U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reconsidering Jesse Jackson: The Caricature, The Person, The Politician – Part 1

Jesse Jackson, July 1983

Jesse Jackson, July 1983

Today’s post begins a four-part argument about the history and significance of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr., as a political activist and thinker.

My thesis is this: A full reconsideration of the politics, ideology, and political philosophy of the 1970-2000 period must involve a new, long, and serious study of Jesse Jackson.

The necessity of this became apparent, to me, after a close reading Jason Stahl’s wonderful new book, Right Moves: The Conservative Think Tank in American Political Culture Since 1945 (Carolina, 2016). To be clear, Stahl doesn’t place any special emphasis on Jackson’s life or work. Rather, as Stahl’s narrative moves through the late 1980s and early 1990s, covering the rise of the New Democrats, Jackson’s role therein, as a caricature and punching bag, is indirect but nonetheless crucial. This leads me believe that Jackson’s symbolism, person, actions, and thought are due for a thorough reconsideration. Today’s post and my three after will, I hope, provide some seeds for that reconsideration.

I. The Caricature

If you’re still reading this post after that opening—meaning, if you weren’t immediately turned off by mention of the Jesse Jackson’s name or the thought of studying him—you weren’t raised in the same kind of racist thought environment as I was.

Stahl’s book helped me better understand why my whitewashed, working-class, Middle-western upbringing consistently caused me to dismiss Jackson as a politician worth serious consideration. To begin, I’ve never been able to place Jackson as a political thinker, or even as a worthy tactician, in our wars of ideology. This is because, in part, he was effectively constructed out of scene. That was accomplished not only by my Midwestern peers, exemplars, and family, but by the Clintons, New Democrats, and other white politicians. Those latter “Mason-Dixoncrats,” as Jackson termed them and as Stahl reminds us, thought of Jackson as the leader of a much-reviled coalition of “liberal fundamentalism.”[1] By the time I first gained some political consciousness, during the 1988-1992 period, especially during that highly contentious 1992 presidential election (which “woke” me on the wrong side of the proverbial political bed), Jackson had already been pushed off the national stage.

Having been pushed, it’s not as if a person like me would have taken Jackson seriously. My folk never had. To me and others (a significant demographic apparently, in retrospect, given how easily he was dispatched by the Clinton campaign later), Jackson neither represented nor symbolized anything positive. I feel terrible and ashamed for what follows, but honesty demands some description, or confession, of how I viewed him symbolically. I offer this teenaged and early twenties perspective to provide a view from the cheap seats—a view that helps explain, perhaps, why elite Democrats from the 1980s and 1990s wanted to separate themselves from Jackson.

As structured by my family and the print news, Jackson was, simply put, a clownish figure. To my highly ignorant teenage and early twenties mind, he seemed, ironically, a kind of cleaned-up “articulate” figure out of a 1970s blaxploitation film: a slick rhyming hustler on the national political stage. Jackson was most certainly taken seriously as a politician in 1980s-era Midwestern urban Democratic venues, but in the suburbs, small towns, and country I wonder if he was practically invisible except as a caricature. His “Rainbow Coalition” was an urban phenomenon, and that scene, in relation to my political ignorance, originated in hellish, declining, crime-filled port cities of prostitution. Urban America brought the rest of us HIV-AIDS, high taxes (they depended on us, we believed), pornography, pimps, secularism, homocide, gays, lesbians, blacks, browns, and political corruption. When you left for “the city,” wherever that city was located and whatever its own nature and history, you became a Dreiser-esque “Sister Carrie” figure (i.e. headed for corruption). Jackson was “their” politician, and that’s how he existed in view of my race-unconscious, white-tinted glasses. Little did I realize then how I was the intellectual clown—the one whose views were ignorant in relation to the most important issue of the twentieth century.

In my journey toward race consciousness, at that point and apart from specific views of Jackson, my ideologies were “tolerance” and “colorblindness,” at best. They were more advanced than most of my families’ views, but they were deficient nonetheless. Now I’d call them racist. The next set of scales would fall off my blurry clownish eyes a few years later, after a period of “autodidactical” immersion in the humanities (i.e. history and great books) and the acquisition of a super smart, racially-sensitive Asian-Indian girlfriend. But that is a story for another time. Even with my progression of thought, Jackson himself never received my thorough sympathy and attention until very recently.

I must stop here today. It’s not that my anecdotal experiences are the end of how Jackson has been caricatured. Rather, I think a focus on Jackson’s person, or his biography, helps round out how others have caricatured him. After that I will consider his explicitly national political work in two parts, which fully explain why Jackson has been caricatured and needs to be reconsidered through a better contextualization of his person, thought, and political work. – TL


[1] Jason Stahl, Right Moves: The Conservative Think Tank in American Political Culture Since 1945 (University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 141, 146. You can read more of Stahl’s work here, here, and here.

22 Thoughts on this Post

  1. The caricature is quite common. In Peoria, Illinois during the 1960s and 1970s, the role of Jesse Jackson was played by the then head of the NAACP John Gwynn. Once they started busing wealthier white kids to desegregate the public schools, the local media, especially the television stations, pushed the same narrative as you described. I can’t remember if the same narrative was pushed upon Harold Washington once he became mayor of Chicago.

    There seems to be a long running American tradition denigrating urban life. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison viewed cities as sores upon the body politic and reformers at the turn of the twentieth century wanted to clean up the corrupt machines of ethnic urban dwellers. Suburbia and rural life, as I sure you are aware, is idyllic. No meth or heroin in central Illinois for sure! No corrupt former Congressmen awaiting indictment here. No Sir!

    Jimmy Carter engaged in race baiting in his 1970 gubernatorial campaign, and with his support of Lt. Calley of My Lai massacre fame, certainly was above using cultural war tactics to punch those hippies on the Left. The Clintons, in their quest to be heirs of the Reagan legacy, haven’t been above using dog whistle racial language. The phenomenon you describe seems to be part of the political culture. I eagerly look forward to future installments.

    • Brian: Thanks for confirming the caricature I put forward here. The kinds of race-baiting used against Harold Washington in Chicago was, well, fierce and mean.

      There can be no doubt about the long American and Republican tradition of denigrating our cities and urban areas. Jefferson’s yeoman farmer was the ideal American for decades.

      On Clinton, the DLC, and Jackson and dog-whistle politics, I’ll get there in parts 3 and 4 of this series. – TL

  2. I eagerly await the rest of this series. In particular, I’m hoping you’ll touch on how Jackson mobilized his Rainbow-PUSH coalition (as it was by then called) in 2000 to create a turnout machine for African Americans that helped propel Al Gore into a tie with George W. Bush and that anticipated — perhaps helped create — the more sophisticated turnout machine wielded by Barack Obama and now Hillary Clinton. But I suppose you’ll be going there in Parts 2 and 3!

    • Jeremy: I wasn’t intending on taking my narrative to 2000, but I’d be happy to continue that discussion when I get there in post 4. Parts 2 and 3 deal with the 1970s and 1980s, respectively. – TL

  3. The confessional turn in this piece is quite necessary. Nobody is pure after all in terms of racial or other form of politics and we should be able to engage with our own pasts when narrating history, the present, and our ideal visions for the future, particularly if those pasts were problematic in terms of race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. I for one had no idea about this type of caricature, though I don’t find it surprising. Before Al Sharpton became a White House supporter, he also was a racialized caricature among moderate white Democratic Party circles. I can imagine that the quite difficult subject matter of Jackson’s anti-Semitic remarks will be discussed here too and how they created another reductive image of him–for which he was to blame, partly at the vert least.

    • Kahlil: I appreciate your comment about the confessional aspect of this entry. I was apprehensive about putting that out there. I won’t argue that my ignorance is absolutely representative, though Brian confirmed the caricature in his comment above and I can correlate it with family memories. Then again, I wouldn’t have felt confident confessing here if I wasn’t reasonably beyond that state of mind, and able to recognize it.

      And yes, characterizations of Al Sharpton are worse and more recognizable, due in part to programs like Saturday Night Live. But that’s another piece for another time. – TL

  4. “If you’re still reading this post after that opening—meaning, if you weren’t immediately turned off by mention of the Jesse Jackson’s name or the thought of studying him—you weren’t raised in the same kind of racist thought environment as I was.”


    My dad used to say on more than one occasion: “Jesse Jackson would have a black man as the head of the KKK if he had his way.” To this day, I still scratch my noggin trying to figure out the logic in that koan-level disparaging comment.

    Now, I wouldn’t say I was raised in a “racist thought environment,” (or at least not enough to bar me from reading this whole post–and I look forward to the coming installments) but I did grow up in an environment that liked to lean hard on the colorblind claptrap when it suited the speaker. In general, I’d say my environment was cool with (select) MLK, Jessie not so much.

    Perhaps it was more par for the course of a Midwestern white suburbia.

    • IS: Thanks for the comment. Of course my second paragraph was a bit of an overstatement. At least you’ve overcome some of your biases, such that thinking about Jackson wasn’t an immediate turn-off to you.

      My background is such that there was A LOT of resistance (in high school) to the institution of MLK, Jr. Day. For real. And then when it was instituted, active negative commentary about celebrating that “n—–.” But of course this was the land of large-4-wheel-drive pick-ups, gun racks, confederate flag stickers, etc. – TL

      • Don’t get me wrong, TL. I found many a parallel between your surroundings and mine. Though I suppose the largest difference might have been the genteel nature of discrimination. Racist Lite, we’ll call it.

        I can sympathize with the “good ole boy” habitat you grew up in. Even though I lived in the suburbs, there was a strong hick fetishism. Especially around that wonderful time of the year, every July: Country Thunder.

  5. Thanks for this post, Tim, and I look forward to the rest of your series. Like I said on Twitter, I’m looking at Jackson’s relationship to both Democrats and Southern voters in the 1980s for my dissertation, so I’m fascinated to see what you have to say about the DLC and Jackson.

    At a recent conference, I presented a paper on New South politics in the 1970s…which inevitably led to talking about Jackson in the 1980s. A point raised at the conference was the appeal Jackson had to poor white Southerners in the 1980s. Not all, or even more, but there were quite a few poor white Southerners who supported Jackson in the 1980s. I couldn’t help but think about that in context of your piece here.

    • Robert: I’m super intrigued by your noting that Jackson was *attractive* to poor white Southerners. I’ve never examined the polling numbers and demographics of his support in the 1984 and 1988 primaries. – TL

      • I’ll put it this way: especially in 1988, there was a little bit of surprise that Jackson even received as much support among poorer white Southerners as he did. I can’t remember the numbers off the top of my head, but I know liberal publications such as *Southern Exposure* pointed to those numbers as reasons for why Jackson could have been a formidable opponent that fall.

        I wrote a bit about the Rainbow Coalition’s framing as a political coalition here–obviously a while back but related a bit to your post. http://s-usih.org/2014/10/towards-an-intellectual-history-of-the-rainbow-coalition.html

      • Robert: Thanks for reminding about you post/paper here! I think I overlooked it in the hubbub of that 2014 conference. (It’s funny how one reads and sees so much, but reading in a circumstance such that one’s deepest attention is engaged are different things.) Then again, I guess my series here is more about looking at Jackson, on the whole over his entire life, as someone deserving more attention. But I’ll give you due props when I get to my 1980s post in a few weeks. No doubt. – TL

  6. Tim, this is great, and I’m really looking forward to the rest of the series.
    I was thinking that Jackson had some success–I don’t know if it turned into electoral success, though–in reaching out to Midwestern farmers during the farm crisis in the mid-80s. IIRC, Kathryn Dudley’s wonderful ethnography Debt and Dispossession has a few pages about this.

    • Interesting. I wonder if “Farm Aid” endorsed candidates? But knowing the politics of some of Farm Aid’s celebrity supporters (e.g. Willie Nelson, Mellencamp, etc.), I wouldn’t be surprised if they supported Dems.

      Also, I should be more particular about my “Midwestern” upbringing, which meant rural Western Missouri, in a small town south of Kansas City (not a suburb). This is the area of Missouri that supported slavery during the Civil War. – TL

  7. Tim, thanks for the post and for citing my book!

    The fourth chapter– where I deal with Jackson and his relationship to the DLC — was where it all began for me. Back when the book was a dissertation, it was the DLC research and writing that was the first work I did.

    Since this was the angle of your post, I guess I’ll now get a bit personal about why this was. I had just gotten done working on Paul Wellstone’s final Senate campaign in 2002 and the Iraq War marketing pitch was ramping up. I saw right-wing think tanks like AEI helping sell the war but I also saw DLC “New Democrats” doing the same. So, I wanted to learn more about both groups and chose to start with the DLC given that their publications from the eighties and nineties were much more accessible.

    I was struck by how much the group obsessed about Jackson — especially in the early years of their existence. I grew up in Northwest Indiana just outside of Chicago. What I knew of Jackson was through Chicagoland local news and my all-white friends and family. Through this lens, he was a joke, a clown, a huckster and much, much worse. He certainly was not someone to be seriously considered for the presidency.

    So, I was shocked in the archives 15 years later to see how serious his politics were and how scared the DLC was of him in the late eighties and early nineties. I was also shocked to see that he had non-marginal support from industrial unions and their members. These were the people I had been surrounded by as a kid and I had simply assumed that the racist attitudes I heard as a child were all that there was to the story.

    It was a revelation for me in so many ways. Chapter 4 is the result.

    • Jason: Thanks for this long comment. Again, I’m grateful that in taking the risk of exposing some of my upbringing (and my fear of being an outlier), others are relaying similar bad experiences. I feel less freakish, given my current state of life and friendship circles.

      In finishing your last chapter, I was struck at how Bush 43 announced his war plans at the AEI headquarters in DC. …Sigh.

      On your last para, regarding fear of Jackson (FOJ!) by DLC Dems, I will get to that in post four, relying heavily on your text, with some extending commentary. – TL

      • I can’t wait!

        Yeah, the Bush 43 speech at AEI led the diss. This was really what led to me choosing the topic. I actually talk about this in a promotional piece coming out tomorrow.

  8. My deep, dark secret is that I hail from Pekin, Illinois. It is one of the largest “sundown towns” in U.S. history. Let’s just say that my hometown high school had a rather unique “nickname” Check out this article by the man who bought the Zapruder film for Life magazine and the founder of People magazine, Richard B. Stolley. http://www.si.com/vault/2016/02/11/pekin-choose

    • My spouse is from P-town, so I’ve come to know a bit about Pekin’s recent history (h.s. mascot, etc.). Ugly. …Anyway, yes, the proverbial Mason-Dixon Line is further north than many imagine, though historians mostly know better. – TL

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