Thursday, July 17, 2014

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

"This is not a perfect party. We are not a perfect people. Yet we are called to a perfect mission. Our mission: 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."

Jesse Jackson
July 18, 1984
San Francisco

Jesse Jackson, founder of the Rainbow Coalition, wasn't the first black to seek the presidency, either in a fringe party or a major party. Nor was he the first black to address a national convention.

But the speech he delivered 30 years ago tomorrow night was better than any speech ever given by a black person to a national convention, according to American Rhetoric. With one exception — Barbara Jordan's keynote address to the 1976 Democratic convention.

Both were spellbinding orators — which is a pretty good trait to have if you are a lawyer (as Jordan was) or a preacher (as Jackson is). Preachers may have an advantage because the public's general impression of preachers is that they are more sympathetic to people's plights than lawyers are.

Jordan's speech was very lawyerly. "I could easily spend this time praising the accomplishments of this party and attacking the Republicans," Jordan said, "but I don't choose to do that."

And she went on to deliver a very solid, very literate, very lawyerly kind of speech that was, deservedly, praised. Admiration for Jordan's speaking skills probably couldn't have been any higher than it was on that July night in 1976.

Unfortunately, she never chose to work in any homilies that could have endeared her to her listeners. They admired her, but she seemed far away, personally inaccessible as she spoke in soaring language about concepts like liberty and justice.

For most people, I think, Jordan was like the sun. People feel warmed by the sun, they extol its brilliance, but they can't get close to it.

Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition could connect with people on a personal level. Thirty years ago tomorrow night, he spoke of the just–concluded, hard–fought campaign for the Democratic nomination and the need for Democrats to unite.

"I went to see Hubert Humphrey three days before he died," Jackson told the delegates. "He had just called Richard Nixon from his dying bed, and many people wondered why. And I asked him.

"He said, 'Jesse, from this vantage point, the sun is setting in my life, all of the speeches, the political conventions, the crowds and the great fights are behind me now. At a time like this you are forced to deal with your irreducible essence, forced to grapple with that which is really important to you.

"'And what I've concluded about life,' Hubert Humphrey said, 'when all is said and done, we must forgive each other and redeem each other and move on.'"

Jackson disputed the Republicans' claim that an economic recovery was under way.

"There's some measure of recovery," Jackson conceded. "Three and a half years later, unemployment has inched just below where it was when [Reagan] took office in 1981. There are still 8.1 million people officially unemployed; 11 million working only part time. Inflation has come down, but let's analyze for a moment who has paid the price for this superficial economic recovery."

As I said, Jackson wasn't the first black to speak to a national convention. Nor was he the first black to seek a presidential nomination — but he was the first black candidate to exceed electoral expectations. Jackson won five primaries and caucuses in 1984 and received nearly one–fifth of the popular vote.

I think it is safe to say that no black politician did better on the national stage than Jackson — until Barack Obama more than two decades later.

Jackson also brought 2 million new voters into the process. As one who has observed politics for most of my life, I know that many of those who register in voter registration drives do so in the passion of the moment and cannot always be counted upon to continue showing up at the polls after that moment has passed.

But many appeared to continue to participate when the midterms rolled around two years later, and Democrats recaptured the Senate after six years of Republican majority by taking eight seats from the GOP. Whatever Jackson's contribution to that may have been — and it seems beyond dispute that he did contribute to it in some way — it was an impressive achievement.

His accomplishments notwithstanding, on that night in 1984, Jackson addressed the delegates with humility.

"I am not a perfect servant," he admitted. "I am a public servant doing my best against the odds. As I develop and serve, be patient: God is not finished with me yet."

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