Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Can Lessons from the Jesse Jackson Campaigns for President Help Us in 2022 and Beyond?
By Eddie Wong with input from Bill Gallegos and May Louie. Posted July 27, 2022.
The classic American song Over the Rainbow sung by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz has an enduring appeal both for its wistful melody and the indelible, optimistic lyric, i.e., “Somewhere over the rainbow/Skies are blue/And the dreams that you dare to dream/Really do come true.“ In the grim and anxious U.S.A. of today, we need a bit of optimism and a lot of kick ass organizing to surmount a concerted, vicious attack on the hard-won gains of the progressive movements of the 1960s to the present. This article focuses on reflections by members of the League of Revolutionary Struggle (M-L) who were active in electoral work in the 1980s. It is not a full summation of the LRS’s electoral work, but it does hopefully contain some insights that might be useful to today’s activists. Although conditions today are vastly different than in the period when the LRS was active, some basic concepts – applying the mass line, centering the work against systemic racism and national oppression, patient base building work, and maintaining independence and initiative as leftists – continue to be core values in organizing for fundamental social change.
On November 8, 2022, voters will hold the future of U.S. democracy in their hands. If voters return Democratic majorities in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, there would be a slim opportunity to enact progressive legislation on climate change, economic growth, voting rights and other measures that have been held hostage by the Republicans. It would also create important political space for our continued organizing to advance a progressive agenda. Conversely, if the Republicans win either one of the chambers, a legislative stalemate would spell doom for any forward motion on needed reforms. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of legal precedents on abortion rights, loss of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate will stymie any efforts for federal protection of reproductive rights.
An ascendant Republican party, which has become an authoritarian, anti-democratic force, could lose the popular vote in 2024 and still capture the White House. They will wield their political power to try and institutionalize a US-form of apartheid, white minority rule. This bleak future compels us to redouble our efforts to increase turnout to defeat the extreme right in 2022 and 2024. The specter of rightwing rule compels progressives and Leftists to mount a full-court press in the electoral arena but also through mass protest and disruptive politics where new generations of activists can be educated and trained.
Although voter turnout set a record high in 2020 with 66.8% of eligible voters (5 points higher than 2016), turnout is typically lower in non-presidential election years. Getting voters to cast ballots is more difficult given restrictions passed in several states on early voting and vote by mail plus the purging of voters from the rolls. Some voters are discouraged by the inability of President Biden and the Democrats to enact promised reforms and may abstain from voting this fall. All of which plays into the hands of the Republicans, who want to narrow the Democrats’ voter base.
Progressives faced a similar scenario in the 1980s when the rise of Reaganism promoted union busting along with attacks on the rights of people of color and women. Declining economic growth also meant fewer jobs and a higher cost of living for working people. Alienation and distrust of the political process resulted in a turnout rate of 54.2% in the 1980 presidential election.
While the conditions today are different than the 1980s, there are some relevant lessons from the work of leftists and progressives from that era. Several lessons that will be explored in this article include the role of charismatic leaders, the strategic importance of centering the work against racism and national oppression, the importance of having a mass base and the need to build a broad united front in electoral work.
Several people in the League of Revolutionary Struggle, a Marxist-Leninist organization that existed from 1978 to 1990, have gathered online in recent months to share reflections on their past organizing in the labor arena, community work, and electoral work. These weren’t formal summations of the LRS’s work, but they offered individuals opportunities to document the work through the lens of personal experience and share their views on the strengths and weaknesses of the work. I will draw upon the group discussion on electoral work which was held in September 2021 as well as from interviews with individuals for this article.
How the LRS entered electoral politics
The LRS was one of several groups in the New Communist Movement that arose in the late 1970s. These groups sided with the People’s Republic of China in the Sino-Soviet split and labeled the Soviet Union as socialist-imperialist. Groups such as The October League, the Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party, Line of March, Workers Viewpoint/Communist Workers Party, the LRS and others grew out of the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s, Students for a Democratic Society, and other left formations. The LRS was unique in that it was predominantly composed of people of color – African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinx – and many of them were from poor, immigrant, and working-class backgrounds. Although the LRS had robust work in several cities, it was still a small organization with 1,500 cadres, spread across 12 cities primarily in the Northeast and West but with chapters also in the Midwest, the South, and Southwest. LRS cadres engaged in labor organizing among auto workers, steel workers, restaurant and hotel workers and in other industries. We also organized in African American, Chinese American, Japanese American, and Latinx communities, in the oppressed nationality and white progressive student movements, and in the peace and international solidarity movement. The LRS was a multilingual organization that published a bi-weekly newspaper (Unity) in English, Spanish, and Chinese. The majority of LRS leadership were oppressed nationalities and a majority were women.
Electoral politics was not initially an area of work. In fact, the LRS abstained from supporting President Carter against Gov. Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election. The LRS characterized it as a choice “between mumps and measles” and declared that “none of these (parties) offer any program which would benefit the working people of the United States.” It shortly became apparent that the LRS incorrectly framed the argument for while it was true that no bourgeois party sets out to benefit the working class, the Republicans were hellbent on destroying the labor movement and restricting civil rights and economic gains for working people. Well before the 1984 election, it was clear that the masses wanted to be rid of Reagan and that the left must engage in the electoral arena.
But there was another important aspect of the LRS’s work that led it to engage in electoral politics. The LRS had extensive work in the African American, Asian American, and Latinx communities going back to its predecessor organizations: the Congress of African People(CAP), the August 29th Movement (ATM), I Wor Kuen , East Wind Collective, Red Guard Party, New York Collective and Seize the Time. As members of these organizations joined the LRS, they brought with them much street cred as leaders of tenant struggles, anti-police brutality campaigns, fights for bilingual education, and educational reform efforts. These struggles placed them in direct confrontation with City Hall, school boards, and elected officials. Winning reforms in these areas meant engaging in electoral campaigns by supporting community-based candidates and/or opposing reactionary ones.
Some members of ATM were part of the La Raza Unida Party, which won seats on the city council in Crystal City, Texas in 1969 and ran candidates for governor in Colorado and California. CAP had participated in the 1970 campaign to elect Kenneth Gibson as Newark’s first African American mayor. CAP was instrumental in organizing the National Black Political Convention that drew 10,000 people to Gary, Indiana to forge a Black Agenda for the 1972 elections. Even if electoral work was not a prominent factor in the early work of the LRS, it was deep in its bones tied to the fight against national oppression and for full equality.
LRS electoral work was connected to organizing around community issues
Electoral work became a prominent aspect of LRS work in several cities with the rise of empowerment campaigns in Chicago, Denver, Boston and Newark in 1983. Rep. Harold Washington entered the race for mayor of Chicago after the community registered over 100, 000 new voters and raised $500,000 exceeding his expectations. In order to overthrow the Democratic Party machine that repressed Black and Brown political representation, Washington forged a Black/Brown alliance along with Asian Americans, progressive whites, labor union members, environmentalists, feminists and others. “It was a people’s power movement,” said Mark Prudowsky, a LRS activist in the Washington campaign. ”Harold was a gifted political leader who set neighborhood needs over downtown business interests. He came out of the Democratic machine and understood the need to unite labor and community into a powerful grassroots movement.” Carol Friedman added, “This was the hottest issue in town. Everyone was talking about it, so how could you not be involved.” Even LRS cadre not assigned to electoral work participated in the Harold Washington campaign as volunteers.
The undeniable groundswell of support for Washington’s challenge of Democratic Mayor Jane Byrne reminded the LRS and other leftists to apply the “mass line,” a concept that Mao Zedong referenced in numerous articles: To link oneself with the masses, one must act in accordance with the needs and wishes of the masses. All work done for the masses must start from their needs and not from the desire of any individual, however well-intentioned. It often happens that objectively the masses need a certain change, but subjectively they are not yet conscious of the need, not yet willing or determined to make the change. In such cases, we should wait patiently. We should not make the change until, through our work, most of the masses have become conscious of the need and are willing and determined to carry it out. (From the United Front in Cultural Work, 1934)
The African American masses were ready in 1983 to put an end to the plantation politics of the Democratic Party machine in Chicago, and they spearheaded a call for progressive change which drew in the Left, liberal Democrats, and progressives of all stripes.
Similarly, in Denver, the mayoral candidacy of civil rights lawyer Federico Peña ignited the aspirations of Latinos and African Americans, who were respectively 25% and 10% of the city’s 500,000 residents. “The campaign in ’83 followed one of the worst blizzards in Denver’s history,” said Joe Navarro, an LRS member. “It was still snowing in May during the run-off election, but people were still getting out the vote and consequently Peña got elected. It was a huge victory because in the history of the Southwest, there weren’t many Latinos elected to big offices. Given the history of oppression of Chicanos, it was like a phoenix rising up above the ashes in order to take back some power… The sense of national identity is very strong in Denver. It’s huge when you’re 25% of the population. People have a sense that says, ‘This is our land, our ancestors lived here before us. We were in the United States before there was a United States.”
After the campaign, LRS organizers worked in several community coalitions around immigrant rights and educational reform. A particular emphasis was on building unity among Chicanos and Mexicanos. They lived in separate neighborhoods but had a common interest in opposing the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli bill, which made it illegal to hire undocumented immigrants, and combatting the high drop-out/push-out rate of Latino students in Denver’s public schools. Much of this organizing was neighborhood-based: going door-to-door, holding house meetings, organizing fundraising dance parties, and mobilizing for rallies. The deep ties built through this work would result in an even larger scale organizing in the Jesse Jackson for President campaigns in 1984 and 1988 in Denver, which deepened the Black/Brown alliance.
Deep roots built through patient community organizing was also a critical feature of the LRS’s work in Boston Chinatown. Through organizing around education, tenants, and workers’ rights, as well as US-China relations, progressives coalesced to form the Chinese Progressive Association, initially an all-volunteer effort. When Mel King reached out for support of his mayoral candidacy, progressives responded, entering the electoral arena for the first time and challenging the dominance of Chinatown’s equivalent of “ward bosses.” King’s progressive platform drew wide support among the African American community, which was just over 20% of Boston’s population, and other communities of color plus progressive whites. The Democratic Socialists of America supported Ray Flynn, who supported anti-busing forces in South Boston, but also advocated economic populist positions. Even though King lost the election, the organizing effort bore fruit in the form of the 1,000-member Boston Rainbow Coalition which had neighborhood and constituency committees. It continued to organize to open up the electoral system, used a progressive agenda to support candidates for office and became a force in the fight for community control over urban development.
The LRS continued to be involved throughout the 1980s around a host of electoral issues, e.g., the push to expand the Los Angeles City Council and fight for district elections in many cities and towns throughout the Southwest to break the stranglehold against Latino representation. There were empowerment campaigns for a Black mayor in St. Louis, election of Latinos to the New York City School Board in District 6/Washington Heights, and empowerment efforts in Alabama via the New South Coalition, the anti-English only amendment in Colorado, and other issues.
It’s important to note that many of the LRS cadres doing community organizing – whether it was anti-gentrification efforts in Little Tokyo Los Angeles, saving the International Hotel in San Francisco or building Raza Si, a Chicano community organization in San Jose – were young people. We were in our 20s and early 30s, learning as we went along, listening to the community members and a few elders who had ties to the progressive and communist movements dating back to the 1930s to 1950s. We didn’t have all the answers. We kept evaluating the work as we went along. Once we accepted the need to enter the electoral arena, we were in uncharted waters. We learned how to do electoral work by doing it.
The empowerment campaigns of 1983 also coincided with the emergence of a new potent force for progressive change against Reaganism – the Jesse Jackson for President campaigns of 1984 and 1988. In the next section of this article, we’ll look at how the Jackson campaign deepened the LRS’ understanding of the relationship between democratic struggle and the fight for socialism and assess some of the pitfalls of total absorption into campaign work.
Jackson campaign continued the Black Liberation Struggle in the National Electoral Arena
Jesse Jackson’s historic run for the U.S. presidency, launched in 1983 was preceded by Congresswoman Shirley Chisolm’s campaign in 1972. She broke ground as the first African American candidate for President, but her bid faltered for lack of support, lack of funding, and her absence on the ballot in several primary states. African American civil rights leaders were determined to unite behind an African American candidate for the 1984 election, but their pleas to Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson to run for the presidency in 1984 were of no avail. Nonetheless, inspired by Harold Washington’s victory in Chicago and despite opposition from the Democratic Party establishment, Black leaders and activists knew that “Our Time Has Come.” Although Mayor Maynard Jackson declined to run, that void would soon be filled.
Meanwhile, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, leader of Operation Breadbasket/People United to Serve Humanity (PUSH) in Chicago, launched a Southern Crusade to register a million new African American voters. Throughout the country, crowds at Jackson’s voter registration rallies began chanting “Run, Jesse, Run.” Thus, Jackson, who was viewed favorably for his advocacy for Black entrepreneurship and Black educational excellence but also eyed warily by many activists as a self-promoting, media hot-shot, thrust himself into the presidential race.
The LRS and many leftists endorsed Jackson’s candidacy and worked on his campaign. Amiri Baraka, the renowned poet/playwright and leader of CAP/RCL/LRS, summed up its significance: “The fundamental importance of Jackson’s candidacy is to take the whole electorate to the left. Jackson’s presence among the presidential candidates ideally must force all the candidates to address questions (or at least take them into consideration) which previously would not even be considered. Not only ‘black’ issues but foreign policy, particularly concerning Africa, the Caribbean, Central America, the Middle East, and the rest of the third world, disarmament, international alliances, immigration policies, north-south relationships.” (Unity newspaper, Run Jesse Run! Jackson’s candidacy is a critical part of defeating Reagan in 1984.”, Vol. 7, #2, Feb. 8-21, 1984) The organizational discussion about supporting Jackson was a positive example of Black leadership within LRS, and also of a genuine democratic discussion among LRS members. We ultimately decided that the Jackson campaign had genuinely emerged from the Black Liberation struggle and represented a major opportunity to advance a progressive agenda on a national scale.
Jackson’s campaign stances on national and international issues mirrored much of what the Left and progressive movements were demanding, i.e., cutbacks on the military budget, full funding for economic development to benefit working people, farmers, and people of color, and full human and civil rights for all marginalized groups.
Baraka also placed Jackson’s candidacy in a historical context, and his words still resonate today. “The attacks on the BLM and the whole movement of progressive people during the 60s and the subsequent reactionary trend in the U.S. is very much like the destruction of the Reconstruction after the Civil War… (which) stopped the entrance of African Americans into U.S. society as citizens with equal rights. The direct assault and naked rule of terror by the KKK in the South was followed by laws that formally made Black people legally unequal and with separate status as U.S. citizens by law. The Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and the militancy of the 60s Black Liberation Movement fought around the disenfranchisement of the 19th century Reconstruction. Attacks on voting rights as a basis of bourgeois democratic political representation and power were always key to the national oppression of the Black masses. Without that disenfranchisement, there would be widespread political representation of Blacks in the South, and in the Black Belt a long history of Black representation and political power that would have changed the entire character of the South and the U.S. society as we know it. For this very reason voting rights, political democracy are important aspects of the Black struggle for democracy. Jesse Jackson will highlight this struggle, and the whole level of class struggle can be elevated and intensified around this issue, and resistance to Reagan and U.S. imperialism’s sharp move toward war and fascism… it is imperative that we use the Jackson candidacy as a focus of reorganization and counterattack against the growing strength of U.S. reaction before it is too late.” (Unity newspaper, Run Jesse Run! Jackson’s candidacy is a critical part of defeating Reagan in 1984.”, Vol. 7, #2, Feb. 8-21, 1984)
Baraka’s analysis points out the pivotal role of the struggle for Black empowerment plays in igniting a broad democratic movement against the extreme right. Many people hoped that the massive demonstrations organized by the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 would develop into a national effort aimed at organizing for political power, but that failed to materialize. Although well-financed by grants and donations to the tune of $90 million, Black Lives Matter has been criticized for not distributing the bulk of the funds to local organizations. We still need a Black-led national force aimed at organizing for political power.
Meeting New Allies, Deepening Community Work and Building Coalitions
The LRS supported the Jackson campaign by working in national and local constituency groups such as Labor for Jackson, Peace Activists for Jackson, Farmers for Jackson, Asian Americans for Jackson, Latinos for Jackson and in the nitty-gritty get-out-the-vote efforts in Congressional Districts. In the process, LRS cadre learned how to work in campaigns, contributed their organizing experience, and did outreach to build multi-racial alliances. For example, in San Francisco the LRS had few African American cadre and little contact with the African American community. Cadre from Japantown, which is adjacent to the African American Fillmore District, were sent to organize support for Jackson in the Fillmore and Bayview Districts and in the process built relationships that continued through the San Francisco Rainbow Coalition.
The Jackson campaign gave the LRS access to a larger playing field while deepening ties within communities where they were already based. Veteran activist/writer and LRS member Carl Davidson traveled with North American Farm Alliance leader Merle Hansen and the Rev. Jesse Jackson and chronicled the plight of the family farmer in his Unity article, “Blood on the Plow”. Cadre in San Diego mentioned that entering the Jackson campaign put them into the thick of the city’s Left and progressive forces. Given the cadres’ experience from numerous community organizing campaigns, they generally outperformed the so-called experts from the Democratic Party. The experience garnered in the Jackson campaign enabled the LRS folks in San Diego to run a progressive for city council a few years later.
The LRS also emphasized in-language outreach in the Asian communities, providing translated flyers used in outreach to Asian neighborhoods and senior centers in Seattle. “It wasn’t common practice then,” said Tracy Lai, “but today, it’s widely accepted.” In San Francisco Chinatown, long a bastion of LRS work, LRS members passed out leaflets, engaged in conversations with residents about the need for a Black/Asian alliance, and combatted anti-Black sentiment in the Chinese community. When Jesse Jackson came to SF Chinatown for a rally in Portsmouth Square in 1984, several thousand people packed the park and cheered him repeatedly. In New York Chinatown, the Chinese Progressive Association endorsed Jackson allaying fears that conservatism and anti-Black sentiments would lead them to distance CPA from Jackson. An older female garment worker told Cindy Ng, a CPA activist, “Of course, we should support Jesse. If an African American can’t become President, what chance would a Chinese American ever have?” In Hawaii, where African Americans were only 2% of the population, the Jackson campaign grew to include coalitions around Hawaiian sovereignty and the right of oppressed people to self-determination.
A major thrust of the LRS’s work in the Jackson campaigns of 1984 and 1988 was building Black/Brown unity. This took the form of advocating for Jackson in heavily Chicano/Mexicano districts such as CD 30 (Boyle Heights in Los Angeles) and CD 25 (El Sereno, Highland Park, Pasadena) and through formation of the Latino Agenda Coalition. “The Chicano Movement has a material reason to ally with the Black Liberation Movement,” wrote Bill Gallegos, Vice-Chair of the LRS. “Chicanos in the Southwest and Black people in the South both constitute nations oppressed and subjugated by imperialism. Both are denied the fundamental right to self-determination. Their cities have been gerrymandered to keep Chicanos and Black people from winning political power. Both have been used as pawns by the two major political parties, especially by the Democrats who take the Black and Chicano vote for granted…Imagine the power which 30 million Black people and 15 million Latinos in the country could have if their movements were united in their political aims.” (Unity Newspaper, Vol. 7, #8, May 11 – 24, 1984)
Building support for Jackson in East Los Angeles was opposed by the cultural nationalists who saw supporting a Black candidate as a distraction at best and a capitulation to the Democratic Party at worst. However, the Chicano masses saw that Jackson stood with them on issues such as immigration reform, support for bilingual education, and increased funding for education and social services that would help all poor people and communities of color. “Building Black/Brown unity was very prominent in the work in the 25th Congressional District because it was about electing a Black man in a predominantly Latino district,” said Theresa Montano. “That message was well received, and that coalition and solidarity work is what made us very different than anybody else doing work within our community.”
The Latino Agenda Coalition, which was initiated by LRS along with other progressive forces in the Chicano community, drew hundreds of people to its founding conference at East Los Angeles City College on February 25, 1984. “The conference represented a significant initial step toward developing Chicano political strength. It brought together activists from a broad political spectrum – trade unionist, Democratic Party activists, military veterans, communists, young MEChAistas and anti-interventionists.,” wrote Bill Gallegos. “But beyond this, it achieved political dialogue on a forward-looking, democratic and internationalist political platform…stands were taken in favor of Palestinian self-determination, for a bilateral nuclear freeze, and against U.S. intervention in the Caribbean, Central America and South Africa… The conference adopted a specific political strategy which combined work in the electoral arena (voter registration and education) and raising Latino issues at the Democratic Party Convention in July, with plans for a major Chicano Moratorium demonstration against Reaganomics in September, and another in December around the Central America issue.” (Unity Newspaper, Vol. 7, #4 – March 9 – 22, 1984).
Jackson accrued much goodwill among the Latinx community by standing with 4,000 striking cannery workers, most of whom were Mexicana cannery workers, in Watsonville, California, on June 29, 1986. Jackson referred to that strike as “the Selma of the 1980’s”.
The formation of the Latino Agenda Coalition was possible because LRS members had already been active in groups like the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) and had won the respect of its members. Nurturing these kinds of community ties made advances in the electoral arena easier. Many people in the Latino Agenda Coalition became Jesse Jackson supporters and even went with Latino LRS members to San Antonio to work for Jackson in the Texas Primary.
Asian American cadre active in the Jackson campaign joined the California Democratic Party Asian Pacific American Caucus and encouraged it to work with the Latino and African American caucuses. Since Jesse Jackson had become a recognized force in the Democratic Party, the infusion of Asian American radicals into the caucus was seen as a natural outgrowth of an expanding party, although other centrist elements in the Democratic Party were wary of these “new” democrats.
In the 1988 Jesse Jackson campaign, the LRS and other left groups and individuals became key organizers at the local and national level. Key constituency groups like Labor for Jackson, Gays and Lesbians for Jackson, and others were headed by leftists. The experience of the leftist and progressive organizers added to the expertise of seasoned Black political operatives and leaders. The Jackson campaign grew more professional and vastly improved its fundraising, outreach, and impact. By the end of the 1988 campaign, Jackson had amassed nearly seven million votes, won seven state primary and four state caucus elections, and went to the Democratic convention with 1,075 delegates, second only to nominee Gov. Michael Dukakis. In addition to these concrete achievements, there were intangible yet remarkable outcomes of the Jackson campaigns – a renewed sense of hope among people (Keep Hope Alive!) and the vision of a multi-racial, multi-sectoral alliance for progressivism.
Lessons for the Left from the Jackson campaigns
In Amiri Baraka’s last writings about the Jackson campaign before leaving the LRS in summer 1988, he highlighted once more the significance of the Jackson as an exponent of the Black liberation struggle and underscored the need for progressives and revolutionaries to remain engaged in the electoral arena. “The African American nation spoke Super Tuesday and raised Jackson by the numbers into an undeniable importance to the presidential election. This is so powerful because it confirms that Black people are critical to this society’s functioning on any level. There is in the Jackson campaign a powerful catalyst for the reigniting and the reawakening of a whole people and a whole movement…The Jackson campaign is this present period’s civil rights movement,” wrote Baraka. (Unity Newspaper, Jesse Jackson and the Significance of Super Tuesday, Vo. 11, 35, March 21, 1988).
Baraka also sounded a note about the specific task of progressives in the aftermath of the campaign. “Progressive forces must support the Jesse Jackson campaign and build the objective Rainbow as a permanent vehicle for progressive community and electoral development. It is silly to talk about revolution and not even be able to elect a school board member!” wrote Baraka. “Revolutionaries would be building mass and cadre structures on the energy and real advance the Jackson campaign can generate! Theoretically it is less complicated to transfer power in a district or ward or city or county or state than the entire U.S. national state… The progressive aspect of bourgeois democracy must be used to transcend it.” (Unity Newspaper, Jesse Jackson and the Significance of Super Tuesday, Vo. 11, 35, March 21, 1988.)
It is important to note Baraka’s framing of “the objective Rainbow” as opposed to the formal Rainbow Coalition organization led by Jesse Jackson. The former refers to the alliance of forces – progressive whites, progressive trade unions, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, gays/lesbians, environmentalists, peace and anti-intervention activists, environmentalists and others – while the latter refers to the scattered chapters of the National Rainbow Coalition. Baraka’s designation of the objective Rainbow which is essentially the strategic alliance among the multi-national working class and oppressed nationalities and other marginalized groups still holds true today.
The direction of the National Rainbow Coalition became a hotly contested issue among its members and inside the Left in 1989. Absent the unifying factor of the Jackson for President campaign, some local Rainbow Coalition chapters and Jackson supporters became divided over endorsements of local progressive candidates, some of whom were opposed by the African American ministers who were among Jackson’s strongest supporters. Jackson was placed in a difficult position. The more moderate and conservative elements of his support base, the ministers and some businessmen, were part of the local Black establishment. They wanted Jackson to back their candidates, who were often being opposed by leftists and progressives in the Rainbow Coalition.
A case in point was the 1989 mayoral race in Cleveland, Ohio where the two leading candidates in the primary were African American City Council President George Forbes and African American State Senator Michael White. Both were Jackson supporters, but Michael White was viewed as the more progressive candidate. White had actively campaigned for Jackson in 1988, serving as his Ohio campaign chair. Many Rainbow people lobbied Jackson to support White. However, Jackson’s longtime ally in Cleveland, the Rev. Otis Moss supported Forbes and persuaded Jackson to campaign for Forbes. Since the ministers and businesspeople were major donors to Jackson, he chose to side with them in Cleveland and elsewhere. Jackson opted to assert personal control over the Rainbow Coalition by naming the state chairs and local leadership. This move took the wind out of the sails of many Rainbow chapters and without Jackson’s fundraising clout and attention paid to building the Rainbow Coalition, it withered away.
Many leftists criticized the LRS for not opposing Jackson’s decision to assert control over the Rainbow Coalition chapters by anointing State Chairs and local leaders. The LRS’s position was that the Rainbow Coalition needed to be a true coalition and respect the diversity of its members, which included elements that backed the local Black establishment. “The left cannot expect Jesse Jackson to be personally tied to an organization which is particularized by local issues or reflective of mainly one class or one sector of his coalition,” wrote Karega Hart. “The Rainbow is a united front of diverse class and social forces not only the working class, the masses and the left, but also moderates, the business sector and institutions in the African American community such as the church. The Rainbow needs a structure where all of Jackson’s supporters can be represented and feel comfortable in.” (Unity newspaper, “The Rainbow Coalition, the Black Liberation Movement and the Left” Vol. 12, #1, Jan. 30, 1989.)
Other leftists contended that the Rainbow could only fulfill its progressive mission if it took on the local establishment. Jackson came out of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization of church leaders that was not accountable to a mass base; in retrospect it was clear that Jackson was not comfortable with an activist-led coalition. He needed to control the organization that had been built through his campaigns for president.
Jackson spent considerable energy paying off the 1988 campaign debts during this period. He lacked the resources to continue the constituency desks (labor, gay/lesbian, environmental, peace, family farmers, and more) that were a vital part of both building support for his campaign as well as deepening Jackson’s understanding of key issues. Most importantly, the constituency outreach helped build ties among activists across sectors. Relationship building across sectors is needed now more than ever, but we still lack an organized effort to build work across movement sectors.
Some members of the LRS are self-critical about this period. Bill Gallegos in the fall 2021 discussion of the LRS’ electoral work said, “We should have sought more unity and had more discussion with left forces on our work in the Jackson campaign and on the future of the Rainbow Coalition.” He characterized the LRS reluctance to do so as part of sectarianism towards other groups. However, just for the record, several leftists and individuals red-baited the LRS folks in the Jackson campaign. To his credit, Jackson recognized the contributions that many leftists made to his campaign as evidenced by his longstanding support for Jack O’Dell, an advisor on international and national issues, who was red-baited during O’Dell’s work with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Although Jackson was certainly not a leftist, he made room for the Left to be among his advisors and a part of his coalition.
If Jackson wasn’t going to continue the Rainbow Coalition as a vehicle for advancing the progressive agenda, then what should have been done to build an independent people’s organization to advance those goals? The left was too scattered and weak to take on that task; several organizations, including the LRS, would be dissolved by 1990. With the ascendancy of the Democratic Leadership Council in the Democratic Party and the inability of the Jackson wing of the party to mount a counter-offensive, the path was clear for the rise of Bill Clinton and neoliberalism by 1992 when he claimed the nomination and later the presidency.
Jackson continued to support Black empowerment campaigns and campaigned vigorously for Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins to become the first Black mayor of New York City in 1989. Similarly, Jackson forces in Virginia helped pave the way for the election of Doug Wilder as governor of Virginia. Several Black mayors were elected in 1989, including Norm Rice in Seattle. Most importantly, many Jackson supporters were inspired by his campaign to run for local office, and several activists were elected to state and local offices in 1989.
Jackson continued to stand with striking workers all over the U.S. notably with the 1989 United Mine Workers on strike in West Virginia. Although he garnered press coverage for his activities, Jackson was marginalized in the Democratic Party and ceased to have the influence he once had. In 1990, Jackson was elected in Washington, D.C. to the position of “shadow” Senator where his main duty was to lobby for statehood for Washington, D.C.
Caught up in the Whirlwind with No Direction Home
There were many positive developments for the LRS from the Jackson campaigns. The enthusiastic response to Jackson’s 1984 campaign among African Americans brought home the pivotal role of the Black Liberation Movement in advancing progress for all. Jackson’s call for a Rainbow Coalition spoke to the aspirations left unfulfilled from the Civil Rights Movement for a multi-racial coalition that would address poverty and injustice. Efforts to forge multi-racial alliances during the 1970s by revolutionary organizations were valiant efforts but failed to be large enough to achieve national impact. The Jackson campaign certainly placed the possibility of a united fight against Reaganism on a national scale and briefly demonstrated how a multi-racial, multi-sectoral movement could be forged.
LRS members who worked in the 1984 and 1988 Jackson campaigns gained valuable campaign skills and most importantly worked with diverse sectors in the African American community: ministers, labor leaders, community activists, students, elected officials, and Democratic Party leaders. Similarly, efforts to forge united fronts in the Chicano and Asian communities provided opportunities for LRS folks to learn to work with “middle forces” and objectively build a stronger progressive movement within our communities. In many cases, the LRS was able to recruit new members from the people we met during the Jackson campaigns. Overall, there was a high level of excitement and organizational unity built from seeing progressive strength build through the battle against Reaganism.
In the 1988 Jackson for President campaign, the scale was much bigger as Jackson had more money, a trained staff, and greater popular recognition. Similarly, the LRS’ involvement was also much bigger than it had been in 1984. Every district in the LRS was involved in the campaign and in several cities, LRS cadre were key volunteers or staff in the campaign. And Unity newspaper covered the Jackson campaign extensively in 1988 often sending reporters and photographers to accompany Jackson on his campaign swings throughout the country. This in-depth coverage helped expand the readership of Unity.
But there were problematic aspects of the LRS’s work, i.e., how to raise a socialist perspective which was distinct from merely following Jackson’s progressive program. This remains an issue for leftists today who engage in electoral work. Baraka pointedly addressed this dynamic in his essay “The Jackson campaign, Nationalism and Self Determination,” published in Unity Newspaper, Vol.7, #8 May 11-24, 1984: “The bourgeoisie is panicked because Jackson’s candidacy makes the question of black self-determination very open and plain. It has demonstrated that the black masses are politically conscious that their best interests will not be served by the traditional bourgeois politicians and traditional bourgeois politics. Jackson’s candidacy has enabled the black masses to hear issues important to them be raised, even though the tweedled dee tweedled dum politics of Hart and Mondale indicate that with them as with the general racist bourgeois politics of regulation United States, issues dear to black people are not even worth mentioning to the Democratic mainstream.”
Rather than tailing the Democratic Party, Baraka argued for independent initiatives. “What is also important is that the left must begin to explain THAT BY NO STRETCH of the imagination can Jackson become the president,” wrote Baraka. ”It is not even rational to talk about his being nominated at the democratic convention. The positive nature of his campaign is to RAISE ISSUES, MOBILIZE THE MASSES, AND PARTICULARLY THE MULTINATIONAL WORKING CLASS. MOBILIZE THE BLACK MASSES, SET UP STRUCTURES THAT CAN BE UTILIZED AFTER THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION (as for instance in NYC, where there is no doubt progressive forces will use the mobilization created by the primary, and later by the election to attack the racist Mayor Koch in ’85.)”
In the 1984 Jackson campaign, the LRS via Amiri Baraka’s article criticized Jackson for his Hymie town remark, objected to Jackson’s refusal to criticize Mondale’s backwardness at the Democratic Party convention and rebuked Jackson’s failure to lead a floor fight on the party’s undemocratic delegate rules. Unity newspaper’s coverage of the 1988 Jackson for President campaign was largely laudatory and did not provide a revolutionary perspective to the elections. Several African American cadre in the LRS cautioned against being swept up by Jackson’s charisma. He was undoubtedly one of the most powerful and inspirational orators on the political scene. Jackson’s ability to articulate complex and progressive political stances in a down-to-earth manner, often with humor, helped popularize progressive politics. Very few politicians become immortalized in popular song, but Jackson did in Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” a driving rock anthem released in 1989:
We got a thousand points of light For the homeless man We got a kinder, gentler, Machine gun hand We got department stores and toilet paper Got styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer Got a man of the people, says keep hope alive Got fuel to burn, got roads to drive.
In retrospect, the LRS’s boosterism of the 1988 Jackson campaign overestimated Jackson’s power at a time rightwing reaction was sinking deep roots. Many people wanted to believe that “Keep Hope Alive” really could propel progressives from the margins to the mainstream. A brutal awakening came at the Democratic Party convention in July 1988 when Sen. Lloyd Bentsen was anointed the vice-Presidential nominee, clearly a sop to the conservative and centrist elements in the Party.
Bill Gallegos, vice-chair of the LRS, reinforced Baraka’s admonition in his commentary “The DNC, the November elections, and beyond,” in Unity Newspaper, Vol. 11, #11, Aug. 8, 1988: …the left must strengthen the role, the independence of the working class… We need to strengthen progressives and the rank and file in trade unions. We need to elect, especially on the local and state levels, progressive and militant champions of the people to put forward innovative and real alternatives to the problems we face in our communities – from drugs and unemployment to crime and education.”
However, during the 1988 Jackson campaign and afterwards in 1989, there was as St. Louis LRS leader Jamala Rogers put it, “no exit strategy.” Several cadre in the electoral work mentioned the lack of internal discussion about the relationship of work in the Jackson campaign and its relationship to the LRS’s overall goal of amassing forces for socialist revolution. To a large degree, the demands of running the campaign consumed nearly every waking hour of the LRS cadre. “I think we got caught up in the work so much, and we were leaders so we couldn’t just say ‘Okay, well let’s sit down and let’s talk about this’ because you’re actually doing the day-to-day work, “said Theresa Montano, who headed the Jackson campaign in East Los Angeles.
Even as the cadre realized that these questions needed to be answered, there was a lack of direction from the national center of the LRS. Cadre were left trying to figure out things on their own. Montano gave another example of the need for constant reflection on the goals of the organizing work: “We were in the middle of the anti-English Only work and the coalition we built around Jackson really helped us especially among Black teachers, but it also raised the question about how far and how progressive can you take it?” Joe Navarro added, “There was always this phrase we used to throw around about independence and initiative within the united front and in a way, we didn’t discuss that enough. When we did it right, it was going gung-ho in the campaign, doing the work, but at the same time we always reserved the right to talk about things we also believed in and to try to make a connection between the struggle for democracy and socialism. I think sometimes we muted ourselves unnecessarily because we were afraid that it might jeopardize the campaign.”
The Last Hurrah
After George Bush demolished Michael Dukakis in the 1988 Presidential election, winning all but 10 states, the Democratic Party was demoralized. Jackson’s inability to reconcile and unite the contending forces among the progressive, moderate and conservative wings of the Rainbow Coalition was a blow to progressive momentum built up during the 1988 campaign. Although the Democratic Party leadership had promised Jackson that they would appoint his supporters to the Democratic Party National Committee, and that the nominee, if Dukakis won, would promise to appoint a Jackson supporter to a Cabinet position, this did not happen. Party leadership also failed to come through on their promise to fund a Jackson-led voter registration and mobilization project, a project that could have benefitted communities of color, progressive forces, and given Jackson greater leverage within the party.
Left and progressive forces did not have the resources to create an effective independent national people’s power type organization. The LRS shifted some of its energy to running candidates for local office in Oakland, San Francisco, Watsonville, and New York as well as participating in high-profile campaigns such as the David Dinkins for NY City mayoral race. Several of these candidates won as did Dinkins. The Dinkins victory was particularly important because it represented the victory for Black empowerment but also an advance for the progressive agenda and it was only possible because the Jackson campaign had laid the groundwork in the 1988 primary as he won New York City. Some comrades felt that in our relationship to Dinkins, as reflected in Unity newspaper, we had again given up our political independence and were uncritical, for example, of his efforts to lay off city workers as a budget cutting measure that could easily be viewed as a privatizing move. Clearly our stance should have been to support the workers and their unions.
Many of the progressives who won in these local elections came out of community organizing and were leftists who brought with them a different perspective into city government. For the first time in Watsonville, California, which was 50% Chicano/Mexicano, City Council member Oscar Rios, an activist who worked with the Strikers’ Committee in the Watsonville Canning Strike, enabled Spanish language translation of City Council proceedings. Funds were allocated for improvements in city services in Latinx communities. But these progressives also encountered red-baiting and had to distance themselves from any connection to the LRS. It was not helpful that the LRS was in the process of dissolution in 1989. Questions of how to administer city programs and provide services within the strictures of capitalist society were not addressed and consequently little support was given to people who had become elected officials. This situation was similar to that of LRS comrades elected to union leadership or appointed to staff positions with elected officials such as David Dinkins. How best to utilize these positions to help build people power was a question that should have been discussed broadly within the LRS, but that necessary discussion was lost in the chaos of the organization’s liquidation.
The dissolution of the LRS is a topic unto itself, which perhaps others will want to pursue in another article. Certainly, there are strong opinions on the factors that led to the dissolution. Some LRS members draw a link between the dissolution and the huge allocation of resources towards the Jackson campaign and electoral work. Others believe that as we moved members into elected office or onto the staff of elected officials, or some cadre became union officials or staff members or assumed important positions at private universities like Stanford, protecting those positions became an end unto itself. Being connected to a communist organization certainly could jeopardize those positions, and a sharp distancing from revolutionary politics ws the result. Former LRS member Warren Mar in his article How Can the Left Participate in Electoral Campaigns argues that the electoral work was a direct cause of the LRS’s dissolution.
Others contend that the burnout factor extended beyond doing electoral work and involved deeper questions about what it meant to be a socialist. During the LRS electoral discussion in September 2021, Carl Davidson placed the LRS’s demise in the context of the overall failure of the New Communist Movement to come up with fresh ideas and a relevant strategy in changed conditions. He cited “the search for orthodoxy” as a force that crippled the LRS’s development and led to its dissolution. Davidson’s final conclusion remains extremely relevant today: “We need a Rainbow Coalition and the heart and soul of it has to be people of color… Any progressive coalition starts with people of color.”
The tasks before us today are manifold. Certainly, we need to assess the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses as well as develop strategies to bring all our allies together to forge a powerful oppositional force. For the 2022 elections and going forward to 2024 and beyond, the mobilization to support progressive and liberal candidates against the extreme right will be led by state-based coalitions such as LUCHA (Living United for Change in Arizona), the New Georgia Project, and Pennsylvania Stands Up and national efforts by the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, Black Voters Matter, the Sunrise Movement, Progressive Democrats of America, Working Families Party, Progressive Turnout Project, Swing Left, labor unions, the local Democratic Party and many other groups. These groups can often coordinate their activities with individual candidate campaigns if they are 510 c 4 organizations. It will surely take a massive effort to register new voters and mobilize liberals, moderates, and progressives in the face of a lackluster Democratic Party message and beat back the extreme right on Nov. 8, 2022. Max Elbaum makes a passionate argument for everyone to get into the trenches immediately in his article MAGA is Focused and All In. Are We? Voter suppression laws and gerrymandering of districts in several states present added challenges to progressives. You can learn more about state-based progressive electoral organizations and support them by checking out the Movement Voter Project.
At the same time, one of the lessons from the LRS’ electoral work is that electoral victories in and of itself do not guarantee progress. Building a strong mass base, one that can train new activists and elevate new leaders and hold them accountable, is a time-proven way to extend the life of the movement for change. Equallyimportant is integrating “the national question” into this work – centering the struggle against racism and national oppression. And that in the end will help us move towards our goal of transforming our society into one that is truly democratic, just, and rooted in substantive equality.
For today’s activists who do not have deep community building experiences, all is not lost. Sinking roots into communities to organize around a community’s needs – whether it be improving the schools, stopping police brutality, addressing environmental pollution or any other number of issues – will help build trust and credibility between organizers and communities. Electoral campaigns have a short life but continuing to build off the contacts made in those campaigns to organize on community issues in between election cycles can lay the foundation for power building. And that in the end is the goal.
Author’s bio: Eddie Wong is a longtime activist in the Asian American cultural and political sphere. He is the editor/publisher of East Wind ezine. Eddie served as Northern California Coordinator in the Jackson ’84 campaign and as National Field Director in the 1988 Jackson for President campaign. He wishes to thank May Louie and Bill Gallegos for their input to this article and to Rick Jurgens and Peter Shapiro for their editorial assistance.