Jesse Jackson's 'Post-Racial' Legacy for the Democratic Party

I first heard the Rev. Jesse Jackson speak in a Chicago hotel ballroom in July 1968, shortly after Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's assassination and just three months after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King.

We were an audience of largely white college students fresh from the anti-Vietnam War presidential campaigns of Sen. Eugene McCarthy and Mr. Kennedy. By then we all knew that Mr. Jackson had been in the parking lot talking to Mr. King when the horrible shots rang out and Mr. King fell, mortally wounded.

The young reverend could have been angry, bitter, focused on America's shameful historical stain of racism and bigotry over more than 200 years.

But he was not. He spoke for an hour, without notes, about the need for healing, for blacks and whites to work together on common issues. He talked eloquently about economic injustice that linked people of all colors in the America of the 1960s.

We gave him a standing ovation that wouldn't end. And I thought: "This is a truly great leader, a truly great man, a truly inspiring man." And I haven't changed my mind since.

Through the years, wherever there was human suffering or injustice, black or white, poor or middle-class, there was Jesse Jackson — on picket lines whenever workers, regardless of their color, needed help to achieve fair collective bargaining; or in Appalachia visiting poor whites living in poverty and hunger, just as Robert Kennedy did.

Then in the early 1980s, he did what was the unthinkable for an African-American: He ran for president — first in 1984 and again in 1988.

He did so not as a black man, but as a traditional Democrat, carrying the banner of Franklin Roosevelt's progressive ideals. He talked about national healthcare, job creation and better schools for the middle class, as well as the inner city and poor rural whites.

In 1984, he won five primaries and caucuses and 3.5 million votes.

In 1988, he raised more than $17 million and won the caucuses in the almost entirely white states of Vermont and Alaska. Overall, he won 14 primaries and caucuses (including South Carolina, as former President Clinton accurately stated), 7 million votes and 1,218.5 national convention delegates. He ran nationally ahead of Sen. Al Gore, Rep. Dick Gephardt and Sen. Paul Simon. And when he lost, he campaigned nonstop across the country for the Democratic nominee, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

Perhaps most important, from 1984 to 1988, he and his organization added more than 2 million new voters — the majority of them African-American. An important result: the 1985 election of L. Douglas Wilder as lieutenant governor of Virginia, the first African-American elected to a statewide office in Virginia's history; and four years later, Mr. Wilder's election as governor. (Yes, thanks to Mr. Jackson, Virginia was in play for Democrats way back then — not just today.)

Thanks also to the Jackson campaign's intense voter registration efforts, the Democrats in 1986 won Senate seats in key Southern states, such as Terry Sanford in North Carolina and Wyche Fowler in Georgia, and took back the U.S. Senate. And Bill Clinton would be the first to say that Mr. Jackson played a crucial role in his winning the presidency in 1992 — and winning reelection in 1996.

Lest we forget, Jesse Jackson also saved the lives of Americans held hostage abroad, when the U.S. government had tried but failed. He traveled:

*to Baghdad, where he persuaded Saddam Hussein to release dozens of resident Americans whom he had planned to use as human shields in the event the U.S. bombed Baghdad as the Gulf War loomed;

*to Damascus, where he persuaded the Syrian dictator Hafez Assad to release a downed U.S. pilot;

*to Cuba, where he persuaded Fidel Castro to release U.S. political prisoners;

*and to Kosovo, where he persuaded the genocidal thug Slobodan Milosevic to obtain the release of Americans imprisoned by the Serbs.

How did he do this without compromising or offering any quid pro quos? He used his own unique human capital: his worldwide credibility as a humanitarian.

In the 1990s to the present day, he founded and has run the appropriately named Rainbow Push Coalition — "rainbow," as in many colors united by a common purpose: economic justice and equal opportunity for all Americans.

Mr. Jackson's grandmother taught him the metaphor that has enlightened his political approach. She showed him patches of cloth of different colors, different sizes and different types that she had gathered to sew a quilt. Each of these patches, she would say, is nice unto itself. But only when they are sewn together do they bring warmth — and the added value and power of being part of something larger.

So too the approach of Jesse Jackson: the symbiotic strength of bringing together diverse people — by race, origin, national heritage, class, political perspective — in a common overriding public purpose.

Whether one agrees with his politics or not, all Americans should respect this legacy — and Mr. Jackson's good works over the years.



Lanny J. Davis is a prominent Washington lawyer and political analyst for Fox News. From 1996 to 1998, he served as special counsel to President Clinton. From 2005-2006, he served on President Bush's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. This piece was published in Mr. Davis's regular weekly column for The Washington Times, "Purple Nation," on Monday, Aug. 11, 2008.