Whither the Rainbow? A Golden Opportunity, 1986: DSA Debates Its Role in Electoral Challenges

jackson_slightly_larger.jpgBy Shakoor Aljuwani, with notes by Duane Campbell

The following article appeared in our magazine Democratic Left (Nov.-Dec. 1986), as a part of “Roundtable,” with diverse points of view.  We cannot offer a link to the entire issue because we do not have electronic versions of Democratic Left prior to 2000. Shakoor Aljuwani was the chair of DSA’s Afro-American Commission at the time of this writing. – Duane Campbell

The candidacy of Jesse Jackson and the growth of the Rainbow Coalition were the most exciting developments of the 1984 election. Jackson’s impressive showing in the primaries, winning more than three million votes and more than 400 delegates to the Democratic National Convention shocked political pundits from left to right.  The Rainbow Coalition showed that it is possible to build a broad and powerful constituency of the “locked outs and drop-outs,” the poor, and working people -- a group that in other countries forms the base of parties of the left.  It was the major progressive voice to counter the onslaught of conservatism.  It brought dynamism to the otherwise lifeless efforts of the Democratic party against the Reagan offensive. In doing so, it helped to open up important space for the socialist perspective on the critical issues facing this country.

Unfortunately, the work of the Rainbow and Jackson were met not with support but often outright opposition from the left. Critics accused the Coalition of engaging in racially polarizing polemics, with the cry for black empowerment seen as a veiled threat to whites. They spoke of programmatic shallowness, smoke and mirrors, and Jackson’s supposed anti-labor stance.

In contrast, listen to the voices of Jackson supporters: 

  • “The only one paying attention to the plight of the family farmer.” Leroy Neal, white Missourian who lost his farm the previous year.

  • “The only candidate willing to come out and attack the corporations for their greed.. the only one with a new direction calling for economic and social justice which knows no color barrier,” Darrel Becker, president Local 61, Shipbuilders;

  • “Understands the plight of the working class of people and no one can solve our problems unless they first understand them”- Ron Weisen, president, Local 1397, United Steelworkers of America.

Was it “anti-labor” when Jackson spoke in a group of mostly white striking ship builders in April of 1984 and said, “The Reagan Administration is working with Big Industry to destroy the unions of working people in this country?  We need a new industrial policy. We need a new foreign policy.”   Somehow the left managed to ignore Jackson’s frequent appearances on picket lines, and focused instead on activities from the distant past.  This is not to say that candidates should not be examined critically, but it often appeared as if Mondale, who has been known to switch positions or evade issues, was being held to a different standard, the same double standard that now seems to be used with Mario Cuomo.

Jackson’s candidacy and the building of the Rainbow Coalition reflect a new understanding on the part of the black liberation movement.  Building a broad multiracial multiclass coalition with a strong, militant movement for black empowerment at its base is a sophisticated new development.  Far from being a vehicle for advancing the interests of a narrow black elite, as has been charged by some,  the Rainbow Coalition’s strength is based upon the realization that the effectiveness of the black fight-back depends on its ability to adopt a multiracial response to the right-wing attack.  Jackson’s candidacy was in fact an assault on the narrow nationalist position in the black community, a point often missed by white analysts of the black struggle.

This broad-based organizing approach is reflected in the well-known statement by Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  And if I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Many of us in the black liberation movement have fought long and hard for the development of such a tactical policy and have been ashamed and disgusted to find that the response of most of the left to this outreached hand of solidarity is ridicule and criticism.  We need fewer articles attacking the Rainbow Coalition for being largely black and more support from activists willing to work shoulder to shoulder to help build the coalition’s of grassroots base for the electoral battles over jobs, peace, and justice.

In the moral vision and political program of Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition there exists a deliberate attempt to embrace the interests and needs of Afro Americans, the elderly, women, Hispanics, indigenous peoples, small farmers, Jews, Arabs, displaced industrial workers, trade unionists, gays, peace activists.  The major problem has been convincing the three major liberal constituencies -- labor, feminists, and Jews -- of the seriousness of that vision and rhetoric. 

It is here that DSA can play a major and possibly a key role.  Some in DSA have raised the question of whether the Rainbow Coalition will be a tool only for ethnic political interests or become a broadly based movement. Our response to the Rainbow can help shape the answer.

DSA did not endorse Jackson and the Rainbow in the 1984 election, but DSA did endorse Jackson and the Rainbow in 1988. Shakoor Aljuwani became the DSA staff person working to build support for the Rainbow.  His work focused on building Labor for Jackson committees.

The following is from a 1988 statement by the DSA National Political Committee:

“Supporting the Jackson candidacy is one important component of our efforts to help shift the political discourse in the Democratic party and the nation to the left.  We work within the progressive wing of the Democratic party in alliance with others seeking to advance vital issues of justice, opportunity and economic democracy.  DSANPAC will work with our allies to unite behind the most progressive Democratic party  nominee to ensure the defeat of the Republicans in November.”

For those interested in what happened to the Rainbow Coalition, here is a good article on this issue by Bill Fletcher and Danny Glover (2005). – Duane Campbell 

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

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