Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition, 1984 and 1988

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Jesse Jackson built a “rainbow coalition” by reaching beyond African American communities and bridging the common concerns of diverse groups of underrepresented Americans. In this photograph, Jackson addresses the Mexican American Political Association in San Jose, California. Courtesy of UCLA, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library via California Digital Library.

Rev. Jesse Jackson began his public career as a civil rights organizer alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In late 1983, with decades of organizing experience but no experience in elected office, Jesse Jackson declared his candidacy for the Democratic Party’s 1984 presidential nomination. Jackson leveraged the black political mobilization of the 1970s and expanded its inclusivity, appealing to the concerns and interests of a “Rainbow Coalition” of marginalized and minority citizens, including African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, women, gay people, poor people, and more.  

The Democratic Party of the early 1980s had relied on the votes of these marginalized communities, but in the view of many, fell short of making a real effort to represent them. Amidst the Reagan Revolution, which reduced government support for social and education programs and civil rights initiatives, Jesse Jackson led a grassroots campaign paired with efforts in voter registration. In doing so, he built his voter base as he went, diversified the Democratic Party, and offered a political vision inspired by the activism of the Civil Rights era and the legacy of the New Deal. Jackson did not win the nomination, but surprised many by winning five primary contests and finishing with 3.2 million votes.

In the 1988 campaign, Jesse Jackson was even more successful, winning more primaries and earning broader support across both white and minority voters. Jackson also commanded greater recognition and respect from the party. Though Jackson did not win the nomination, twenty-three year old future president Barack Obama and millions of Americans watched Jackson prove that an African American could be broadly accepted as a legitimate candidate for president.