You must not surrender. You may or may not get there, but just know that you're qualified and you hold on and hold out. We must never surrender. America will get better and better. Keep hope alive. Keep hope alive. Keep hope alive . . .—Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Democratic National Convention, July 19, 1988
Taking a break during a roast with veteran black journalist Carl Rowan, President Ronald Reagan lamented that he had been misunderstood “on this business of racism.” Reagan said, “I tried hard to win friendship among blacks, but couldn’t do it. I talked to black leaders after my election in 1980, and they went out and criticized me in horrible ways.” For this, Reagan admitted, he said “to hell with ‘em.” The overall impact of the attitude and policies of the Reagan administration involved a demoralization of the civil rights enforcement officials; the discouraging of minority participation in civil society; the fostering of anti-black racial attitudes; and in the freezing of dreams of social mobility of millions of African Americans. Indeed, under Reagan’s leadership the nation marched away from racial equality and civil rights for all toward a society more rigidly structured by race and class. In doing so, his administration and supporters bankrolled veritable counter-revolutionary forces within black America, a domestic version of the “contras,” against the established civil rights organizations, elected officials, and others that represent the African American national leadership.
Reagan as president did more than merely say “to hell with ‘em,” but adopted a proactive role in rolling back civil rights and black progress. In terms of the administration’s direct and clearly visible actions against African American interests, one would have to go back to the Democratic administration of Woodrow Wilson to find parallels. For black America, the Reagan era proved to be a stern test of the strength and maturity of its political institutions after several decades of growth and development. Mobilizing these institutional strengths proved a serious challenge to black leadership as it faced increasingly powerful adversaries in an atmosphere of poisoned race relations. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of African Americans readily identified President Reagan as a sworn opponent of black progress. Yet, the seriousness of the Reagan threat and the new character of the economic, social, and political crises that blacks confronted inevitably led to serious ideological and political disputes internally. Ultimately, the Reagan challenge led to the creation of a new form of independent black politics: the emergence of the Rainbow Coalition and Jesse Jackson. At the same time, a new form of dependent black politics emerged. Nurtured by the Republican Party a new breed of black conservatives appeared on the scene to challenge more established black leaders.
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born February 6, 1911 in Tampico, Illinois less than one hundred miles from Chicago. Son of John Edward Reagan, a migrant from Iowa, and Nelle Clyde Wilson of Fulton, Illinois, the future president grew up in small town America. It was the type of social atmosphere that later allowed him to state that during his youth there was not a black problem. In his autobiography, however, Reagan recalls that at the “local movie theater, blacks and whites had to sit apart--the blacks in the balcony. According to Ronald Reagan, his father imbued him with a hatred of racists and racism. He recalled when the historic movie, The Birth of a Nation was shown in his hometown. “My brother and I were the only kids not to see it,” Reagan said. His father then explained, according to Reagan tha the movie “deals with the Ku Klux Klan against the colored folks, and I'm damned if anyone in this family will go see it.” Reagan recounted that his father had “grown up in an era when some stores still had signs at the door saying, NO DOGS OR IRISHMEN ALLOWED.” Both parents are described by Reagan as remarkably liberal, urging their sons, for example, to bring home their black friends, and to play withi them as equals. The future president's brother, Neil, had an African American as a childhood best friend.
Unfortunately, the Reagans were desperately poor moving from town to town throughout Ronald's boyhood and adolescence. “Jack” Reagan never owned his own home or earned more than $55 a week in his work as a shoe salesman. Plagued by alcoholism he often, according to Neil Reagan, “really didn't know where the next buck was coming from.” Partly as a result the Reagan family was riddled with instability. By the time Reagan was a teenager, the family had lived in many different homes in several small towns, and in Chicago itself. Nelle Reagan’s creativity guided the family, keeping its spirits intact from paycheck to paycheck, from crisis to crisis, and from home to home. Like many others during that era of tough times, Nelle Reagan relied on her faith that “God would find a way.”
Relying on his own summer earnings and a scholarship, Ronald Reagan began his studies at Eureka College. On campus Reagan soon rose to prominence as a student activist by leading a movement protesting budget cuts that damaged the college’s curriculum. Heading the student strike committee, Reagan successfully began his political involvement serving as student body president. During his college days at Eureka Reagan quietly witnessed the refusal of a hotel to accommodate “two colored boys” who were teammates of his. By June 1932, Reagan graduated with a degree in sociology and economics and letters in football, track and swimming.
During this period, Jack Reagan began to benefit from the New Deal programs initiated by the Roosevelt administration. A long-time Democrat, Jack Reagan obtained a job distributing food to the Dixon, Illinois’ impoverished who suffered from the closing of the local cement plant. Once Reagan learned that his father had offered work for a week to a group of unemployed men. The response of the men to this offer of work was illuminating to young Ronald Reagan. “Jack we can't take it,” they said. They feared that their welfare payments would be cut off if they took the temporary work, since it would take weeks to reopen their cases.16 Ronald Reagan drew other lasting lessons from the struggle of his own community to survive during the Depression. Later, Reagan spoke of that period as one when government did “the job it does best-growing,” not of it enabling him and his family and community survive a catastrophic economic era. The lessons learned about “big government” and “welfare” remained a basic feature of his political outlook while he served as California governor and the president of the United States.
Striking out on his own, Ronald Reagan landed a job in Davenport, Iowa as a radio announcer becoming the “voice of the Chicago Cubs.” Following his emergence as a famous actor, he became involved with the Screen Actors Guild, and, later, various conservative causes in California. Upon retirement as an actor, he embarked upon a career as a politician.
As early as 1961 Reagan had the ability to skillfully utilize the subtleties of language and rhetoric to appeal to the racial prejudices of his audience. Speaking before the Phoenix, Arizona Chamber of Commerce in 1961, the former actor focused his audience’s attention on a comment made by a former president of the National Education Association (NEA) in his speech entitled, “Encroaching Control (The Peril of Ever-Expanding Government)” Reagan noted that the NEA official alarmingly stated, “[W]e might have to have temporary federal control to bring about integration in the South.”
During his successful 1966 campaign for California governor, black Californians learned more about the Reagan racial policies. In March 1966, Reagan spoke with other candidates before an audience of roughly 100 people gathered at the National Negro Republican Assembly in Santa Monica, California. While Reagan indicated that he agreed with the goals that the Civil Rights Act hoped to achieve, he believed that it “was a bad piece of legislation.” He told the African American Republican audience that had he then been in Congress he would not have voted for it. Following one delegate’s anguished response that it “grieved” him to hear “a leading Republican candidate” say that the “Civil Rights Act is a bad piece of legislation,” Reagan exploded with indignation. Throwing down his note cards he sputtered, “I resent the implication that there is any bigotry in my nature. Don’t anyone ever imply I lack integrity. I will not stand silent and let anyone imply that—in this or any other group.” Reagan then stomped out of the hall. He later said that bigotry “is something I feel so strongly about that I get a lump in my throat when I'm accused falsely.”
The tendency of Reagan to express righteous indignation at the notion that either he or his nation harbored or ever practiced racism was a notable feature of his personality. In a 1967 speech entitled, “The value of understanding the past,” he asked rhetorically: “Are the problems of urban ghettoes and poverty the result of selfishness on our part or indifference to suffering? No people in all the history of mankind have shared so widely its material resources.”
Ronald Reagan’s perspective on the history of race and racism in America was characterized by an almost totally uncritical view of America's past of racism against African and Native American peoples. Reagan delivered a speech in Sacramento in September 1970 entitled, “Ours is Not a Sick Society,” criticizing both the New Left and the Old Left. Reagan said, “As for our generation, I will make no apology. No people in all history paid a higher price for freedom . . . no people have done so much to advance the dignity of man. We did not have to make a field trip to the ghetto or the sharecropper’s farm to see poverty. We lived it in a great depression. . . . We took on a racial problem no other problem no other people had ever tackled before. Granted, we have not erased prejudice from every heart—nor will it be erased by militant behavior or parading pickets—but we opened doors that had been locked and barred for a hundred years.” Clearly, Reagan believed that the civil rights advances, the doors “we opened,” were a result of white benevolence and not the determined efforts of years of the civil rights movement. Reagan’s notion that “we” “took on a racial problem” suggested that it was done voluntarily and with compulsion or resistance. That Reagan and his conservative movement consistently opposed these measures in every region of the country is ignored is particularly striking.
The emergence of “Black Power” as a popular battle cry for the growing number of militant and radical African Americans was a godsend for Reagan. Following a well-attended Berkeley speech by Stokely Carmichael, then Chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Reagan made the most of his militant rhetoric. Playing to his constituency, after learning that Carmichael planned to return to California to speak, Reagan sent a telegram to New York asking him to cancel his appearance.
Inaugurated as Governor of California in January 1967, Ronald Reagan further enhanced his growing reputation as a national conservative leader by fiercely attacking the emergent social movements in the state. During the heated battles for black and Third World student demands at San Francisco State University Reagan strongly supported university president S. I. Hayakawa’s administration. The governor told the California Council of Growers in April 1970 that they needed “to stand up more” against the young rebels. Calling for harsh action against rebellious students, Reagan declared, “if it takes a bloodbath now, let’s get it over with. Appeasement is not the answer.”
Reagan honed the use of symbolism to a fine art in order to thinly veil his racial views. Throughout 1976 Reagan campaigned across the country regaling his audiences with the tale of a “Welfare Queen” playing to their distaste for taxes, welfare, welfare recipients, and, often, African Americans. Reagan’s tale involved a Chicago woman who had received roughly $150,000 in welfare payments and widow’s grants by using eighty false names, and thirty addresses. He would describe the luxuries, including expensive cars and furs, she was able to obtain by this deceit described as both common and costly to the taxpayer. When news reporters attempted to confirm this story, it fell apart. As it turned out, the Chicago woman had received only $8,000, not $150,000, through her fraud. Yet, this distortion of reality hardly mattered as Reagan touched sensitive nerves of racial resentment in his overwhelmingly white constituency.
Reagan expertly stoked the embers of white racial resentment over perceived favoritism given to blacks, especially black welfare recipients. The governor described the food stamp program as one which would allow “some fellow ahead of you [to] buy T-bone steak” while “you were standing in a checkout line with your package of hamburger.” Reagan’s experience as governor of California reinforced his conviction that welfare recipients are often cheats “who’ll accept a lower standard of living in order to get by without working.”
The alternative portrait of American citizens that Reagan used as a part of his subtle appeal to white unity, was that of a set of decent, ignored, taken-for-granted families knitted together by a set of “traditional values.” Complaining that in modern America, “group interests’ are emphasized far too often, Reagan proposed “five short words” to be included in the campaign of every Republican candidate. These words perfectly suited the thinly-veiled racial appeals that the Reagan candidacy and, eventually, presidency would rely on. “Family,” “Work,” “Neighborhood,” “Freedom,” and “Peace” were positive attributes that no “decent” person could argue with. A number of observers have stressed the importance of the development and popularization of a new conservative vocabulary of race-coded words and phrases as an important factor in the Republican electorial victories of the 1980s and 1990s.
As governor of California, Ronald Reagan had already convinced himself that vigilance against “reverse discrimination” against whites was of higher priority than the discrimination that African Americans experienced in the past and present. In 1976, Reagan attacked affirmative-action programs as “a quota system.” Any ethnic groups not included in the affirmative-action programs are “victims of reverse discrimination” according to Reagan’s logic. In the same speech, Reagan cited how “government actions” harm both the family and the neighborhood. The “sense of the neighborhood and community” would be “destroyed” by “forced school busing.” He continued to commit himself to seeking legislation that would halt “forced busing.”
Addressing the 1981 annual NAACP convention Ronald Reagan boldly asserted that liberal bureaucrats in Washington had made “needy people government dependent, rather than independent.” Reagan described this as a new variety of “bondage,” in declaring that in the same manner “as the Emancipation Proclamation freed black people 118 years ago, today we need to declare an economic emancipation,” implying that “welfare” and other social programs had enslaved black America. He placed his faith on the conviction that what would help African-Americans the most was a healthy economic recovery for the entire country. On another occasion in 1982, Reagan told African-American clergy that it “is better to create jobs restoring the economy than to provide handouts. Some well-meaning [government ] programs robbed the recipients of their dignity, trapped them into a dependency that left them with idle time, less self-respect, and little prospect for a better future.” Paradoxically, many African Americans lost federal and state jobs as a result of the Reagan’s budget cuts while appointments of blacks to federal positions slowed considerably during the period. While Carter appointed roughly fourteen percent of his federal judgeships to African Americans, Reagan and his successor George H. W. Bush named only roughly three percent, for example.
In Reagan’s 1982 State of the Union message he mentioned the meager pro-active proposals that his administration offered as remedies to the urban crisis. Stressing that the “stakes” had “seldom” been higher for America, he outlined his goals of reducing both inflation and high interest rates. This would benefit Detroit autoworkers, unemployed steelworkers, farmers, small business, and, black teenagers alike. The latter group represented the intended beneficiaries of the president’s “urban enterprise zones.” Special economic zones, under this strategy, would benefit from the dynamism of capitalism through the use of minimally-paid black workers. President Reagan’s legislation would allow states to designate areas as “urban enterprise zones,” and employ a “broad range of special economic incentives” to foster economic development. Under most of Reagan’s strategies for the social and economic progress of the black communities, progress was contingent upon the granting of a prior incentive to private enterprise. Thus, black progress, at best, was subordinate to business progress under Reagan’s blueprint. The overall impact of these policies meant economic stagnation or worse for African American individuals and families. Political scientist Clarence Lusane noted that during the Reagan-Bush era lasting roughly the decade of the 1980s, more than 1.6 million more African Americans languished in poverty at the end of the era than at the beginning.
Reagan, with great reluctance, announced his support in 1982 of a ten-year extension of the Voting Rights Act. Attempting to counter the growing chorus of critics of his civil rights policies, Reagan’s 1982 State of the Union message included a firm statement on civil rights:
Our nation‘s long journey towards civil rights for all our citizens—once a source of discord, now a source of pride—must continue with no backsliding or slowing down. We must and shall see that those basic laws that guarantee equal rights are preserved and, when necessary, strengthened. Our concern for equal rights for women is firm and unshakable.
Yet the nation’s “long journey” had been made long by previous presidential actions and inactions similar to Reagan’s weakening of civil rights enforcement. President Reagan and his first Attorney General, William French Smith, fought to change the Internal Revenue Service policy that forbade tax exemptions to racially discriminatory private educational institutions. In January 1982, the Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to dismiss lawsuits against North Carolina and South Carolina private schools that were in immediate danger of losing their tax-exempt status. This fulfilled one of Reagan's campaign pledges to his southern and anti-black constituencies. In 1983, however, the Supreme Court delivered a decision that reversed the new Reagan policy.
The appointment of William Bradford Reynolds III as the Reagan administration’s head of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department as well as the appointment of Clarence Pendleton, Jr. as the head of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights served to temper the hopes of any one clinging to any possibility that Reagan would be more liberal on civil rights issues than his campaign rhetoric indicated. Both men served as the point men of the Reagan administration on civil rights issues. While Pendleton was a middle-class African American striver and Reynolds a wealthy heir to the Dupont fortune, both led a concerted push by the Reagan administration to roll back the civil rights gains of the previous decades. Reynolds became a symbol of the Reagan administration’s pursuit of policies aimed at weakening black voting rights, destroying affirmative-action programs, halting busing, preventing desegregation, and undermining the U. S. Civil Rights Commission.
After the Internal Revenue Service eliminated the tax exempt status of Greenville, South Carolina’s Bob Jones University because of its rampant anti-black discrimination, Reynolds challenged the agency in court and lost. Two years later, Reynolds fought to eliminate the affirmative action program requirement for private firms contracting with the federal government. Reynolds believed that affirmative action programs discriminated against whites and that racial barriers to opportunity were a thing of the past.
In March 1985, the Reagan administration sued the District of Columbia charging that the affirmative action plan of its fire department granted discriminatory preferences “based on race and sex.” The ugly term of “quotas” once again was used by Reynolds to fight a program that aimed at redressing somewhat the centuries of exploitation. Ronald L. Ellis, a NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund attorney called it a “sad day” that the Justice Department now finds itself on the side of those actively fighting attempts to end discrimination. Ellis concluded that the Reagan administration's lawsuit was “consistent with the administration's pattern of trying to roll back the calendar” in the fight against racism. William Bradford Reynolds, however, contended that “real quotas cause real injury to identifiable persons,” and therefore constitute illegal discrimination.
In 1985, while praising the Reagan administration’s “remarkable” record on civil rights, Reynolds opposed a bill that would reverse the 1984 Grove City College Supreme Court decision that limited coverage of the 1972 Civil Rights bill. This situation prompted Congressman John Conyers Jr. (D-MI) to ask: “Is there anyone in Congress who believes we haven’t retrogressed in the field of civil rights?”
In November 1981, having ruled out the abolition of the U. S. Civil Rights Commission, President Reagan appointed Clarence M. Pendleton, Jr. to replace Arthur S. Fleming as its Chairman. Having earlier distinguished himself by energetically opposing affirmative action, busing, “quotas” and civil rights laws, an objective observer might believe that he was ill-suited to monitor the nation’s civil rights situation. Pendleton, however, was one of the best known of a handful of black conservatives who eagerly embraced the anti-civil rights and the free enterprise policies of the Reagan administration. Figures such as Walter Williams, Glenn Loury, Thomas Sowell united around opposition to the popular and accepted black leadership. As President Reagan’s “hit man” on civil rights, Pendleton infuriated much of black America by attacking national African American leaders and affirmative action.
In October 1983 President Reagan fired Civil Rights Commission head Mary Frances Berry and Blandina Ramirez in an unprecedented act of intervention in an agency that had been
The commission has for the most part abandoned its responsibility to monitor the activities of the civil rights enforcement agencies of the Federal government. Not one report or statement about any Federal body has been issued since the takeover. Indeed, the commission has become so much a public relations operation for the Administration that it s members have been referred to in the media as “Administration spokespersons.”
The Reagan offensive against civil rights was led by Commissioners Linda Chavez and Clarence Pendleton, Jr. who stridently attacked notions of “comparable worth” and “affirmative action” and established policies requiring proof of the “intent” to discriminate–something virtually impossible to do in the vast majority of cases–to establish a pattern of bias. The lapse of the agency into pitiful and tragic anti-civil rights logic and actions was so dramatic that Berry concluded that the Commission had “become a parody of its former self,” and for the first time in its history “a politicized institution.” Overall, Reagan succeeded in substantially weakening the moral authority of the Commission.
At every opportunity Pendleton attacked black leadership. In 1984, following the reelection of President Reagan, Pendleton said in a well-publicized statement:
. . .I say to America’s Black leadership, open the plantation gates and let us out. We refuse to be led into another political Jonestown as we were during the presidential campaign. No more Kool-Aid, Jesse, Vernon, and Ben. . . .
Pendleton, going further than the white conservatives who commonly charged African Americans and civil rights proponents with “racism in reverse” went one step further terming black leaders “the new racists.” Gradually it dawned on black Americans that Reagan had appointed an African American as the head of the U. S. Civil Rights Commission who stood opposed to civil rights. Minimizing the importance of civil right Pendleton said that, “[C]ivil rights won’t make you educated. They won’t make you rich. And they won’t make you socially acceptable.”
Another prominent black appointee within the Reagan administration, Samuel R. Pierce, similarly implemented the president’s policy on housing. Pierce’s management style, delegating many tasks, mirrored Reagan’s, as did his habit of taking mid-day naps. As Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Pierce oversaw huge budget cuts in low-income housing from $33 billion in 1982 to only $8 billion in 1988. Staff cuts disrupted the agency’s structure. Whole divisions were removed, key positions remained unfulfilled and review committees were ignored as top staffers increasingly made arbitrary decisions.
Pierce, widely known as “Silent Sam,” “was not a civil rights person,” according to an old acquaintance. Once William Sullivan of the FBI wrote to his boss J. Edgar Hoover that Pierce had “all the qualifications of the kind of Negro I have in mind to advance to positions of national leadership” aiming to substitute the docile Pierce for Martin Luther King. Pierce not only oversaw massive cuts of housing programs benefitting low-income people, the outright theft of millions of the remaining dollars in the program by well-connected or prominent Republicans also occurred on his watch. Former Interior Secretary James Watt pocketed $169,000 for lobbying for the award of a $28 million agency loan to a housing project in suburban Baltimore; former Senator Edward Brooke (R-MA) received $183,000 for similar work; and several others received questionable fees well into the hundreds of thousands. Carla Hills received $138,445 for influencing Pierce to set aside the fair housing requirements for federal housing proposed for Beverly Hills, California. Hills later defended this action by saying, “I know people smile [when you] say Beverly Hills. But you know, poor people can live in affluent neighborhoods.”
In January 1982, the Reagan administration announced that it would no longer eliminate the tax exempt statuses of segregated institutions immediately eliciting charges of racism from several quarters. Scrambling to defend their position, the White House realized that utilizing a black defender of an anti-black policy would be an effective tactic. The problem was the virtual absence of African Americans in the Reagan administration. Finally, two black mid-level appointees, both conservative Republicans, were summoned to the White House to share their thoughts on the new policy. Meeting with President Reagan, Thaddeus A. Garrett, Jr. and Melvin Bradley told him that they too felt a degree of dissatisfaction with the ruling. Garrett described a sermon at an African American church he had recently heard featuring a parable about a woman and an injured snake that bit her hand after she had nursed it back to health. The punchline “Reagan is that snake!,” startled the president.
During 1982, President Reagan’s already abysmally low popularity rating among African Americans fell even further from 14 percent in September 1981 to 8 percent in 1982. Harsh assessments and characterizations of Reagan were commonplace among African American across the socioeconomic spectrum. The view of NAACP leader William F. Gibson that he was “basically a reactionary and racist” was a typical conclusion of those who had experienced a few years of the Reagan presidency.
President Reagan’s views on civil rights figured heavily in his judicial appointments. In mid-1986 Reagan suffered a setback when United States Attorney Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III was rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committeee, 10-to-8. Sessions was adamantly opposed to black progress and had in the past unsuccessfully attempted to prosecute Alabama activist Albert Turner, a former aide to Martin Luther King, on charges of illegally tampering with black absentee ballots. In another incident, Sessions termed a white civil rights attorney “a disgrace to his race” and, on still another occasion, accused the NAACP of being “communist-inspired” and “trying to force civil rights down the throats of people who are trying to put problems behind them.” Not surprisingly, he expressed sympathy and support for the Ku Klux Klan.
It remained for President Reagan to nominate Judge Robert Bork to the U. S. Supreme Court to trigger a full-scale mobilization of liberals, minorities, labor and women in an attempt to prevent his confirmation. Judge Bork’s past decisions and interpretations of the Constitution alarmed a broad swath of public opinion, ultimately leading to his rejection by the Senate 58 to 42. Many regarded this as the most important setback for Reagan and Reaganism since his triumphant victory over incumbent Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election.
By mid-1983, the chorus of African Americans critical of Reagan was deafening. Not only had tens of thousands of blacks lost government positions following Reagan’s ascension to the presidency, his opposition to affirmative action serve to chill the atmosphere with respect to the hiring of blacks. Reagan set an example at the top by appointing few blacks. Whereas 12 percent of President Carter’s appointments were African American, only 4.1 percent of Reagan’s were. While Carter appointed 38 African American judges of the 262 he named, Reagan appointed only 7 of the 385 he named. African Americans suffered disproportionately from the staff reduction in federal departments as those with the highest percentages of blacks, such as the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Housing and Urban Development, were those most drastically slashed.
Having used welfare as a wedge issue during the campaign, upon taking office Reagan was set to remedy what he regarded as the problem. Reagan’s impact could be especially felt at the opposite socio-economic pole of the black community as an $1 billion cut in Medicaid, and the elimination of over a million Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) recipients shredded the fabric of millions of lives. Immediately, a dramatic increase in panhandlers, homeless, and the mentally impaired could be seen on the streets of big cities—the beginning of what would be a permanent feature on the urban life of America.
Ronald Reagan’s views on South Africa were fairly consistent with his outlook on race in the United States. In a 1977 speech to the Foreign Policy Association Reagan, then preparing for his campaign for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination spoke of the freedom existing in South Africa in comparison to the other nations of Africa. Reagan complained of a double-standard that victimized South Africa, which featured a brutal apartheid system, but, according to Reagan, only three hundred and seventeen political prisoners, as the main blemish on its democracy, while “the rest of that continent” was characterized by “one-party, one-tribe, or military dictatorships.”
Late in the Reagan administration, in March 1988, both houses of Congress passed the Civil Rights Restoration Act (PL-100-259). Drafted to reverse the impact of the Grove City Supreme Court decision which limited the applicability of Title IX of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to the individual programs of the institution receiving federal funds rather than to the entire academic organization, it passage was a repudiation of the policies of the Reagan administration. The Supreme Court’s decision, drastically narrowing the scope of the law rendering it almost irrelevant, weakened the nation’s civil rights protections. Under it institutions would have been able to practice discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities, the handicapped, and women in departments or sections of the institutions that were not federally funded. This decision inspired the passage of the Civil Rights Restoration Act to ensure that any federal recipient of funds would not engage in discriminatory behavior in any part of their institution. This bipartisan legislation passed in 1988 was promptly vetoed by Reagan. Ralph Neas, who headed the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights noted that the arguments Reagan made resembled those made years before when he opposed the major civil rights bills of the 1960s.
Inspired early in the year by pioneering black quarterback Doug Williams’ record-breaking Super Bowl performance, African Americans ended the year enthralled by the second Jackson thrust for the presidency. Fighting the good fight against overwhelming odds, Jackson’s quest for the presidency ultimately fell short of its objectives, but nevertheless served to permanently reshape the terrain of American politics. The Jackson insurgency posed one of the gravest threats to the traditional American establishment in history, as it smashed barrier after barrier empowering African Americans as never before.
Jesse Jackson, beset by generally negative media coverage, ran an inspiring race with a program that mocked the bland, business-as-usual approach of the traditional presidential candidate. African Americans, having been excluded from any consideration as candidates for most offices, were never considered by the two main parties for the presidency. Traditional racist thought would lead white observers to doubt even the mental capacity of blacks to perform at the level minimally required by a chief executive of the United States. By contrast in the face-to-face debates, in the longer-term battles over policies, and over the long course of the presidential campaign, Jesse Jackson more than held his own, he dominated. Jackson’s performance on the campaign trail, in the debates, and at the podium was, in one sense, the historical vindication of the decades of slander and abuse hurled at the African American people. From the African American perspective, Jackson, like Doug Williams, excelled the first time he was given the opportunity.
Jesse Jackson’s candidacy inspired new levels of political activism, manifested in many new candidates for lesser offices in African American communities across the nation. In another sense, Jackson, like Martin Luther King before him, became the international representative of black America., “the president” of black America. Although in 1984, and in 1988, Jackson’s primary victories represented the interests of a broader segment of America than solely African Americans, in a very real way he became the personification of black political interests. Indeed, the Jackson platform reflects the long-sought after goals of African Americans. “What does Jesse Jackson really want?,” a question which traditional pundits posed repeatedly as overlapping with the underlying question of “What does Black America want?”
While the 1984 election witnessed the landslide reelection of Ronald Reagan over Democratic Senator Walter Mondale, it was a presidential campaign unprecedented in American history. Given the centrality of race to the historical development of the nation, one could argue that it was one of the remarkable campaigns in American history and one that was a turning point in the nation’s political history. In 1984, blacks demonstrated more independent political power than ever before. The wildly successful campaign of Jesse Jackson in the 1984 Democratic Party primaries upset the balance of American politics. One impact of this campaign, other than inspiring the new political partcipation of millions of African Americans, was to threaten to make American presidential elections more responsive to black interests. Political scientist Lorenzo Morris stressed the significance of the unprecedented level of enthusiasm with which African Americans, particularly those of the lower socioeconomic strata, greeted the Jackson quest for the presidency. The high black turnout in the primaries contrasted sharply with the more typically low turnout in the fall. The difference clearly was an illustration of the difference an African American candidate made. In the end, Jackson finished third in the campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. However, the longer-term implication of the 1984 campaign, by mobilizing voters for Jackson, impacted Senates races in Illinois, Tennessee and other states thereby preparing the way for the defeat of Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee Judge Robert Bork later.
Most troubling for the American establishment was that they began to feel the African American assertiveness in this area almost immediately as Jackson sought out opportunities to put this theory into practice. The dramatic release of U. S. Navy pilot, Lieutenant Robert O. Goodman, Jr., provided a boost for the credibility of the Jackson campaign. Jackson had decided that he had to “go get that boy.” after meeting with close advisors and friends.84 Jackson confidently went to “rescue” Goodman after many blacks became convinced that the Reagan administration was not taking an active interest in securing the release of the downed African American pilot. Later, traveling to the blockaded nation of Cuba, Jackson met with President Fidel Castro, and accompanied him to church, the first time the Cuban leader had been to church in seventeen years. As in Nicaragua, Jackson’s trip had the effect of bringing the Cuban government closer to the nation’s religious leaders. Jackson’s diplomacy won an agreement to release forty-eight prisoners held in Cuban jails suggesting that the Reagan administration policy of hostility to Cuban was a wrong-headed approach to relations with a neighboring country. To President Ronald Reagan’s profound embarassment, he grudgingly met in January 1984 with Jesse Jackson and the freed Lieutenant Robert O. Goodman, Jr. at the White House.
Criticizing the U. S. invasion of Grenada as a convenient smokescreen to cover over the policy disaster leading to the bombing of the Marine base in Lebanon bombing that left 241 soldiers dead in Lebanon, the Jackson’s campaign’s thoroughgoing critique of United States’ foreign policy knew no boundaries. Yet, this thrust was soon overshadowed by a media-fanned controversy over the charges of anti-Semitism leveled at Jesse Jackson. After Jackson’s January 1984 remarks referring to New York City as “Hymietown” became known to the public, it proved to be a persistent problem for his candidacy. The ignoring of Jackson’s request for an off-the-record discussion by Washington Post reporter Milton Coleman, an African American, led to the revelation that Jackson had slandered Jews in private. Jackson formally apologized in late February 1984 at a synagogue in New Hampshire before an assembly of the Jewish American elite. Jackson attempted to soothe their sensibilities by saying that he had been “thoughtless” and that his comments were not said “in a spirit of meanness,” it being “an off-color remark having no bearing on religion or politics.” Despite this apology, the media was slow to allow the public to forget it.
The new 1988 Super Tuesday election day, featuring twenty races across the South was the setting for a stunning triumph by the Jackson-led forces. Designed by conservative southern Democrats to foster a rightward thrust of the party, their strategy was ripped to shreds by the unanticipated insurgency represented by the Rainbow Coalition. Jackson won a total of 91 percent of the African American vote and the most popular votes of any candidate on Super Tuesday. The momentum of the Jackson campaign continued with strong showings in several states including Illinois and Michigan.
The historic significance of Jackson’s 1988 speech at the Democratic National Convention was, in part, due to its reflection of the heightened power of blacks in presidential politics. From a voiceless group trampled upon by both major American political parties, African Americans rose to a new level of political sophistication as a force able to articulate an agenda at a major national party convention and engage in a frank critique of both the president and the two principal political parties. Jesse Jackson’s use of his own life as a metaphor for the long struggle of African Americans to political power was perhaps the most moving aspect of the sage of his two campaigns for the presidency.
Eyes grew moist as Jackson hammered home his themes in the powerful oratorical tradition of the African American minister-politician. Jackson recounted how he himself was “born to a teenage mother” who “was not supposed to make it.”:
I know abandonment and people being mean to you, and saying you're nothing and nobody, and can never be anything. I understand. Jesse Jackson is my third name. I’m adopted. When I had no name, my grandmother gave me her name. My name was Jesse Burns until I was 12. So I wouldn’t have a blank space, she gave me a name to hold me over. I understand when you have no name. I understand.
I wasn’t born in the hospital. Mama didn’t have insurance. I was born in the bed at home. I really do understand. Born in a three-room house, bathroom in the backyard, slop jar by the bed, no hot and cold running water. I understand. Wallpaper used for decoration? No. For a windbreaker. I understand. . .
Every one of these funny labels they put on you, those of you who are watching this broadcast tonight in the projects, on the corners, I understand. Call you outcast, low-down, you can’t make it, you’re nothing, you’re from nobody, subclass, underclass--when you see Jesse Jackson, when my name goes in nomination, your name goes in nomination.
While Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts won the Democratic nomination, African America resonated with Jackson’s admonition to “keep hope alive.” After all, testifying to the character of African Americans, “suffering breeds character” and “character breeds faith” and, ultimately, “faith will not disappoint.”
For many observers, however, the bland weak character of the Democratic nominee Dukakis contrasted so sharply with Jackson’s energy and dynamism it seemed to call the whole legitimacy of the process into question. Not surprisingly, since Jackson’s mere presence seemed to diminish Dukakis’s stature, he sought to minimize Jackson’s involvement.
©Christopher Brian Booker, 2014.