Rev. Jesse Jackson Has Lessons for Progressives in Philadelphia

Isaiah J. Poole

In a session that was both a trip back in time and a challenge for the future, the Rev. Jesse Jackson in Philadelphia on Tuesday schooled a new generation of political activists about the struggles that laid the ground work for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign and about what it would take to keep the Sanders revolution alive.

Jackson was invited to Progressive Central, a hub for progressive strategy and networking at the Democratic National Convention organized by Keystone Progress, to talk about his landmark 1984 and 1988 Democratic presidential campaigns. But Jackson, in answering a question by The Nation’s John Nichols about his first party convention, took the group to the Democratic convention of 1968. Jackson was then a close lieutenant to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who just months before had been with King when he was assassinated in Memphis.

Jackson drew a direct connection between the spirit of that convention and the lingering anger of Bernie Sanders supporters that revealed itself at times during convention proceedings on Monday. In 1968, progressive Democrats were left alienated by the coalition that selected Hubert Humphrey as its nominee, and in the crack left by the fractured Democratic Party Richard Nixon took power. Likewise, when progressives could not find enthusiasm for Democratic nominee Al Gore in 2000, George W. Bush slipped through the fracture into power.

“I don’t want to see [Donald] Trump ease into the crack” left by a divided Democratic coalition, Jackson said.

He warned the room of mostly Bernie Sanders supporters not to lose sight of “the long game” over the short-term disillusionment of a Sanders loss. “Sometimes champions have to play with the pain,” he said, “but I would rather play with the pain” than to see a Trump victory.

Playing with the pain, though, can lead to incremental successes than add up to big wins later.

Jackson traced how rules fights in the 1972 and 1988 conventions, for example, laid the groundwork for Barack Obama to be the party’s nominee in 2008 by fighting to reduce the number of winner-take-all primaries.

Nichols pointed out that the theme of Jackson’s 1988 campaign – a “rainbow coalition” of people of color, women, working-class whites, young progressives and the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender community – has evolved into a form of inclusion that the party brags about.

Plus, the Jackson presidential campaigns served as a training ground for people who are now hold key positions in the Democratic Party, such as Donna Brazile, a lieutenant in Jackson’s 1984 campaign who this week succeeded Debbie Wasserman Schultz as interim chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Jackson said that he stayed neutral in the 2016 presidential race between Sanders and presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton because “I wanted to have the capacity to close the gap” between their supporters once the campaign was over. A person in the audience said, “That gap will never be closed,” but most listened respectfully.

He also called the overwhelmingly white group to close another gap – between themselves and people of color – by being directly engaged in their lives and struggles on a day-to-day basis. That was essential, he said, for white people and black people to build relationships of trust that can lead to building progressive power and changes in the political and economic system that result in more fairness and equity for everyone. “When blacks win, we win,” he said.

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