Twenty years ago…

By Kevin Alexander Gray

When I’m out in public inevitably someone will ask me whom do I support in the presidential race. When I say nobody, it’s often met with skepticism. Yet according to the latest poll of likely Democratic primary voters, many of us are still in the undecided column. I suppose the disbelief in my case stems from my somewhat ongoing involvement in politics for over twenty years. I was a volunteer with Jesse Jackson’s 1984 campaign. Four years later, I coordinated his ‘88 South Carolina bid under the tutelage of the late Dr. Walker Solomon, who served as the campaign’s chairman.

Jackson won the South Carolina Democratic caucus in 1988, garnering 64% of the vote. It was Jackson’s first and biggest percentage victory. Jackson won 11 states and 7 million votes. He won most of the South, picking up 90% of the black vote along the way.

The Rainbow experience is a constant factor in my political calculations. Jackson’s 1984 Democratic National Convention speech energized me. Our mission, he said, was “to feed the hungry; to clothe the naked; to house the homeless; to teach the illiterate; to provide jobs for the jobless; and to choose the human race over the nuclear race.” His constituency was “the desperate, the damned, the disinherited, the disrespected, and the despised. They are restless and seek relief…”

That’s what I believe, and it’s where I’m from. It’s where Jackson came from, which is why he connected to people in a genuine way. I’m not suggesting that a candidate be like Jackson. Still, I want to hear someone who takes on the needs of the poor and working class not as an afterthought, but from the beginning of the journey.

This isn’t about nostalgia. In a real sense Jackson’s campaigns were the last time blacks and progressives had a significant policy and institutional effect on American politics. The Rainbow “movement” brought a diverse coalition together on an agenda predicated on universal human rights and peace.  It brought issues of race, gender and sexual orientation into an analysis of class and American power. It opposed the proliferation of nuclear weapons and demanded restrictions on nuclear energy.  It supported the property rights of small family farmers and black farmers as well as the rights of migrant workers and workers’ rights in general.  It brought people into the political process and spurred a nationwide increase in black elected officials.  Many of those newly appointed or elected officials carried a platform that opposed apartheid in South Africa, supported human rights for the Palestinian people and sought peaceful relations with Cuba and Central America. 

And where are we today? On foreign affairs, most of the candidates have no problem expressing their willingness to drop nuclear bombs on Iran (or anyplace else). There’s been an abandonment of support for the human rights of the Palestinians and unquestioning support for Israel. Domestically, everybody’s suddenly talking about the mortgage crisis, yet the black foreclosure rate has been above 50% for almost a decade. The housing bailout now being touted may save people who bought MacMansions they couldn’t afford, while those who were losing their homes after living in them for 10, 15, 20 years were ignored.

Dennis Kucinich and John Edwards consistently speak about issues of the poor and working class. Kucinich, Mike Gravel and Republican Ron Paul talk about ending the drug war, curbing the power of the police, re-establishing constitutional protections such as privacy rights and the rights of the accused and adjudicated. What’s missing from those campaigns is that grassroots, up-from-the-people spirit and involvement that was evident in Jackson’s efforts. And why? Because “talk the talk” only happens around voting time.

Some folks have challenged my blackness saying I should support Barack Obama solely because he’s black. I’ve also heard the accusations of others that he’s not “black enough.” I’ve heard Michelle Obama say blacks who don’t support her spouse have “self-esteem problems,” and supporters of Hillary Clinton say they’re behind her because she’s Bill’s (“the black president’s”) wife. Through the years I’ve learned a few things. First, everyone black isn’t your friend, and everyone white isn’t your enemy. Second, there is no test one has to pass to be certified black. Third, people often know what is in their interest politically – Jackson’s 90% black vote in ‘88 proves that point. Lastly, having the “right” spouse or best friend or race or sex cannot substitute for an ideology or a real history of involvement with a group.

The Rainbow effort propelled the backlash Democratic Leadership Conference (DLC), dedicated to reversing the political aspirations of Jackson’s coalition.  Among today’s front-runners, Clinton is a DLC star, chair of its American Dream Initiative touting free markets, balanced budgets and middle-class know-how. Obama’s political action committee, the Hope Fund, has raised money for ten DLC Senators, or half of the groups’ presence in the Senate.  And one thing is certain, what the DLC stands for is not what the Rainbow stood for.

These days I’m pragmatic. Like many Americans I’ll welcome a break from Bush rule. Still, I’ve always believed that the people have to lead the leaders, and the fight for human freedom and dignity has to go on no matter who the next president is. The only question, then, is of the people running today who might advance that fight, and who might attempt to block it? So for me, it’s not a matter of whether I support a particular politician. It’s whether they support me and the people and causes that matter to me.

Kevin Alexander Gray coordinated the 1988 presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson and served as the southern political director for the 1992 presidential campaign of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin.

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