Ru-u-u-un!” Jesse Jackson roared. His voice ripped the air like a band saw, his big face blazed like a copper moon. And 1,500 loyal Jacksonians who had assembled in an Atlanta ballroom on that steamy summer day in 1983 roared back at him, “Run! Run! Run!”
“Ru-u-u-un!” Jesse bellowed even louder. “It’s ti-i-ime for a transition! From freedom to equality, from welfare to our share, from slave ship to championship…from outhouse to White House, from disgrace to ama-a-azing grace! Our ti-i-ime has come!” And the faithful screamed, “Run, Jesse, run!”
And run Jesse did. He ran for President of the United States, the first black man to mount a significant bid. He ran in factories, in churches, in bus terminals, in shelters for the homeless, a voice crying in the political wilderness: “There’s a freedom train a-coming, but you got to be registered to ride!” In ’84, he ran without money, sleeping in the homes of strangers because he couldn’t afford hotels, passing the hat wherever he spoke, borrowing bus fare from reporters. He ran as a Christian revolutionary, summoning a “Rainbow Coalition” of the disaffected, demanding equal rights for blacks, women, gays—for all “those left naked before the Lord in wintertime.” He ran against greed and indifference, lambasting Reagan as a “reverse Robin Hood who stole from the poor to give to the rich,” thundering that “those who gave the party…must pay for the party.”
He ran with passion and panache, persuading Syrian President Hafez Assad to release a U.S. Navy pilot and Cuba’s Fidel Castro to free 22 American prisoners. He ran recklessly and often stumbled, alienating American Jews by publicly embracing Yasser Arafat and his cause, by calling them “hymies” and waiting 14 days to apologize, by not disavowing the support of Louis Farrakhan even after the Nation of Islam’s leader called Hitler a “great man.” He ran against the tide of the decade, reanimating the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. in an era of compassion fatigue.
He ran for less noble motives too, for power and glory and the gratification of an ego that stretched from sea to shining sea. (“Great things happen in small places,” Jackson noted in dead earnest. “Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Jesse Jackson was born in Greenville.”) But in primary after primary he ran with stunning success. Though only 5 percent of white Democrats supported him, he whipped both Walter Mondale and Gary Hart in Louisiana and in D.C. Carrying about 80 percent of the black vote nationwide, he wound up with 465 delegates. “If I weren’t black,” he crowed, “I’d be leading the pack!”
Jackson wasn’t just whistling Dixie. Four years later, shrewder and smoother, he presented his views with presidential gravitas and won seven primaries. Pulling 92 percent of the black vote and 12 percent of the white vote, he emerged from the convention with 1,218 delegates. Dukakis got the nomination, but Jackson stole the spotlight. “Hold on and hold out!” he exhorted his supporters. “Keep hope alive!…It ain’t over till it’s over—and even then it’s not over!” Nobody needed a spin doctor’s translation: Jesse Jackson would be back in ’92. And everybody knew that Jackson was right on when he bragged: “Whether I win or lose, American politics will never be the same.”