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Lessons for Today from the Rainbow Coalition in the 1980s

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Jesse Jackson speaking at an event

Nearly 35 years ago, large numbers of revolutionaries and progressives threw themselves into Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns and the Rainbow Coalition, which played an anchor role in that period’s resistance to the Ronal Reagan-led turn to neo-liberalism, military aggression and intensified racism. The Rainbow also had potential to be a vehicle that could turn resistance into an eventual offensive, given its promise of becoming the broad, mass-based independent political vehicle that many radicals from the 1968-generation had dreamt of. Though the Rainbow failed to achieve its potential, its impact and shortcomings hold numerous lessons. Over the next two months, Organizing Upgrade will release a series of articles and videos considering the legacy of the Rainbow and its lessons for a new generation of leftists searching for effective strategies that combine electoral and non-electoral work. 

We begin here with an article by Bill Fletcher which makes bold claims about the lessons today’s activists should draw from the Rainbow Coalition. Readers may also be interested in a short video (see below) by Bill that gives a pithy 10-minute historical overview of the Rainbow Coalition and left involvement in Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 campaigns.



The rise of the third Rainbow Coalition and the 1984 and 1988 Presidential campaigns of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson remain of historic significance.[1]  Jackson’s 1984 Presidential campaign, and the beginnings of his Rainbow Coalition, can be understood as both a continuation—and in some respects a culmination—of the Black-led electoral upsurge that had begun sweeping the USA in the late 1970s.  It was also a mobilization against the political, economic and cultural counter-revolution represented by the rise of Ronald Reagan and Reaganism.

The Rainbow Coalition was able to assemble a broad front of forces that ranged from the Black liberal establishment to key elements of the revolutionary Left.  Certainly by 1988, the Rainbow movement could not have been described as simply or solely a Black political effort.  Though rooted within the Black experience, it successfully brought together great diversity and had within its leadership the political, demographic and gender spectrum that one would expect from a movement that called itself the “Rainbow.”

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Yet there were many challenges and these challenges came to a head in March 1989 when the Rainbow Coalition’s Executive Board adopted proposals to transform the Coalition into a personal political organization controlled by Rev. Jackson and structured in such a way to engage in national-level electoral work, e.g., structuring along Congressional District lines rather than along city or county lines.  Within months the Rainbow Coalition entered terminal velocity and was never able to pull out.

The Rainbow Coalition ‘moment’ is rich with lessons for today’s activists.  Though the excitement and possibilities felt by many of us at the time are difficult to convey, there are important points that can be identified which may help today’s left/progressive movements in their search for appropriate strategies and organizational forms.

Electoral campaigns are very difficult to translate into on-going political organizations

This was a lesson that many of us started to learn in the context of the Black-led electoral upsurge and something about which I have written many times.  There is a uniqueness to an electoral campaign in that it is time-limited.  There are specific tensions that are unleashed in an electoral campaign given the intensity of the effort but one knows that on a specific day—Election Day—it all ends.  There is no parallel with on-going political organizations.

The ’84 and ’88 Jackson campaigns brought together a very diverse front that could never be sustained in an on-going organizations for a very simple reason:  these forces were willing to unite because of particular objectives that they saw arising from the campaign but they did not necessarily believe that they had a long-term interest in working together with this range of forces.

Many mainstream Black elected officials were ambivalent about Jackson but were drawn into the campaign because of the way that Jackson resonated with much of Black America.  Sitting the campaign out was not an option.  Others saw it as a means of strengthening their standing within the Democratic Party but building their own constituencies.

In the ’84 campaign, to the surprise of many, the Nation of Islam entered the fray and, for a while, played a very significant role.  The tension that existed between the NOI and others was largely contained precisely due to the fact that this was an electoral campaign.  Minister Farrakhan clearly saw the involvement of the NOI in the Jackson campaign as a means of shifting the relationship of the NOI within Black America.  He and his team had no on-going interest in a progressive united front.

When we on the Left fail to appreciate the difference between an electoral campaign and an on-going organization we set ourselves up for disappointment.  This happened, for instance, in Boston in the aftermath of the Mel King Mayoral race of 1983 where the Boston Rainbow Coalition continued but was unable to hold many of its key constituencies together.

An election campaign can, of course, lay the foundation for an organization but one must take the long view if moving in that direction.  It is also critical to appreciate that the candidate—successful or not—may not be ideal to run an on-going organization or may not have an interest in running an organization.  Senator Bernie Sanders is a case in point but there are many other examples.  Many candidates find organization constraining.

The challenge inherent with charismatic leaders

The first thing to appreciate about most charismatic leaders, particularly but not limited to charismatic populists, is that they tend to view organization as a hindrance.  The charismatic leader does not want interference between them and the “masses.”  The charismatic leader tends to view organization as blocking them.

This challenge can play itself out in many ways.  The leader does not necessarily wish to follow the “script.” They want to act on their own impulse.  In the Jackson campaign, Rev. Jackson tended not to give clear organizational authority to anyone which resulted in role confusion.

On the other hand, the charismatic leader is inspirational, something that cannot be overstated.  Jackson was able to connect with very diverse populations.  His relationship with Midwestern white farmers is almost legendary.  He was able to speak to their pain and issues so that they concluded that he truly understood their concerns.  Jackson would also highlight issues and struggles that received precious little media attention, e.g., the Paperworkers strike in Jay, Maine.

Jackson was not only charismatic but was also brilliant, the two not necessarily linked in history.  He quickly understood issues and was able to break them down for the public in a manner that was anything but condescending.  He was also able to draw linkages between issues so that the relevance became apparent.

Charisma alone is not enough, as one can see time and again from various “inspirational speakers” that are on the speaking circuit for conferences.  One can leave such events and recognize that one has learned nothing.  In the case of Jackson, it was completely different.  One ALWAYS learned something.

Thus, real leadership is essential.  Charismatic leadership is a real plus.  Brilliant and charismatic is an exceptional setting.  But…

…there is a scene in Homer’s The Odyssey that we on the Left should always remember.  Odysseus commands the crew of his ship to row close to the famous island of the Sirens, whose singing voices are unique and compelling.  Their voices are so compelling that they are irresistible leading many a sailor to crash onto the rocks surrounding the island of the Sirens, each one trying to get closer to the voices.

Odysseus ties himself to the ship’s mast and stuffs the ears of his oarsmen so that they cannot hear the songs of the Sirens.  He instructs the men to row and to ignore him so that he can hear the songs of the Sirens but not lead his men to disaster.

In politics the songs of the Sirens can be very compelling, particularly for charismatic leaders.

De-mythologizing the Democratic Party…and yet taking it very seriously

Repeatedly all too many of us on the Left misread the Democratic Party and believe that it is actually a political party.  It is, instead, an alliance that exists in the form of a political party.  In many other countries it would, in fact, exist as an electoral alliance in which some of the component “parties” engaged and disengaged depending on the moment.

This reality became very clear in the 1980s.  The Democratic Party was undergoing a shift that had started during the administration of Jimmy Carter, a shift away from traditional political liberalism and in the direction of a more center-right “New Democratic” politics.  The Senatorial campaign of the late Paul Tsongas in the 1970s was a clear example of this tendency.  This direction merged with economic neo-liberalism and came to be led by Bill Clinton.

At the time of the rise of the Rainbow Coalition there was a fierce fight underway between traditional political liberals; the so-called new Democrats (who increasingly emphasized managerial skill and economic realism over anything approaching a social vision); and progressives (who were, themselves, quite diverse).  Operating within the Democratic Party, then, meant being prepared to carry out a struggle in opposition to these other tendencies but also being prepared, at times, to unite with them (in final elections).

To a great extent the seriousness with which Jackson took the building of an electoral organization demonstrated his interest in something coming into existence which could go the distance.  He hoped, and apparently believed, after 1988 that a Jackson wing of the Democratic Party had emerged.  Had that been the case, then his proposed structure for a Rainbow Coalition would have made more sense—though it would still have been wrong—because it would have been engaged at the Congressional level in battles to shift the Democratic Party.

Jackson’s analysis of the situation after November 1988 was skewed.  While he had built a movement and a sentiment, there was nothing approaching a Jackson wing of the Democratic Party.  There could, however, have been an on-going Rainbow Coalition that could have carried out a systematic struggle with other tendencies within the Democratic Party and which could have spoken on behalf of very diverse social movements and sectors that the Democratic Party establishment was ignoring and/or abandoning.  To do that, however, he would have had to rely very much on the Left, in analogous fashion to the ways that John L. Lewis and other leaders of the Congress of Industrial Organizations relied on Communists and other Leftists in the building of the new labor federation.  Though the 1980s Left was weaker than that of the 1930s, it nevertheless played a significant role and had the dedication to build the Rainbow Coalition as a mass democratic organization.  But in the absence of such dedicated troops, there were few that could take on the task of leading the battle within the Democratic Party, not to mention the larger battle against the political Right.

Progressive Populism

Trying to understand the political character of the Jackson campaigns and the Rainbow coalition became a major activity of much of the mainstream political establishment and the Left.  In its earliest stages (1983-84), Jackson’s campaign was treated largely as a “Black campaign” with some allies.  Yet, even in the beginning, in part through the work of segments of the Left, including but not limited to the League of Revolutionary Struggle and the Communist Workers Party, not to mention the forces around attorney Arthur Kinoy (who formed as the National Committee for Independent Political Action), and those who formed the Vermont Rainbow Coalition, there was something very different about this effort.  This difference became very clear in the aftermath of the ’84 campaign as work went forward to build the National Rainbow Coalition and to lay the groundwork for the 1988 Presidential campaign.

Thus, demographically the campaign was more than a “Black campaign” and “Black movement”[2].  As Jackson went forward in building the Rainbow, the politics of it transcended progressive Black politics and became something like Black progressive politics and, ultimately, a Black-led progressive populism.

The distinction between progressive Black politics and Black progressive politics may seem to be nothing more than semantics but it is something more.  Progressive Black politics suggests operating within the context of Black politics and, therefore, representing the progressive wing of that.  Jackson was certainly that, but he represented something more.  He and the Rainbow came to represent a progressive populism that did not hide from race.  It was a Black-led progressive populism rather than the more common progressive populism with which we are familiar that harkens to an economic message that it suggests will unite the oppressed in the absence of addressing complicated matters such as race and gender.

One can argue that Jackson’s politics in 1988 were to the Left of those articulated by Senator Sanders in 2016.  They were very all-inclusive, covering issues—in depth—from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to trade.  There was a world-view contained in the politics.

The progressive populism created, to some extent, a new ‘identity’ among Rainbow supporters; an identity of those who had been excluded by and from the so-called American Dream.  The aim, whether stated or not, was to construct a majoritarian bloc that was unapologetically progressive.

This was critical for the campaign and the Rainbow but also essential today.  It breaks with the post-modernist approach summarized by the notion that “…you cannot understand what I have gone through…” (or put more candidly, only whales can critique “Moby Dick”) and instead suggests that there are certain universal sentiments that can resonate across boundaries.

Coalition work vs. independence and initiative?

A sentiment has emerged on today’s Left that the way in which the Left should participate in electoral politics is through their existing organizations rather than jumping into a campaign.  In other words, we should not provide volunteers for a campaign but instead take on campaign work that we do in our own name(s).  This sentiment arises from an understandable concern that electoral politics can suck in and up the energy from the Left.  The danger, however, is that such a view can alternatively lead to practical sectarianism.

The sections of the Left that engaged the Jackson campaign and the Rainbow tended to have their members become active participants at various levels in the campaigns and organization.  Sometimes such leftists were open as members of this or that Left organization while in other cases they were not publicly identified.

To influence a campaign one must have or represent a distinct base as well as have influence within the campaign (or mass organization in a non-election moment).  If one chooses to not participate in the campaign organization, one can certainly be influential from the outside, more or less like a lobby or constituency group.  But to influence the inner workings of the campaign, one must be present while also representing a base or constituency that the campaign believes to be essential.

The challenge for individuals entering a campaign, and we saw plenty of this, is that in the absence of an identifiable base and/or organization, one can become easily absorbed and co-opted, but one can also exaggerate one’s own influence.  Becoming a major operative in a campaign is as seductive as listening to the songs of the Sirens.  If one is good at what one does, there are normally many openings for advancement particularly if one “tones down” one’s Left politics.  In the Jackson campaigns leftists were rarely if ever told to abandon their politics.  Instead it was more the case that one had to adjust one’s rhetoric and practice in order to become acceptable in mainstream settings.  In the beginning this can sometimes appear to be only a matter of tactics; over time it can rise to the level of principle.

Thus, it is not an either/or situation when it comes to engagement in a campaign.  Making a major organizational commitment to engage one’s members makes total sense, as does deploying personnel to key positions in a campaign.  But one can also take responsibility for certain territories or social sectors/movement in which to do electoral work on behalf of the campaign.

The Vermont Rainbow was one of the most interesting examples of combining excellent united front work with building an independent organization.  One factor that appears to have been key was the Vermont Rainbow having its own identity and set of objectives rather than being only an arm of Jackson’s political strategy.  The Vermont Rainbow was, itself, a united front rather than being one solid ideological organization.  Most other state-based Rainbows did not fare as well as the Vermont Rainbow, though some were able to sustain some level of organization, e.g., New Jersey Rainbow.

The other aspect of coalition work is that it is always messy.  The Jackson campaigns, given their breath, had all range of political activists.  Navigating such waters is a challenge and there is no space for purism.  The challenge is to ascertain what issues are those around which to have major struggles vs. where there is room for compromise.  By way of example, the idea of Jackson running independent for the Presidency (which some people advanced just as they did in 2016 when Sanders lost the Democratic nomination) after he failed to secure the Democratic Party nomination was not only never going to happen but would have been detrimental to the movement.  It would not have been a struggle worth having.  On the other hand, a struggle around the future of the Rainbow was absolutely one to have and one around which real organizing needed to take place.

The Left and March 1989

There are two questions here.  The first concerns the Left.  The ‘good news’ was that there was significant and increasing levels of Left engagement in the Rainbow and Jackson campaigns.  Mike Davis, at the end of his great work Prisoners of the American Dream, wrote a devastating critique of the Democratic Socialists of America’s refusal to engage the 1984 Jackson campaign.  By 1988, they and many other forces on the Left had changed their tunes and were deeply involved.

The Left was divided going into the ’84 campaign and coming out of the ’88 campaign.  The League of Revolutionary Struggle and to a lesser extent the Communist Workers Party (which morphed into the “New Democratic Movement” in the mid-1980s) were two groups on the radical Left that played a significant role.  Also to be included was the Communist Party, Freedom Road Socialist Organization, Line of March and the earlier mentioned National Committee for Independent Political Action.  There were also a host of other organizations and individuals that chose to engage.

Though many of these Left forces came to work together, few did so strategically nor consciously as leftists.  More often than not, they were working together as campaign activists but not conducting any joint planning or theorizing.  While this, in many cases, led to the development of good working relationships between individuals, it reduced if not negated the potential impact that a more united Left presence could have had.

The proof, as they say, was in the pudding.  In the immediate aftermath of the November 1988 elections a debate ensued regarding the future of the Rainbow.  The 1987 founding convention of the National Rainbow Coalition had suggested the development of a mass, democratic organization that would operate inside and outside of the Democratic Party.  By early 1989 this was not Jackson’s sentiment, if it had ever been his sentiment.

The March 1989 Executive Board, as noted above, introduced a complete restructuring of the Rainbow Coalition and, in effect, killed it.  Could the Left have altered this?

I would answer “yes,” it could have but under specific conditions.  Some forces on the Left had concluded that a personalist organization was what Jackson wanted and that he was entitled to such an organization.  This meant that a significant portion of the Left operating within the Rainbow was unwilling to undertake a struggle.  A second point:  in order to have blocked or redirected efforts towards a personalist organization, the Left would have had to have moved resolutions at the state-level and won key opinion-makers.  This was not something, in other words, that could or should have awaited a debate at the Executive Board.

Fundamentally, the disunity of the Left made a response next to impossible.  Kinoy and NCIPA tried to remain within the Rainbow as a Left voice promoting a direction towards a mass democratic organization, but the larger initiative was lost and never regained.

Although we on the Left frequently downplay our strength and influence (and at other times exaggerate it), the Rainbow experience was one where the activities of the Left were demonstrably essential in building the campaigns and the organization.  Had several of these forces better coordinated their work rather than either engaging in factionalizing or positioning themselves vis a vis Jackson, the outcome might have been quite different…

…And we might have found ourselves looking at a different political environment in the 1990s and early 21st century.

The Future

One of the most important Left individuals playing a major role in the Rainbow was long-time leftist and civil rights activist Jack O’Dell.  Once a member of the Communist Party, Jack played a critical role in the Civil Rights movement and went on to become a chief advisor to Rev. Jackson particularly on matters of international affairs.  In fact, the role of director of international affairs for the Rainbow was occupied by O’Dell until his retirement.

In 1988 O’Dell penned an essay proposing the notion of fighting for a Rainbow government by 2000.  For some this may have seemed like an outlandish idea.  Though no one had expected that Jackson would get the Democratic Party nomination, it had been a fight worth undertaking.  But a Rainbow government?

What Jack appreciated, and continues to appreciate, is the importance of the battle for democracy. What he saw in the Rainbow was more than a fight for Black political power and even more than a fight for economic and social justice.  He saw in the Rainbow the kernel of a popular, democratic movement for social transformation.  It was a majoritarian vision.

The Rainbow Coalition of the 1980s both despite and because of the leadership of Rev. Jackson, was incapable of rising to the occasion and building a longer-term effort towards such a popular, democratic bloc.  Jackson had, and continues to have, the voice of such a bloc but the disconnect between voice, movement and organization was too formidable.

But the drama is far from over.


[1] “Third” because the Black Panther Party utilized the term in the late 1960s as part of the efforts by the late Panther leader Fred Hampton to craft an alliance with other revolutionary groups.  The “second” Rainbow was that of former Massachusetts State Representative Mel King who was a two-time candidate for Mayor of Boston.  During his second campaign in 1983 he coined it the “Rainbow Coalition.”

[2] Except if one sees “Black” as signifying the racially oppressed rather than a phenotype.

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