Jackson Becomes the First Major Black Candidate for U.S. President Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Jesse Jackson’s campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination brought issues of minority rights to the forefront of American politics.

Summary of Event

The society of the United States in the 1980’s reflected a history of distinctly different opportunities for African Americans and white Americans. African Americans had endured slavery and even after emancipation had experienced discrimination in education, housing, employment, voting rights, and other aspects of social life. Throughout World War II, black soldiers fought for the “double V,” meaning victory against enemies of the United States abroad and victory against racial oppression within American society. President Harry S. Truman Truman, Harry S. integrated the U.S. armed forces in 1948, and by 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court had declared, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) that “separate but equal” schools were inherently unequal and thus unconstitutional. African Americans;politicians and judges Presidential elections, U.S.;1984 Elections;U.S. [kw]Jackson Becomes the First Major Black Candidate for U.S. President (Nov. 3, 1983) [kw]First Major Black Candidate for U.S. President, Jackson Becomes the (Nov. 3, 1983) [kw]Black Candidate for U.S. President, Jackson Becomes the First Major (Nov. 3, 1983) [kw]Candidate for U.S. President, Jackson Becomes the First Major Black (Nov. 3, 1983) [kw]U.S. President, Jackson Becomes the First Major Black Candidate for (Nov. 3, 1983) [kw]President, Jackson Becomes the First Major Black Candidate for U.S. (Nov. 3, 1983) African Americans;politicians and judges Presidential elections, U.S.;1984 Elections;U.S. [g]North America;Nov. 3, 1983: Jackson Becomes the First Major Black Candidate for U.S. President[05290] [g]United States;Nov. 3, 1983: Jackson Becomes the First Major Black Candidate for U.S. President[05290] [c]Government and politics;Nov. 3, 1983: Jackson Becomes the First Major Black Candidate for U.S. President[05290] [c]Social issues and reform;Nov. 3, 1983: Jackson Becomes the First Major Black Candidate for U.S. President[05290] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Nov. 3, 1983: Jackson Becomes the First Major Black Candidate for U.S. President[05290] Jackson, Jesse [p]Jackson, Jesse;presidential candidacy Mondale, Walter Ferraro, Geraldine King, Martin Luther, Jr. King, Coretta Scott Reagan, Ronald [p]Reagan, Ronald;presidential elections

Rising expectations gave birth to the Civil Rights movement in the United States, Civil Rights movement in which the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., played a key leadership role. Defeating racial segregation was the highest priority of the Civil Rights movement. Civil rights workers, both black and white, were beaten, imprisoned, and killed during this struggle, but peaceful demonstrations, sit-ins, and boycotts were the main tactics used to achieve the movement’s goals. After King was assassinated in 1968, his supporters, among them Jesse Jackson, continued his work and carried the fight for racial equality into the political arena. Militant African American leaders, such as Malcolm X, predicted that equality would be won either by the ballot or by the bullet.

Many African Americans viewed political power as the key to racial equality. In 1971, Jackson ran for mayor of Chicago against the powerful incumbent, Mayor Richard J. Daley. Daley, Richard J. Jackson lost the election but managed, on a technicality, to unseat Daley’s delegation to the 1972 Democratic Convention. Jackson then tried to organize a “Liberation Party,” formed of blacks and liberal whites, to elect a black president. When Democratic congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, Chisholm, Shirley an African American, declared her candidacy for the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency but lost to George McGovern, McGovern, George Jackson’s effort to run a black for president as the Liberation Party’s candidate was destroyed. Jackson gave McGovern his support but received little help for black causes from him.

In 1888, Republican abolitionist Frederick Douglass Douglass, Frederick became the first African American to be nominated by a major political party for president. His largely symbolic campaign unsuccessfully protested the rise of white supremacy and the resulting disenfranchisement and virtual reenslavement of millions of blacks following the Tilden-Hayes Compromise and the rise of rigid Jim Crow racial segregation in virtually all areas of life.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 Civil Rights Act of 1964 and affirmative action programs opened broader opportunities for millions of African Americans, and, as a result, the black middle class expanded considerably. Members of the black underclass, however, were little affected by these developments. They remained poorly educated, ill housed, underfed, and without proper medical care. In addition, white resentment of black gains led to a backlash heralded by charges of “reverse discrimination.” Reverse discrimination Attacks on programs designed to assist blacks became common. Jackson became convinced that the best way for him to combat these injustices would be to influence government policy by running for president.

Voter apathy had hurt African Americans politically. Jackson observed that during the 1980 presidential election, Ronald Reagan won Alabama by 17,500 votes, but there were 27,200 blacks in the state who were eligible to vote and yet were not registered. Reagan similarly won Arkansas by 5,000 votes, a state with 85,000 unregistered potential black voters. The story was common nationwide, and Jackson became convinced that Reagan had won with the support of a coalition of the rich and the registered. Jackson believed that if he ran for president, hundreds of thousands of unregistered blacks would register and vote for him. Jackson proclaimed that when more blacks registered, the hands that once picked cotton would pick the president.

Jesse Jackson in an interview on July 1, 1983.

(Library of Congress)

Some black leaders, such as Benjamin L. Hooks Hooks, Benjamin L. of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King, Jr., believed that Jackson’s presidential candidacy would split the Democratic vote, producing a white backlash at the polls. Jackson disagreed and declared that Dr. King had taught him to seize opportunities. Blacks were distressed by the erosion of past civil rights gains and by rapidly deteriorating conditions within black communities. Jackson planned to use the eighteen million eligible black American voters as a base on which to build a “coalition of the rejected.” This coalition would include the six million Latino, one-half million Native American, and forty million poor white voters as well as millions of female voters. Jackson called this the Rainbow Coalition. Rainbow Coalition He intended to include all who had formerly been excluded from the political process in a peaceful human rights revolution, using the ballot, not the bullet.

“Run, Jesse, run,” chanted encouraging crowds when Jackson formally announced his candidacy for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president on November 3, 1983. He was the first black male to undertake a serious attempt to win a presidential nomination from either the Democratic or the Republican Party. Those watching his candidacy predicted that, win or lose, increased voter registration would be one benefit Jackson would bring to the Democratic Party. Jackson electrified minority groups, and many thought that his candidacy signaled the long-sought fulfillment of the American dream of inclusion for all Americans. Jackson received overwhelming support from minority groups. More than 90 percent of the black clergy endorsed Jackson within two months after he announced his candidacy. They stated that this registered their discontent with Democratic candidates who had accepted the votes of black Americans but had done little to reciprocate that support after winning elections. Jackson’s campaign captured the imaginations of Puerto Ricans, white liberals, women, Native Americans, the unemployed, left-wing activists, and the poor.

Jackson had little money to mount a national campaign, and many white voters did not know what he stood for. Jackson called for arms reductions by the United States and the Soviet Union, removal of cruise missiles from Europe, normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba, an end to U.S. intervention in Central America, protection of U.S. industry from unfair foreign competition, and protection of U.S. jobs and small farms. He also called for increased spending for the domestic war against drugs and urban crime, improved education for American youth to make them more competitive in the international labor market, and the revitalization of the nation’s inner cities.

In December of 1983, a U.S. reconnaissance plane was shot down on a routine mission over Syria. The pilot was killed, and the navigator, Lieutenant Robert Goodman, Goodman, Robert was taken prisoner. When President Reagan failed to secure Goodman’s release, Jackson declared, “Whoever can act, should.” In an unprecedented move, he journeyed to Syria without official U.S. support to plead for Goodman’s release. After considerable discussion, President Hafez al-Assad of Syria released Goodman to Jackson’s custody. On their return, Jackson and Goodman were received with great fanfare by President Reagan at the White House. All of the publicity surrounding the case gave Jackson broad national media coverage, and most Americans subsequently recognized Jackson’s name and positively associated him with patriotic duty. This gave Jackson’s candidacy visibility it could not afford to buy. Critics argued that Jackson had interfered in the conduct of American foreign affairs, despite Reagan’s obvious pleasure with his success.

Jackson’s relations with the Arab and Third World nations were excellent. At the same time, two serious incidents cost him much of his support among Jewish voters. First, in an off-the-record comment to a reporter for The Washington Post, Jackson called New York City “Hymie Town,” causing many Jewish groups to accuse him of being anti-Semitic. Second, Jackson’s refusal to denounce Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan Farrakhan, Louis for referring to Judaism as a “gutter religion” added to Jewish voters’ fears.

At the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in July, 1984, Jackson secured approximately three hundred delegates. Walter Mondale, the Democratic Party’s front-runner, had two hundred black delegates who supported him, and this eroded Jackson’s bargaining power. Mondale won the party’s presidential nomination, and Geraldine Ferraro won the vice presidential nomination. Jackson gave this ticket his support, but the Democrats were ultimately defeated by the incumbent, Ronald Reagan.

Jackson ran a stronger campaign in 1988, but he again failed to capture the Democratic Party’s nomination. He remained, however, a source of hope and inspiration for millions of minority group members and poor Americans. He encouraged them to struggle for personal excellence and full human rights through the fulfillment of the promises contained in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.


Jesse Jackson’s candidacy undoubtedly contributed to the large black voter turnout in the 1984 election. An estimated three million blacks voted in the Democratic primaries, and Mondale received more than ten million votes from African Americans in the general election almost 90 percent of the available black votes. These statistics provide evidence that Jackson’s candidacy captured the hearts and minds of millions of neglected citizens. Jackson dramatically increased black voter registration as well as active minority voting, with the result that African Americans gained bargaining power and leverage.

Jackson’s bid for nomination as the Democratic Party’s 1984 presidential candidate moved African Americans and other minorities closer to the realization of self-determination. Jackson symbolized black efforts to achieve equity and parity in all areas of American life. His campaign forced the United States to address issues of concern to blacks, such as social justice, in the form of equal legal protection of civil rights; economic justice, in the form of workers’ rights and the restoration of jobs for Americans; and political justice, in the form of freedom of assembly and proportional representation, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion.

Jackson’s campaign informed millions of Americans that blacks had long been living with limited constitutional or legal protection. He noted that the U.S. Supreme Court, in the 1856 case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, had declared that blacks “had no rights which a white man must respect,” and in 1896, in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court had legally established the principle that “separate but equal” and apartheid color caste systems were the law. Although the Brown v. Board of Education decision subsequently reversed the Plessy decision and the Civil Rights movement had made some gains, Jackson pointed out to all Americans that the United States was still a nation divided by race, gender, and class barriers. Emotionally loaded terms such as “reverse discrimination” and “preferential treatment,” he warned, had been used to slow or halt desegregation efforts.

Although progress had been made and most forms of overt racial segregation and injustice had been eliminated, obvious differences persisted. There was still one white attorney for every 680 whites and one black attorney for every 4,000 blacks; one white physician for every 649 whites and one black physician for every 5,000 blacks; and one white dentist for every 1,900 whites and one black dentist for every 8,400 blacks. Less than 1 percent of all engineers, chemists, physicists, and geologists were black. Even more surprising, at that time less than 1 percent of all elected and appointed officials were black, even though a few mayors of large cities served as very visible signs of political progress. The U.S. Senate had no black members, and only one state had a black governor, even after more than two decades of affirmative action.

Jackson pointed out that, in New York City, it cost more than $40,000 a year to keep a person in jail. For less than $20,000, that person could attend college for four years, then graduate, work, pay taxes, and help society. Jackson asked why more black men were in prison than in college in the United States. He asked the nation to develop a new focus and a new set of national priorities that would ensure that all Americans would enjoy a full measure of human rights. He declared that high-quality health care, housing, education, and jobs are all human rights, not privileges, and he asked that all concerned people demand that these rights be universally available for Americans. Jackson urged the United States to put human needs ahead of military needs, especially in the post-Cold War era.

When Jesse Jackson declared his candidacy on November 3, 1983, in Washington, D.C., most experts believed that he was doomed to fail. He did not succeed in gaining the nomination, but his candidacy was taken seriously: He won 21 percent of the total Democratic primary votes and 11 percent of all the Democratic convention delegates in San Francisco. In his 1988 bid for the nomination, he finished second only to Michael Dukakis. Dukakis, Michael His image had changed so dramatically during this brief time span that some analysts believed he was the most qualified Democratic candidate in 1988. African Americans;politicians and judges Presidential elections, U.S.;1984 Elections;U.S.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barker, Lucius, and Ronald Walters, eds. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 Presidential Campaign. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989. Excellent collection of scholarly essays analyzes Jackson’s contest, his constituents, the voters, the convention, and Jackson’s impact on American politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Colton, Elizabeth. The Jackson Phenomenon. New York: Doubleday, 1989. Jackson’s former press secretary provides an insider’s view of Jackson’s campaign for the U.S. presidency.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Faw, Bob, and Nancy Skelton. Thunder in America. Austin: Texas Monthly Press, 1986. Balanced, somewhat critical account of Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential candidacy, from a journalistic perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frady, Marshall. Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson. New York: Random House, 1996. Sympathetic but balanced biography provides a comprehensive examination of Jackson’s life and political career. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hatch, Roger D. Beyond Opportunity: Jesse Jackson’s Vision for America. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988. Attempts to describe Jackson’s vision for a new America where blacks can move beyond mere survival to prosperity and success within a democratic-capitalistic framework. Emphasizes human rights issues and discusses controversies associated with Jackson.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jackson, Jesse L. Straight from the Heart. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987. Collection of Jackson’s speeches emphasizes his basic belief that “right is might.” Provides information on his views on race, peace, corporate culture, and human rights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McKissack, Pat. Jesse Jackson: A Biography. New York: Scholastic, 1989. Presents Jackson as an irrepressible idealist who refused to let assassination threats stop him. A story of courage and bravery aimed at young readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reynolds, Barbara A. Jesse Jackson: The Man, the Movement, the Myth. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1975. One of the earliest full biographies of Jackson discusses his relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr., Operation Breadbasket’s attempt to develop jobs for blacks, and Operation PUSH’s efforts to create minority businesses and inspire black children to excel in school.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stanford, Karin L. Beyond the Boundaries: Reverend Jesse Jackson in International Affairs. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. Focuses on Jackson’s diplomatic efforts in various parts of the world, both during and after his presidential campaigns.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilkinson, Brenda. Jesse Jackson: Still Fighting for the Dream. Morristown, N.J.: Silver Burdett Press, 1990. Biography intended for young readers covers Jackson’s life and achievements well.

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Categories: History