The 1984 presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson represented a new stage of development in Afro-Americans’ struggle for equality in the context of us bourgeois democracy. Even white American political analysts unsympathetic with the Jackson campaign recognized this, and groped for words to define Jackson’s achievement. After Jackson received 26 per cent of the New York Democratic primary vote, Theodore White suggested that the Black candidate had emerged ‘as a major historical figure . . . a trail-blazer of the dimensions of (Martin Luther King). There is no doubt that henceforth there will always be a black candidate as an independent force in national Democratic politics, and American politics will never be the same.’footnote1 The essence of the Jackson campaign was a democratic, anti-racist social movement, initiated and led by Afro-Americans, which had assumed an electoral mode. Its direct historical antecedents—the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–56, the formation of sncc and the sit-in movement of 1960, the Birmingham desegregation campaign of 1963, and the Selma, Alabama march of 1965—were revived in a new protest form within bourgeois-democratic politics. The roots of this electoral political mobilization were developed in the ambiguous terrain of national Democratic Party politics, with the collapse of legal Jim Crow and the numerical expansion of Black elected officials in the 1960s and 1970s. The unprecedented Black revolt against the Democratic Party within the primaries showed that the Afro-American social fraction, including much of the Black petty bourgeoisie, represents the vanguard of a nascent left alternative in the political culture of capitalist America: but simultaneously, the assertion of Black electoral power led to an increase in ethnic confrontations, and the ‘melting pot’ myth was shattered in the bitter and escalating conflict between the American Black and Jewish communities.

Until three decades ago, Blacks played no substantial role in us presidential politics. In 1952, about 60 per cent of all Afro-Americans had never voted for president, and more than three-fourths of all Southern Blacks had never participated in a presidential election. Various segregation laws, such as whites-only Democratic primaries, poll taxes and literacy tests effectively disenfranchised the bulk of the Afro-American electorate. Nevertheless, the political affiliation of Blacks swung sharply from the Republican to the Democratic party during the Roosevelt administration, and partisan socialization increased with the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. By 1956 about 70 per cent of all Blacks who identified politically with one of the two major bourgeois parties were Democrats. From 1964 and thereafter, this proportion of Black Democratic identification never fell below 90 per cent. In 1968, for example, the figure was 98 per cent.footnote2 Throughout this period of political transition, Afro-American voters became an increasingly important electoral bloc in presidential races. As early as 1944, solid Black support for Roosevelt in at least eight states, including Michigan and Maryland, permitted the Democratic incumbent to overcome small white majorities for Republican Thomas Dewey in these states. In three presidential elections since World War Two, the Black vote has been the critical ‘balance of power’.footnote3 In 1948, Black voters gave Missouri Democrat Harry S. Truman his upset victory over Dewey. As political scientist Hanes Walton notes: ‘Truman could not have won without it. He received it because of his civil rights speech at the beginning of the campaign: he never mentioned the issue again until the end of his campaign in Harlem.’footnote4 In the presidential election of 1960, Republican Vice-President Richard Nixon was heavily favoured over John F. Kennedy. As Piven and Cloward observe, ‘Kennedy made a vigorous appeal to the Black vote in the industrial states by campaigning on strong pledges to deal with civil rights and poverty . . . And, although Black scepticism toward the Democratic Party persisted,’ the Massachusetts Democrat received between 69 and 77 per cent of the national Black vote.footnote5 In seven states, including Pennsylvania, Texas, Michigan and Illinois, the Afro-American vote was larger than Kennedy’s overall margin of victory. Sixteen years later, an obscure one-term Georgia Democratic governor, Jimmy Carter, became the first president from the Deep South to be elected since 1848. In more than thirteen states, including Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and Mississippi, the Black electorate provided the margin of victory. Ninety to ninety-three per cent of all Black voters had supported Carter, giving some political observers the faulty impression that Blacks were now ‘full partners in the nation’s policy-making franchise’.footnote6

Effective bloc voting for white capitalist candidates certainly shaped the results of these presidential elections, but it did not represent any meaningful increase in Black political power. Once elected, Truman issued an executive order banning racial segregation in the armed forces, and initiated fair employment procedures for federal agencies, but he did not break the power of the segregationist South in Congress, nor did he support blacks’ voting rights. During Kennedy’s first two years in office, he ‘issued a mild executive order banning discrimination in federally-financed housing’, but did nothing directly to assist the civil rights social movement.footnote7 Carter proved to be the greatest disappointment for Blacks. His administration ended the creation of new programmes in human services areas; increased defence spending to all-time highs; and vowed to ‘cut inflation and to stimulate the business sector’ at the price of higher unemployment. By late summer 1977, Black Congressman Parren Mitchell, naacp leader Benjamin Hooks, Urban League director Vernon Jordan, and Jesse Jackson, all of whom had campaigned aggressively for Carter, charged the administration with ‘callous neglect’. Richard Hatcher, the Black mayor of Gary, Indiana, admitted: ‘Now it’s difficult for any Black leader who pushed the election of Jimmy Carter to face the people he campaigned with.’footnote8 Blacks had acquired the political leverage to alter national elections whenever the white electorate was closely divided, but Democratic presidents usually ignored the policies of Black elected officials and civil rights leaders who had helped to put them into office.

The inability of Black petty-bourgeois leaders to force some level of accountability from white Democratic presidents to Black voters’ interests created the political space for various Black third-party presidential challenges. In 1960, for example, the Reverend Clennon King and Reginald Carter announced their candidacies for president and vice-president representing the newly-formed Afro-American Party, which quickly died for lack of Black support.footnote9 Usually Black presidential candidates ran on socialist or left-liberal party tickets which rested on multinational coalitions. In 1964, Black activist Clifton DeBerry ran for president on the Socialist Workers Party ticket. But confronted with the possibility of right-wing demagogue Barry Goldwater as the Republican candidate, virtually all of the American left, including the Communist Party, the Students for a Democratic Society, and the Social Democrats, united behind Democrat Lyndon Johnson. The Black vote for Johnson in most states exceeded 99 per cent.footnote10 In 1968 several Black national candidates emerged. Charlene Mitchell became the first Afro-American woman to run for president, as the nominee of the Communist Party. The Socialist Workers Party selected Newark, New Jersey organizer Paul Boutelle as its vice-presidential candidate. Eldridge Cleaver, author of the rambling polemic, Soul on Ice, and Minister of Information of the Black Panther Party, ran as the candidate of the anti-racist Peace and Freedom Party—whose primary base was the radical, white petty bourgeoisie and student movement in California. Cleaver was able to get on the ballot in over 19 states, and won nearly 200,000 votes. More quixotic was the campaign of cultural critic Dick Gregory, who had lost the Peace and Freedom Party’s nomination to Cleaver. In his campaign, Gregory distributed ‘money-size bills bearing his picture and a dove instead of George Washington and an eagle’. Although these ‘handbills were seized when several found their way into automatic money changers’, Gregory’s combination of wit and panache garnered almost 150,000 votes.footnote11 However, the vast majority of the Black social fraction had little or nothing to do with these left-wing or protest mobilizations against the two-party system. Even in 1972, at the height of Black nationalist dominance of Afro-American political culture, only 35 per cent of Black voters supported the idea of an all-Black third party; and this figure declined by the end of the decade.footnote12 In that year, Julian Bond spoke for most Black activists in rejecting the viability of an independent electoral strategy. ‘It is not going to be possible for 11 per cent of the population, disorganized and scattered, to form a third party,’ Bond observed. At best, Blacks could ‘hold aloof’ from a Democratic presidential nominee in order ‘to extract important promises . . . Or to run our own candidate, a Black candidate, for President in states where such a candidacy could affect the outcome.’footnote13

The dilemma confronting Blacks and the left was quite simple. As Michael Parenti argues, ‘the two major parties cooperate in various strategems to maintain their monopoly over electoral politics and discourage the growth of radically oriented third parties.’ The Democrats, with an electoral base largely comprising workers and national minorities, but dominated by a fraction of the capitalist class, may advance social programmes more advantageous to the oppressed than those of the Republicans. But neither party ‘has much appetite for the risks of social changes; each helps to make the world safe for the other.’footnote14 If the centre of American political culture was to be moved toward the left, activists would have to intervene within the Democratic Party, and create the institutional presence necessary for translating their visionary agendas into actually existing public policies. The absence of even a social-democratic party in the usa led more radicals to view work within the Democratic Party as a question of tactics, instead of rejecting it on principle as in the classical Trotskyist conception. The Communist Party’s 1936 presidential campaign—as indeed its 1984 campaign—was largely a Popular Front-inspired effort to defeat the Republican rightist candidate and to elect the more liberal Democrat. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Blacks and the us left attempted, with varying degrees of success, to use the Democratic Party as a vehicle for progressive politics. In 1964, the Freedom Democratic Party, led by Fannie Lou Hamer and Lawrence Guyot, challenged the white racist machine in Mississippi.footnote15 In 1965, a group of white socialists in New York City created the Committee for Independent Political Action, which attempted to advance an anti-Vietnam war agenda within the Democratic Party primary elections. Radical trade unionist Stanley Aronowitz viewed the strategy as a means for ‘an independent political movement’ to attack the Democratic Party, as well as to ‘evolve into a third party.’ Revolutionaries who entered the Democratic Party could ‘put reform Democrats who are radicals programmatically on the spot’, while educating a mass audience.footnote16 In 1972–73 the Black Panther Party made an abrupt turn to electoral politics, and registered 30,000 new voters from working-class and poor Black neighbourhoods in the Democratic Party. Panther leaders Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown ran for mayor and city council, respectively, of Oakland, California on a platform emphasizing ‘the need to open the government up for public scrutiny, community control of the police . . . rent control and adequate public services.’ Seale astonished the Democratic Party establishment by finishing second in a field of six candidates. The Black voter turnout was a strong 63 per cent. The Panthers’ success, according to political theorist Rod Bush, ‘was decisive in breaking the dominance of the conservative white machine over Oakland politics.’ Four years later, the Panthers were instrumental in electing Black liberal judge Lionel Wilson as Oakland’s mayor.footnote17 The Democratic Party primaries and local apparatus could be used by progressives to push for liberal-left reforms. But at a national level in presidential politics, Bond argued, Blacks would have to unite with progressive whites ‘in a political coalition’ to address not simply civil rights issues, but women’s rights, ‘consumerism’, us foreign policy, and the environment.footnote18

With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the context emerged in which Black, Latino, and liberal-left white social forces began to coalesce. Reaganism represented a reaction against virtually every institutional achievement of national minority groups, women, and workers since the New Deal. In the area of civil rights, Reagan ‘openly trumpeted the demands of the extreme right wing and the powerful corporate interests that affirmative action be eliminated.’ The administration fought unsuccessfully to eliminate the extension of the Voting Rights Act.footnote19 Liberals were purged from the us Civil Rights Commission and other federal agencies created to protect national minority and women’s rights. Economically, Afro-Americans experienced staggeringly high rates of unemployment. Throughout 1982–83, official Black unemployment rates were between 19.5 and 21 per cent—and even above 30 per cent if one counts in ‘disregarded’ workers who had not applied for jobs within one month, and those workers involuntarily employed in part-time jobs. Black youth unemployment was above 80 per cent in most urban areas of the North and Midwest. Reagan’s response was to introduce a ‘sub-minimum wage bill’ for young workers, which would undercut jobs already held by union members and national minorities.footnote20 The general climate of high unemployment and right-wing political rhetoric fed a resurgence of vulgar racism within the national political culture. Speaking before the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice, Fauntroy declared that under Reagan ‘the American public has developed a scapegoat mentality that reflects itself in anti-Black feelings, directed at Blacks at all levels of life.’footnote21 And from the gutters of public life the Ku Klux Klan once again began to flourish under the benevolent aegis of Reaganism. The kkk initiated white-voter registration drives in Alabama and Georgia; ran openly for federal and state offices throughout the South; and revived its tradition of bombings, shotgun murders, and cross burnings. The Klan recognized that it represented the activist, vigilante wing of Reagan’s conservative social forces. It praised the new reactionary Civil Rights Commission as ‘the first positive move to free America of communism, affirmative action, rampant giveaway programmes, [and] forced busing.’ In early 1984 Bill Wilkinson, leader of the Invisible Empire faction of the kkk, endorsed Reagan for re-election, declaring ‘anytime you see all the Blacks and minorities in this country opposing, strongly, one man, you know he has got to be doing something good for the white race.’footnote22

Throughout much of 1983, with the mayoral campaign in Chicago of Harold Washington, a Black Democrat, and the national mobilization for the third March on Washington, dc, the left and the Afro-American social fraction debated the various electoral political options to attack Reaganism. Inspired by the recent successes of the Green parties in Western Europe, the California Peace and Freedom Party initiated a dialogue with the Citizens Party, Communist Party, Socialist Party, Workers World Party, and several smaller Leninist formations to create a united left campaign which could ‘pose an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans’. From the initial June 1983 discussions in Oakland, California, strategic differences divided the left. The Communist Party, which was heavily involved in both the Chicago campaign and the March on Washington, argued that working with Democratic liberals was a ‘tactical question—not a matter of absolute principle’. It doubted the ‘viability of a socialist campaign without a conscious working class’. The Citizens Party, internally divided, and the marginal Socialist Party, were already prone toward running their own symbolic national campaigns, and both viewed any intervention into the Democratic Party primaries with repugnance.footnote23 Most Black independent leftists recognized that a united left national campaign, even with an Afro-American presidential candidate, would attract virtually no support from the Black working class; and in principle, they endorsed a Black challenge within the 1984 Democratic primaries. But they emphasized that the central aim of such an effort would be to advance a comprehensive liberal-left agenda on domestic and international affairs. The individual candidate, as Boston radical Mel King asserted, was secondary to ‘the articulation of the issues’.footnote24