism - we will drag it into the sunshine of understanding and make it wither and die'.
And as for those millions and millions of us who chose Jesse Jackson as our candidate, we would have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to notice how much we scared the currently powerful. Literally, we scared them to death!
June Jordan is one of the US's foremost political and creative writers. Her journalism has been collected in Moving Towards Home and her poetry in Lyrical Campaigns
1 The First American Revolution secured American independence from England. The Second American Revolution broadly increased the civil rights of Black men and women.