Posted on July 26, 1993 in Washington Watch

Jesse Jackson is a potent force in U.S. politics. Despite efforts by some conservative Democrats to reduce Jackson’s influence by courting and promoting other African American leaders, few doubt that Jackson remains the most popular African American leader and the leading voice on the left wing of Democratic politics.

These are roles that Jackson has earned through his tireless campaigning for a wide range of social, economic and political issues. Another obvious factor contributing to his leadership is his ability to articulate issues and give voice to the concerns of the groups he represents. Even those who disagree with Jackson acknowledge that he is one of the best orators in contemporary American politics.

Jackson hosts a weekly television program, “Both Sides with Jesse Jackson,” on the Cable News Network (CNN), and writes a nationally syndicated newspaper column. And he continues to campaign on behalf of candidates and issues. His schedule is demanding to the point of being frantic. In an average month he travels to and speaks in at least thirty cities, lends support to local groups, campaigns and organizes.

In the last month alone, Jackson has personally addressed a number of issues, including: joining national demonstrations against a restaurant chain accused of refusing to serve African Americans; leading demonstrators at Major League baseball games to protest baseballs’ failure to hire appropriate numbers of African and Latino Americans; appearing at demonstrations by local unions of hospital workers, carpenters and miners who sought higher wages; leading rallies in support of ousted Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide; raising funds with Nelson Mandela to support the African National Congress; and organizing a national campaign with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno called “Save our Youth.” This last program calls for local groups of judges, Ministers, police social workers and parents to work together to promote the rehabilitation of poor inner city youth.

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Although still a young man (only 51 years old), Jesse Jackson’s career in public life spans some 27 years. He began as a student of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the great civil rights leader, in 1966. After Dr. King’s assassination, Jackson founded his first national organization, Operation PUSH, which served as a platform for his rise to national prominence.

During the 1970’s Jackson led a number of successful boycotts and demonstrations against major U.S. corporations that discriminated against African Americans in their hiring. In several notable cases (including the Ford Motor Company, McDonald’s, Anheuser-Busch and Southland Corporation), corporations concluded agreements with Jackson’s PUSH to award franchises or to hire African American businessmen. Today, thousands of African Americans owe their start in business to Jackson’s victories in these campaigns. PUSH also designed and operated several substantial programs to improve inner-city conditions, to combat the use of illegal drugs and to register voters to win elections.

But it was his efforts in the 1984 presidential campaign that served as a turning point in Jesse Jackson’s career. It solidified his leadership among African Americans, and it showed him to be an effective campaigner and vote getter. And although some have criticized his presidential race as a strictly personal enterprise, they do so only because they overlooked the strategy behind it.

Jackson’s goals in 1984 were simple: to increase African American voter registration and to thereby increase the chances for African Americans to win elections or to become a powerful voting bloc capable of determining the outcome of elections in those sections of the country where African Americans live in large numbers. Jackson, therefore, appropriately concentrated his ‘84 effort in the 11 states of the South and in the major urban centers of the East, Midwest and West.

As a result of the 1984 race, Jackson was able to claim credit for registering over 1.5 million new voters. Between 1984 and 1988, these energized new voters produced electoral victories for almost 1,000 local African American candidates. Most significantly, in 1986 this new bloc of voters was responsible for electing five Democrats to the U.S. Senate and in the process breaking the Republican control of the Senate established by the Reagan landslide of 1980.

In 1985 Jackson continued his effort to expand his national influence by building the National Rainbow Coalition (NRC). The NRC was intended to be a multi-ethnic, multi-racial coalition. It was Jackson’s hope that the NRC would become a permanent vehicle for political change in U.S. politics.

The NRC did help to launch Jackson’s 1988 Presidential bid. This second effort saw him greatly expand his vote-getting abilities, and he more than doubled his 3.5 million vote total from 1984 to 7 million. And the impact of Jackson’s ‘88 primary campaign continued to be felt well after the final vote count. In states and cities won by Jackson in ‘88, African American candidates and other Jackson supporters won historic victories in 1988 and 1990.

In Virginia, an African American won the Governor’s race and became the first African American Governor in U.S. history. And in New York City Jackson’s voter coalition produced another historic first—an African American Mayor of the nation’s largest city. In fact, it was a little recognized detail that in 1984 and 1988 Jackson won the Presidential primary vote in New York City. This was largely due to the fact that, as a result of Jackson’s voter registration efforts in that city in those years, the African American vote in New York City has exceeded the Jewish vote.

Yet the Jackson’s impact on U.S. politics goes beyond the electoral level. His two presidential campaigns also raised issues that had never been raised before in any national political campaign. Those issues, which now seem commonplace, were extremely controversial when Jackson and his coalition first brought them into the national political debate.

Among the issues first introduced by Jackson and his supporters were such issues as: sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime; reducing the national deficit and introducing fairness into the tax system; reinvesting in U.S. cities and the nation’s infrastructure; a national war against illegal drugs and A.I.D.S.; a call for a national health care system; concern for the global environment; recognizing Palestinian rights; and expanding representation of women, African Americans, and other ethnic minorities at all levels of U.S. politics.

Leadership on critical issues, making significant changes in and opening U.S. politics are already Jackson’s legacy. But his critics, even those within his own movement, suggest that Jackson has flaws as well—failings that, to be fair, can be observed in all charismatic and visionary leaders.

Some, for example, point to the failure of the NRC to become an organization capable of standing on its own. While Jackson is once again making a real effort to revitalize the NRC, it will not be of a grass roots nature.

His support for causes and issues can be of enormous importance, but critics charge that, all too often, when Jackson initiates an idea (and he is a frequent initiator of brilliant programs), he rarely, they say, follows the project through to its completion.

Other critics point, in disappointment, to Jackson’s decision to not run for Mayor of Washington, DC, or any other office, for that matter. They take this as an indication of his lack of follow-through and commitment to achieve short-term goals. They suggest that he would have made an excellent Mayor and could have used the post as a national and international forum for all of his issue concerns. But that would have required a discipline and channeling of his energies—something they have not yet seen in this charismatic leader.

Many of Jackson’s supporters, in fact, urged him to run for Mayor of Washington, DC. They felt that his success in that post would silence his critics. Jackson chose not to run for the position and instead ran for and was elected to the uncontested post of “Shadow Senator” of Washington, DC—a largely ceremonial title that commits him to campaign and lobby for statehood for the District of Columbia (DC).

It is in this campaign that Jackson seems to have found an issue and a project to which he can devote his considerable energies and skills. While not forsaking his many other commitments, he has been a tireless campaigner for DC statehood.

The issue is a seemingly simple one. The nation’s capital city of 660,000 people has no voting representative in the U.S. Congress or the Senate, and it is not able to be the final arbiter of its own laws or taxes. The District (as it is commonly called) is under the control of a Congressional Committee which has wide-ranging authority to appoint some of the District’s officials, approve or disapprove of its laws, taxes and budget, and even its taxi fares!

The District is not a state, and, therefore, its residents have no authority over much that affects their daily lives. It is, as Jackson calls it, “America’s last colony.” Jackson points out that District residents pay more taxes than do the residents of ten other states, has a larger population than five other states, and sends more soldiers into the U.S. military than twenty other states.

In his role as the District’s “Shadow Senator”, Jackson has lobbied, campaigned, and organized for statehood. If the District wins statehood, Jackson would become the nation’s 101st Senator—a fact which has mobilized conservative opposition to this cause. Nevertheless, Jackson has found a home in the District and a cause to which he can commit his energy in this campaign for statehood.

It is important to understand that, despite some failings, Jackson is a potent force in U.S. politics. No African American leader can mobilize or excite the nation’s millions of African American voters like he can; and his ability to reach several other ethnic and interest groups is growing as he serves their needs and lends his political weight to their causes. It may be true that he alienates some conservative white Democrats and some in the Jewish community (despite repeated efforts to make peace with their leadership), but his ability to lead and to represent a substantial national voting bloc is secure.

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I recently had Jackson as my guest on the weekly television show, “A Capital View,” which I host on a national Arab cable television network (ANA). On the show, Jackson spoke of his recent trip to Libya to interview Mu’ammar al-Qadhdhafi for his CNN program, and a number of other issues of concern to Arabs and Arab Americans. Below are some of Jackson’s comments:

Excerpts from Jackson’s comments

On Bosnia

[During the campaign Clinton said] that President Bush had abandoned Bosnia and that the issue of ethnic cleansing had to be addressed. Ethnic cleansing was to Hitler the idea of the Final Solution—to cleanse the land of an entire people. But the idea of ethnic cleansing is never limited to the groups it begins with. Not just 6 million Jews were killed during World War II, but 55 million other people also died in that war.

Once fascism appears, it cannot be returned. Whoever got in Hitler’s way, he killed. It was a death-bound ideology. Wherever fascism manifests itself, we cannot equivocate. What’s happening to the Bosnian Muslims will not be limited to them unless it is stopped altogether.

I believe that the tolerance that some have shown with the killing is because they are Muslims. If it had been Muslims killing Christians, we would already have intervened—and that’s wrong.

Libya

There are some possibilities for the U.S. to effect a change for the better in Libya, if the U.S. chooses to deal with the crisis in a legal sense and not just in a political sense, or if it deals with it in a rational and geo-political sense.

Qadhdhafi is feeling the pressure from the sanctions [but if the U.S. pushes too far] it won’t weaken Qadhdhafi’s strength in the country. It will make him a martyr to his people. The Libyans, for example, still show where at 2 a.m. Reagan bombed Qadhdhafi’s house and killed his baby and 200 other people. That bombed-out house is now a museum that constantly serves to remind the Libyan people of the U.S. ...so there is all that anti-Americanism there.

One effect of the sanctions is that France and Italy have walked right in and are taking U.S. business away.

To be sure, the suspects who bombed Pan Am 103, whether they are in Libya or elsewhere in the world, must be brought to a court of justice and tried. But the mechanism for doing this should be strictly legal, and not political.

The other thing that people don’t see is that to persist in punishing Qadhdhafi into submission, instead of trying to get him to change, is that if the sanctions were to intensify to the point of really hurting the Libyan people, it would negatively affect Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria—[which are] all connected to Libya.

Two million Egyptians work in Libya. If the Libyans had to send just one-tenth of these workers back, 200,000 people, they would likely add to the climate of poverty and pain and fundamentalism. Further destabilization of Egypt would weaken its ability to promote the peace process, and that might undermine a much greater American diplomatic interest in the region. But it is uncertain whether policy makers understand this connection or not.

I would therefore hope that we would use the present pressure we have to seize this moment to get the suspects [to] trial and bring Libya back into the family of nations.

There is a mood in the region for change, and it is inter-connected with the peace process. My attitude is that we should seize the moment.

Qadhdhafi said that he would release the two suspects on the condition that they not come to the U.S. or Britain, and that is because the hostilities between the two countries and the fear is such that on part of the masses of Libyan people it would create a backlash.

Our government has made a judgment not to accept a trial anywhere but in the U.S. or Britain. That’s a call the government has to make. I, for one, think that if this matter is handled legally and not politically it could be solved.

Israeli-Palestinian Peace

Clearly, we who believe in democratic values must be against any occupation or colonialism or subjugation wherever it takes place. That’s why so much is riding on these peace talks. I support Israel’s right to exist with security in internationally recognized boundaries. I also support the Palestinian right to exist with security and likewise their political sovereignty.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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