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Jesse Jackson: Influential Black Leaders

Jesse Jackson: Influential Black Leaders

Because he kept hope alive and made the White House real

1941-

Jesse Jackson laid the foundation for electing a black president, one of the signature achievements of the 21st century. Jackson’s are the biggest shoulders that Barack Obama stands on. This is not conventional wisdom, but it is true.

It begins with Jackson’s decision to run for president himself in 1984, widely seen then as an act of symbolism and hubris. Black leaders had been discussing for years what it would take to seriously compete for the highest office in the land, to build on what Shirley Chisholm did in 1972. After Harold Washington was elected Chicago’s first black mayor in 1983 and with concern mounting about the impact of Ronald Reagan’s presidency on black Americans, some thought the time was ripe. But none of the most prominent black elected leaders would step up — either they lacked courage or a big enough ego. Jackson lacked neither.

That he ran and won five Democratic primaries and caucuses on a minuscule budget shocked the party establishment and elevated Jackson’s stature. With his second presidential campaign in 1988, he established himself as the leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. He won 11 primaries and caucuses and finished as runner-up to Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis.

Before Jackson’s campaigns, blacks had been largely relegated to roles as campaign surrogates on “urban issues” and get-out-the-vote specialists in black communities. Jackson pried open the Democratic Party structure and helped increase black participation in politics. The result was more field operatives, strategists, fundraisers — and candidates for a wider range of offices — than ever before. He pushed for changes in the party’s nominating process that ultimately benefited Obama in his race against Hillary Clinton in 2008.

As Jackson has faded from national prominence, with his image taking a pelting in recent years, it is easy to forget how electric he once was. It is not an overstatement to call him one of the greatest political orators in American history. His ability to inspire farmers and factory workers, maids who “catch the early bus” and teenagers growing up in housing projects was unmatched.

He certainly deserves credit for his civil rights activism — in the Deep South as a protégé of Martin Luther King Jr. and later on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley. But Jackson’s most notable achievement was shaking up the American political system by helping reform a major party and demonstrating that occupying the Oval Office really was an attainable dream. – Kevin Merida

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