The recent Wall Street Project conference in New York City was old home week for many of us who were involved with Jesse Jackson’s first presidential campaign in 1984. There was Frank Watkins, the former candidate’s longtime press secretary and the driving force behind Jackson’s decision to run. Also present were Emma Chappell, the campaign’s national treasurer; Rev. Herb Daughtry, senior pastor of The House of the Lord Church in Brooklyn and an early supporter; economist Julianne Malveaux, who worked in Jackson’s presidential campaigns and four key parts of the 1984 rainbow – Jim Zogby, Butch Wing, Steve Cobble and Robert Borosage. Former Louisiana Congressman Cleo Fields shared memories as did former New York City Mayor David Dinkins.
I was asked to moderate a discussion about the impact of the 1984 campaign on the nation and, yes, an African American now sitting in the White House. I covered Jackson’s first presidential run while working for the Chicago Tribune. I knew most of the major players, but it wasn’t until we sat down as a group with Jesse Jackson that we had collectively reflected on the historic events of three decades ago.
Cleo Fields recounted what the campaign meant to him in deeply personal terms.
“When I was in the fifth grade, I was going through a lot of depression,” Fields said. “The first day of school you had to state your name and what you wanted to be in the future. At the time, I wanted to be a police officer, but everyone before me had said doctor, lawyer or engineer. My mom had 10 children, my daddy had died and I had hand-me-downs.
“I stood up – I wanted to say something bigger than everyone else – so I said, ‘My name is Cleo Fields and I want to be (and the only thing I could think of was president) president of the United States of America.’ Everybody laughed, including the teacher. I didn’t want to go back to school because they thought it was a big joke and I was depressed about it.”
Two years later, Fields was present in the audience when Jackson asked students to repeat his trademark “I am Somebody” exhortation.
“It was at that moment that I started believing I can be anything I wanted to be,” Fields said. “I became a state senator at the age of 23. And that was because of Jesse Jackson. And a congressman at the age of 28. I became the Democratic nominee for governor at the age of 33. And that’s only because of the inspiration from Rev. Jesse Jackson and I just want to say thank you.”
While working as a student organizer for Jackson, Fields was invited to join Jackson’s national staff.
Jackson’s presidential runs also represented a breakthrough for James J. Zogby, an Arab-American.
“For me and my community, what was historic about this was it brought together two parts of my life,” he said. “I had always been involved in civil rights and anti-war work. But when you became an Arab, when you put on the Arab hat, then allies you had in those movements wouldn’t talk to you anymore.”
Zogby told of politicians, including former Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode, returning campaign contributions donated by Arab-American groups.
“He [Jackson[ said, ‘Our time has come.’ It was my community’s time, too. We felt welcome and included for the first time in an American political campaign.”
David Dinkins, New York City’s first Black mayor, said he would not have been elected without the ’84 presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson. He said, “I know what Jesse did for me.”
Frank Watkins, the former press secretary, had urged Jackson to run for president against Jimmy Carter in 1979, but Jackson declined. But this time around, Jackson was willing to listen.
“I wrote a memo outlining the reasons for Rev. Jackson to run: increase voter registration, to increase political awareness of people and to galvanize the Black community to get more involved in politics,” Watkins remembered of his 1982 document. “I didn’t necessarily think that we would win, but I tried to put together a strategy where we could win.”
Jackson said a number of Black leaders were urged to run before he made his decision to enter the contest, including former Atlanta mayors Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young. When they declined, Jackson stepped forward.
“It really was not running for office, I was running as an organization,” Jackson stated. “…We kept trying to pull the party back to the moral center, which we called the Third Rail. What became clear was that civil rights, social justice, gender equality, workers’ rights were not on the agenda. Somebody had to get to the stage to get the cameras to hear us. We had no platform on which to stand to make our case. In the end, that was driving the situation.”
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook.