On the Road to Find Out: My Journey in the JJ’84 & ’88 Presidential Campaigns
by Eddie Wong. Posted Aug. 2, 2023.
Introduction: On July 14 and 15, 2023 over 100 Jesse Jackson campaign staff, volunteers and delegates gathered in Chicago for the 35th anniversary of Jackson’s historic 1988 campaign. Over a dozen speakers shared their remembrances of the campaigns, especially commenting on how the 1984 and 1988 campaigns set them on a lifelong path towards social justice work. Many of us plan to write first-person accounts of those campaigns that took place in an era before the Internet or cell phones. The following essay is a quick overview of what I experienced. We continue to battle forces, then and now, that would take our country backwards in terms of civil rights, women’s rights, and workers’ rights. Once more, we must unite the many, for we truly are the progressive majority, against the few.
Rev. Jesse Jackson with Tracy Takano, JJ’88 co-chair in Hawaii, and May Louie, JJ’88 New England Coordinator and Chair of the Boston Rainbow Coalition at JJ’84 & ’88 Reunion, July 15, 2023. Photo by Eddie Wong.
I had the privilege of working in the 1984 and 1988 Jackson for President campaigns. As I think back nearly 40 years later, the arc bridging the two campaigns is discovery. The U.S. is always reconstructing itself and rediscovering its basic values. At the same time, people were discovering Jesse Jackson. Most people had never encountered this unique figure, a preacher/politician/activist with spellbinding oratory and a sense of joy as he implored people to make America better. He wanted nothing less than to bring those who were on the margins – poor people, farmers, people of color, students, workers – into the mainstream and to empower all of us.
As Jackson’s “Southern Crusade” rolled across the South in 1983 registering 2 million new voters, the chant “Run, Jesse, Run” resounded across the nation. Familiar with Jackson as a cultural figure (who can forget that glorious Fro in Wattstax) and as Black civil rights leader, I wondered what was Jesse up to now? In the early 1970s, Jesse Jackson’s battle cry was “Nation Time,” which was adopted from Amiri Baraka with whom he worked as co-chair of the 1972 National Black Assembly. In 1983, the new chant “I Am Somebody” accompanied “hands that once picked cotton can now pick a president.” Self-actualization melded into political empowerment.
It was a message that resonated among key Black ministers in San Francisco : Rev. Amos Brown, born in Jackson, MS; Rev. Howard Gloyd, born in Houston, TX, and Rev. Cecil Williams, born in San Angelo, TX. Rev. Williams, who led the multi-racial, “hippie” Glide Memorial Methodist Church in downtown San Francisco, initiated mass meetings where people poured out their feelings about Jesse’s campaign. I was in that crowd and spoke about why Asian Americans needed to part of the Rainbow Coalition. I don’t remember what I said, but it seemed to impress Rev. Williams, who offered me a job coordinating field operations under campaign manager Charles Austin.
I quit my job as the outreach/PR person for a foster care agency and set up our office in the Fillmore District. With little money but a lot of volunteers, we knew we could win San Francisco, which was primed for a Jesse Jackson candidacy. SF was known for its history of anti-Vietnam War activism, Black Panther Party organizing, progressive labor unions and a strong student movement. Although African Americans were only 13% of the city’s population, they were at the forefront of advocacy for job opportunities for minorities in the public sector and private industries. The Black community took the lead in the JJ’84 campaign, but others would soon follow.
Jackson’s candidacy sparked enthusiastic support among Black youth, who were too young to be part of the fabled Civil Rights Movement. They were now discovering the next chapter in the battle for full democracy, economic equality, and political power. And as the Rainbow Coalition, we were discovering the common ties among diverse ethnic groups and constituencies – Chinese, Arab Americans, Latinos, gays and lesbians, environmentalists, peace and anti-US intervention activists, union members, and more. Jackson’s call for nuclear disarmament, negotiations for world peace rather than increasing the arms race, and new investments to lift people of all races out of poverty offered a stark contrast to mealy-mouth Democrats. The Democratic Party always wanted our votes but not our voices at the decision-making table. The Jackson campaign offered a new, progressive challenge to the Democrats and to the Reagan Republicans.
Enthusiasm kept building, creating demands for Jesse to be EVERYWHERE. He initiated an eight to ten events per day schedule that took him from breakfast meeting with clergy and labor to midnight talks with youth in housing projects. But that schedule had a price. One morning, I went to brief Rev. Jackson on the events of the day. He waved to me to come closer and croaked,” I can’t go to the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) this morning. I’ve lost my voice. Go represent me.” The early morning rally was one hour away and none of the campaign leaders were around, so with great dread, I approached the cavernous ILWU hall and entered the dispatch booth, which is surrounded by a chain link fence, surely not a good sign. I opened with “I’m so sorry to tell you that Rev. Jackson will not be able to be with you this morning.” The boos came fast and hard, disappointment curling into smokey anger. “WTF, where’s Jesse?” They must have thought he dissed them by going somewhere else. I quickly jumped in, “He can’t come to today because he’s lost his voice.” I lamely recounted the multiple speeches he made the previous day and ended with “he seemed really excited to see you when I dropped him off at the hotel at midnight.” That seemed to help a little. But the disgruntled buzzing didn’t stop. The workers had laid out a table of doughnuts, pastries, and fruit; someone even baked a cake for Jesse. I don’t know what possessed me, but I then announced, “And Rev. Jackson promises to return to speak with you in one month.” A big cheer went up. It was, of course, a promise fabricated out of thin air because not even Jesse knew where he was going to be in a month. Miraculously, things worked out so that one month to the day, Rev. Jackson came to the ILWU hall and left them stomping and cheering.
People’s willingness to embrace Rev. Jackson’s message was in part due to his persona. He was the total package: deeply analytic, inspiring with a hopeful message, humorous, witty, and down-to-earth. He wasn’t a politician as much as he was a teacher, conducting his campaign as critiques of the status quo by walking picket lines, staying overnight at homes of farmers and housing project residents and visiting health centers and AIDS clinics. There were photos ops at all these stops, but he also provided a platform for those whom he stayed with to articulate their issues.
The ’84 campaign was also a point of discovery for Jackson. Asian American activists such as Ying Lee Kelly, who had served on the Berkeley City Council, Butch Wing, Mabel Teng and Mike Murase talked with Rev. Jackson about the Vincent Chin case, the World War II internment of Japanese Americans, and the poor living and working conditions of Chinatown residents. Jesse took mental notes and wove this new information into his speeches.
Just as we were discovering this new concept, the Rainbow Coalition, people were discovering that Jesse Jackson was an internationalist, a world citizen, comfortable anywhere in the world. He addressed foreign and domestic issues and drawing out the links between economic justice at home and peace abroad. In January 1984, Rev. Jackson’s negotiations with Syrian leaders freed downed Navy pilot Lt. James Goodwin. This ground-breaking act of citizen diplomacy was widely criticized by the political establishment, but it showed the political skills, personal charm, and astute ability of Rev. Jackson to work with world leaders. He would later travel to Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Cuba on a fact-finding mission and to decry the escalation of tensions that could lead to another Vietnam-type war in Central America. Most importantly, Jackson arrived home with 22 Americans and 16 Cubans who were released from prison by Cuban President Fidel Castro as a gesture of goodwill towards the American people. No one had ever achieved what Rev. Jackson did through moral persuasion. Each of these acts, although taking place far from San Francisco, hit home. We were doing our part in the greater cause of this magnificent campaign that was educating the public with a broader view of foreign and domestic policy.
Even after the Democratic primaries ended, Jackson continued to campaign for social justice, mounting a huge march at the U.S./Mexico border in July 1984. Leading marchers across the border, Jackson spoke of the need to defeat the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill and called for the withdrawal of US troops from Central America. Jackson marched with students from MEChA, Latino leaders, labor union activists, and peace and non-intervention activists.
Two weeks later, thousands of Jackson supporters led by SEIU Local 250 kicked off the start of the Democratic National Convention with a march down Market St.
I was not at Moscone Center when Rev. Jackson delivered his impassioned appeal for a just America, a Rainbow Nation. Someone had to stay back at the office, and I drew that unlucky straw. But the power of his words leapt across the screen into living rooms all across the country. Jesse Jackson was far more than a politician; he was moral leader, and the campaign was indeed a crusade for the U.S. to deliver on its unfulfilled promises of liberty and justice for all.
The 1984 campaign in San Francisco brought people together. I’ll never forget working with the elderly Black women who were the backbone of the African American churches or the street folks in the Fillmore who would drop by the office to volunteer a little and talk a lot. The scene was warm and friendly and it with great generosity that African Americans, who wanted to be at Jesse’s side, made room for others.
SEIU Local 250 Nurses and Hospital Workers Union in SF leads large labor march on Market St. on opening day of the 1984 Democratic National Convention. Photo courtesy of Unity Archive.
After the 1984 campaign ended, I worked on several local campaigns including Wilson Riles, Jr. bid for Oakland Mayor and the re-election campaign for Rep. Ron Dellums. I also helped bring Rev. Jackson to Watsonville in June 1986 for a rally attended by thousands of Mexicano and Chicano striking cannery workers and their families. Over the years, I continued to do advance work when Rev. Jackson came to California for marches, rallies, and speaking appearances.
By 1987, there was no question that Rev. Jackson was going to make a second run for the presidency. I decided to move to Washington, D.C. to volunteer for the Jackson Exploratory Committee and quickly discovered that there was only a handful of staff gearing up for what we all knew was going to be a monumental campaign. I began working with Steve Cobble, the delegate coordinator, to target Congressional districts where Jackson could win delegates. After a month, I was appointed National Field Director by Campaign Chairman Richard Hatcher.
Although the media focused on which candidate was winning states and generating the big “mo,” this Democratic primary was going down to the wire with several major candidates dividing up the vote. A concentrated effort to win Jackson delegates could lead us into the convention as the nominee. The divided vote theory didn’t pan out as major candidates such as Rep. Dick Gephardt, Sen. Gary Hart, Sen. Paul Simon, and Sen. Al Gore flamed out, leaving it a Dukakis/Jackson contest. Jackson won nearly 7 million votes, coming first in seven primaries and four caucuses, and placed second to Democratic presidential nominee Gov. Michael Dukakis.
The 1988 Jesse Jackson for President campaign was a bigger, better organized, better funded version of the 1984 campaign. It was, however, still a crusade more than a campaign. Certainly, Jackson wanted to win the nomination, but the path to victory was always going to be difficult and after Jackson won the Michigan caucus and led in the delegate count, the Democratic Party establishment mustered its forces to stop Jesse. The media, which always loves to build up and then destroy a rising star, harped on the futility of Jackson’s efforts. They didn’t understand that the campaign was bigger than one election. Jackson’s goal was to expand the electorate and pave the way for future progressive victories at the local, state, and federal level. And that’s exactly what happened as a new generation of Black activists and progressives ran for local office. Without a Jackson for President campaign, there would not have been a Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Sen. Carol Mosely Braun, a Gov. Doug Wilder or new Black mayors in New York, Denver and Seattle.
We were moving at light speed with important contests every few weeks. The pace was even quicker than in 1984 with the introduction of Super Tuesday, and change was in the air. Expanding the level of support among white people was possible. Jackson had rallied with Perry Wilson as the bank foreclosed on his Plattsburg, MO farm in April 1985. He also came to the aid of Jim Langman who was about to lose his 480 acre farm west of Glenwood, Minnesota in May 1985. Jackson led 140 mile motorcade to the state Capitol to ask legislators to adopt a one-year moratorium on farm foreclosures. To the amazement of the media, Jackson was welcomed by hundreds of white farmers and supporters in the small town of Greenfield, Iowa on Oct. 10, 1987. For a time, this was the national office of the Jackson ’88 campaign. Busloads of volunteers came from Chicago to canvass precincts with local residents in Iowa’s tri-city area (Davenport, Rock Island and Moline). White supporters in Iowa sent a message to the rural communities in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Missiouri that Jackson was a champion for white working people and farmers and a man who put action behind his words.
I went to Iowa several times in January 1988. Unlike other campaigns which housed their workers in hotels, Jackson staffers and volunteers stayed in church gyms or in a local supporter’s home. I’ll never the forget the hospitality of the families who gave us a warm bed, a roof over our heads, and the full-on Midwestern breakfast every morning: eggs, ham, bacon, toast, hash browns, coffee, and juice.
Rev. Jesse Jackson in Greenfield, IA, Oct. 10, 1987.
I’ll never forget being with Rev. Jackson at an early morning rally at a parking lot where striking meatpackers and their families had gathered. It was freezing cold. When we exhaled, tiny clouds of condensation swirled around us. Everyone stamped their feet on the frozen ground trying to stay warm. The Sioux City strikers had held out for months seeking a wage increase and safer working conditions. The strike had taken its toll as once proud wage earners were subsisting on donated food. Cognizant of their dire straits, Rev. Jackson encouraged them to stay strong for there was redemption in their suffering. He told them that their cause was just, and that thousands of people were standing in solidarity with them. Muffled cries and sobs could be heard, and the tears shed clung to their faces in the frigid weather. In that moment, the white crowd and the Black minister/presidential candidate became one, and this showed that racial divides are barriers that can be overcome through trust, compassion and solidarity.
We all knew that Super Tuesday would be a make it or break it event. For the first time, 20 states, a dozen in the South, would determine 1/3 of the delegates going to the Democratic National Convention. Most of my work in the winter of 1987 and early 1988 was working with the organizers in the Southern states and caucus states such as Iowa, Minnesota, Alaska, and Colorado to place us in as strong a position as possible. We didn’t have money to buy walk lists or even mount a precinct operation in key cities. We used the little money we had to make sure volunteers had buttons, posters, flyers to implore people to register and turn out on election day. Small donations came in and at the last minute we were able to buy radio time in key states to boost Black turnout, which is exactly what propelled Jackson to win five primaries on Super Tuesday. By mid-March, Jackson was tied with Dukakis in the delegate count and narrowly behind Dukakis in the popular vote. Jackson had already surpassed his total vote in 1984 and several heavily populated states still lay ahead of him.
I spent a week in Houston, TX preparing for Super Tuesday. My days were filled with phone calls with state organizers, but another prime focus was Texas’ hybrid primary and caucus system. When Rev. Jackson arrived for the final Texas swing, he beckoned me to climb on the bus (we were big on bus tours, hitting several cities and towns in one day). It was time for my field report, and I said, “Reverend, based on all the reports we were getting from the field, you’re going to come in 2nd place in Texas and win several other states.” I don’t know if this was the first time that he took in the immensity of this achievement or if Frank Watkins had told him this much earlier, for it was Frank’s plan all along that we could win on Super Tuesday. Once more, Rev. Jackson was speechless. He simply nodded, thanked me, and hit the road to another Texas town.
Rev. Jackson (in cowboy hat) greets supporters in Laredo, TX. March 1988. Photo courtesy of Unity Archive.
There would be other high points and low points during the remainder of the campaign. For the pivotal Michigan caucus, we campaigned for 48 hours straight on a bus tour all around the states. We even held rallies at housing projects at 2 am and 4 am, and people came out by the hundreds. We won Michigan and shocked the pundits. We suffered setbacks in key states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania where much bickering among state leaders hampered the effort. As Dukakis’ delegate count grew eliminating any chance that we could win the nomination, we never stopped and continued to draw record crowds in California and Oregon. When Jesse shouted “Keep Hope Alive,” it was a signal that we were playing the long game. Change wasn’t going to happen unless we could arouse people’s spirits and you don’t do that by ending your campaign.
At the July 14 and 15, 2023 reunion of JJ’84 and ’88 staff, volunteers and delegates, it was comforting to hear several people express what we all experienced: extreme exhaustion, exhilarating highs from the enthusiastic crowds, and deep admiration for the courage and conviction of Rev. Jackson, who asked us all to work harder and do better. And we did, because every sacrifice Jesse asked us to make, he was willing to make and more.
Although we didn’t succeed with all of our platform challenges at the Democratic Party convention, our 1,000 strong contingent of delegates and Jackson speakers set a moral tone for the Democratic Party. Through the televised debates, progressive planks such as no-first strike, endorsement of motor voter registration and recognition of Palestinian rights gained wide exposure. We left Atlanta with our heads held high determined to win in November.
I needed a break, having been away from home for over a year. In October, my wife Anna and I greeted the arrival of our first child, Margaret Mei Jin Garrard Wong. I had a chance to decompress for two months, but I was soon called back by Rev. Jackson to be his traveling aide.
Our first stop was a religious conference in Des Moines, Iowa. He assigned me to write a speech about the hunger crisis in America. Panic stricken because I know zilch about farm policy, I scrambled and asked Steve Coats, deputy issues coordinator for JJ’88 and former head of Bread for the World, and aides from Sen. Tom Harkin’s office for advice. I managed to patch together 10 talking points and offered this to Jesse feebly, knowing this was well short of speech. He took the paper, scanned it quickly, and grunted,” OK.” What he delivered the next day was a master class in oratory. All 10 points, which focused on policy reforms, were woven into a mesmerizing speech that addressed inequality and mutuality (farmers and consumers, the urban/rural coalition) replete with passages from the Bible. It was amazing to me and thrilling for the audience, but for Rev. Jackson it was just what he does day in and day out. Jesse Jackson has a photographic memory and could download passages from different speeches on the fly and tailor a speech for each audience.
(L-R): Pam Tau Lee, Ken Kong, Rev. Jackson, Mabel Teng, Eddie Wong and Rev. Howard Floyd, SF Chinatown rally, May 13, 1984. Photo courtesy of Unity Archive.
There would be many memorable experiences on the road in 1989 from rallying with striking coal miners strike in West Virginia to holding an all-night discussion with gang bangers in South Central Los Angeles. But that is a whole other story.
In the end what did we accomplish through the Jackson campaigns? Many writers and historians have noted that Jackson’s campaigns changed the rules of the Democratic Party toward proportional representation for allocation of delegates rather than winner-take-all. Without these rules, Barrack Obama would not have won the nomination over Hilary Clinton in the 2008. Jackson’s campaigns mobilized millions of Black voters and voters of color. He brought thousands of new activists into the political arena and provided a training ground for many to run successfully for office. But the Rainbow Agenda remains unfulfilled as family farmers in the Midwest and South are being squeezed hard by corporate conglomerates, and gerrymandering and voter purges are underway in the South and in towns with large student populations. Jesse Jackson taught us that we have to fight for fairness and challenge the status quo. In the words of Frederick Douglas “power concedes nothing. It never did and never will.”
At 81 years old and stricken with Parkinson’s Disease, Rev. Jackson is not able to barnstorm the country, preaching his message of unity and hope. He has, however, left us with a vision and a means via a Rainbow Coalition to achieve Dr. King’s dream of a beloved community. In his 1984 address to the National Democratic Convention, Rev. Jackson pointed the way forward, “We are bound by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Heschel, crying out from their graves for us to reach common ground. We are bound by shared blood and shared sacrifices … We must share our burdens and our joys with each other once again. We must turn to each other and not on each other and choose higher ground.” The example Rev. Jackson set in bringing diverse groups of people together on the basis of shared values is what we must strive for today to counter the fearmongering and hate being promoted by rightwing forces. “Keep Hope Alive” still rings true, but hope needs a little help these days. As Rev. Jackson observed many years ago, “The change we seek never comes from the top down, it’s always bottom up. No party led the marches on Washington. We the people have the power.”
Author’s Bio: Eddie Wong is the editor/publisher of East Wind ezine. He has been a longtime cultural worker and political activist in the Asian American Movement.
Jesse Jackson campaign poster for June 5, 1984 California primary. Photo by Eddie Wong.