The Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson

The Decision to Run for President in 1984


You know, strangely enough my husband shares with me the most serious, serious things while he's putting his socks on in the morning. Never when he's taking them off. Always in the morning when he's putting his socks on. We had been talking about it and talking. We talked about it and it wasn't until he was putting on his socks that I knew he was going to do it. And I was very excited. Very excited.

He said, Jackie, I'm going to run for President of these United States of America. And I said, hot dog, way to go Jesse. We're going to do it. And so we did our little pep rally, you know. Yes. I am somebody. Yes, you know, never surrender. So keep hope alive. We do that around the house. Yes, just being excited about something. It's like a little slang or words of love that we say.


The question of running for president came up early...

In 1982, 1983, the idea of an African-American running for President of the United States were still pretty novel, a pretty remote idea. The very thought of it sometimes caused people to laugh. But there was a series of meetings that took place around the country, beginning really in the spring of 1983. Many of these meetings took place at airports and they involved, for all intents and purposes at the time, the leadership of the Black community nationally. There were maybe about 15 or 20 people at some meeting, some were different. But for the most part, it was the same group of people...most of the national organizations, most of the national civil rights organizations, some persons like me who really had no portfolio but just for, for a number of reasons was involved in those meetings.

And, but the debate initially was how do we develop an agenda to present to the candidates in the 1994, 1984 presidential election. The more we talked about that, I think the more we became persuaded that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans would be willing to fully embrace the agenda that we felt was absolutely critical and necessary for African-Americans and other minorities in this country.

And so, almost without thinking, the discussion began to shift away from the idea of an agenda and shift to the idea of an African-American running for President. Historically, that had been something that had been talked about for a very, very long time. We even at that point had this history of what we call 'the 30-second candidacy' for President. Where a person would nominate themselves or would get themselves nominated at the convention and everyone knew that they weren't serious, but the idea was that you would get 30 seconds of national TV time to talk about the issues you wanted to talk about.

So, the debate shifted to--Why don't we have a candidate of our own to run?

There was an immediate reaction ... Opposition to the idea. Andy Young did not think that was a great idea. Joe Lowery didn't think that was a great idea. Walter Faunteroy thought it was not only a good idea, he thought that he might be a pretty good candidate person to run. He was a member of Congress at the time.

And so, at every meeting there was an effort to resolve this. We finally had a meeting in Chicago at O'Hare field -- at one of the hotels out at the airport -- and all of this came to a head. And, it was clear that many of the people there -- it was not that they were opposed to the idea of a Black running for President, but for several of them, they did not want Jesse Jackson to be that person. They simply did not want him to be that candidate.

In that meeting, maybe 15-20 people, there were people already committed to the Democratic candidate, Fritz Mondale. And some were members of Congress, some were Black members of Congress. Joe Lowery, Ben Hooks was there. And Rev. Jackson's response was, some of us are family, some of us just live on... And was obviously referring to those people who had made commitments before coming to that meeting.

What does that say to you about Rev. Jackson -- that bold statement?

I think what it says is that, as always, he has the right comment for the right moment and he can sum it up. I would say at that point, everybody understood that this was going to be the litmus test in terms of whether all of the noble statements about your commitment to the Black community, your willingness to sacrifice and work for that community, whether that was just rhetoric or whether you really meant it.

And everybody understood that around the table. And there was still a lot of discussion, but at some point, I seem to recall that I said, well, is there anyone else here, is there anyone sitting here at the table who wants to be a candidate. Because people were sort of hinting, well maybe I might be interested in running, or I might. So I said why don't we go around the table and have every person that is interested in becoming a candidate for President of the United States, say so. Just say so so it is out in the open and everybody knows.

And we did that. We went around the table and every person -- and no one was willing to say I'd like to be a candidate, or I'd be interested in being a candidate if this group supports me. Until it got to Jesse Jackson. And, basically, Jesse Jackson said if no one else is willing to run, then I will run. I'll be a candidate. And, that just about settled the thing. And I believe Joe Lowery made a motion that was sort of an escape hatch for some people, as I said, who were already committed but didn't say so.

The motion basically said that Rev. Jackson is indicating he's going to be a candidate, anyone that wishes to support him can do so. And, that left the door open for obviously for those who did not.

And the reaction?

Well, my personal feeling was one of elation. I was thrilled that he was willing to do it. And clearly, the other people in the room, many of whom could have made, I think, very formidable candidates, but for one reason or another simply didn't, were not old enough or courageous enough to step up and say I'll run. I think for many of them, they were disappointed. Some were disappointed because there were personal feelings about Rev. Jackson. But some were disappointed because they saw their chance -- they said, you know, I should have said it that I would run. I should have been the one to say that I would run.

Because they all had the opportunity to do so before Jesse spoke up. As I recall, almost everyone else was sitting around this long table. Rev. Jackson was standing, he was not sitting at the table, he was standing behind the table. So that, essentially, everyone had an opportunity to say yes, I'll be a candidate or no, I don't think. And people gave different reasons for saying no. But it made him, sort of the last person, you know, in line. And his comment was, if no one else would run, then, you know, I'll run.

I think some people were angry because there were some who felt that the whole idea of these meetings had been set up in order to allow Jesse to use them as a way of launching his campaign because he was committed to running long before that meeting. I personally don't think that was true. But there were many who felt that was the case.

I think there were other people who were really pleased and really thrilled that he had indicated that he would be a candidate and were eager to helping. So, there were people there who wanted to see Jesse run and when he said that he would, that was it.

And the significance of his decision?

There were some very bold and courageous people in that room. There were people who had done a lot of wonderful things. But this level of political participation and environment was a relatively new situation, I think, for all of us. And the very idea of running for President -- first of all, we didn't know anything about running for President. I mean, we never run, and one of the really good things that came out of the 1984 campaign was that there was a whole cadre of people, African-American people, who had gone through the experience of putting together a presidential campaign and running that campaign and finding out what it was all about. Learning about money in a political campaign. Where it can come from, where it can't come from. How you can spend it, how you can't spend it. The kinds of reports and records you have to make.

It trained a whole cadre of people all over the country who had never before had any involvement. The closest that I had ever been to a presidential campaign before 1984 was the, was when Bobby Kennedy would come to Gary and I might see one Black staffer --Early Graves -- who was on the staff and certainly did not seem to be in the inner circle of that campaign by a long shot.

Then we would go to national conventions and the candidates would have their trailers out back of the convention and we didn't even have the influence or the clout to be able to go back into the area where the candidates were. You know, if there was something we wanted to say to them, we would have to write a note and give it to a security guard to take. That's as close as we came to a presidential campaign until 1984.

By those two campaigns, he changed the political landscape of the country. And really, I think, created in the minds of the general public a level of acceptance of a Black candidate for President that had never existed before. It never existed before. The very picture, I remember Percy Sutton from New York talking about an old Black woman up in Harlem when somebody had said, 'Well you know Jesse Jackson can't win this election. You know, he doesn't have a chance.' And this woman saying--'But we be winning all the time. Whenever I see him on television, up there arguing with those white men, tell them, give them as much as he takes, we be winning.' And that was very true.

It was a way of showing that an African American could compete at the very highest level. And, of course, given many of the candidates that were running for President in 1984 and 1988, Jesse Jackson really was superior in terms of his communication skills, you know, his knowledge, his understanding, his ability to motivate people. He was superior to many of those candidates. And so from that point of view, that was a great contribution, I think, to not just the progress of African-Americans in this country but of the progress of this country,the progress of all Americans in this country. To begin to see that these artificial judgments that are made about people based exclusively on the color of their skin are not real. They are not real. That given the opportunity, African-Americans can compete with anyone.


I think that when the story of the 20th century in the United States is written that Jackson will have to be one of the ten or fifteen most important contributors to the development of America in this century. Because if he had done nothing else, the two runs for the presidency were national civics lessons. It enlarged the idea in the heads and spirits of Americans of who could aspire to be President. Of who should aspire to be President. There are all kinds of black kids young women in this country, who can now think realistically about the possibility of being president who would not have thought that realistically about it before Jackson made his runs.

I still think about white people and how they think so exclusively about the country and I would hear over and over again any child born in America can aspire to be President. Well, that's nuts. Girls couldn't aspire to be President. That knocks out half the people already. Blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics couldn't aspire to be President. So when we're talking about any child we're really talking about any white male child can aspire to be President. And you could knock off Appalachian kids and so forth.

But what Jackson did really was to make it possible for me to think for the first time, I couldn't think, certainly couldn't think of myself as having any chance of being President of the United States. And I couldn't think of either of my older children who are now in their 30s as having a chance to be President of the United States.

But in part because Jackson and in part because of the women's movement, my child who is now 12 whose going to be, 50 years from now she'll be 10 younger than Bob Dole is today. Well, 50 years from now, in 2045, maybe my daughter can be thinking seriously if that's who she turns out to be, of running for President. And it is not inconceivable to me that this Black female, now alive, could possibly be President of the United States in the middle of the next century. Now, that is in large part Jackson. And the idea in her head that maybe she could be President comes from what she has seen of the person she calls Uncle Jesse. But there are a lot of kids who never even met Jesse and they'll call him Uncle Jesse who have an idea well, gee, maybe I could be President.

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