The Ford School of Public Policy held a day-long event Wednesday honoring Rev. Jesse Jackson’s five-decade commitment to civil rights leadership. In the first of three events, a panel of professors and political strategists spoke about the enduring impact of Jackson’s two campaigns for the presidency in 1984 and 1988 respectively. The panelists agreed that the modern political landscape, as well as the presidency of Barack Obama, was greatly influenced by the political precedent Jackson set during his two runs.

The two-hour panel discussion brought together students, alumni, Ann Arbor residents and University of Michigan faculty members to listen to commentary about his first and second bids for the presidency. Jerry Austin, Jackson’s national campaign manager in 1988, said Jackson’s first campaign was viewed as a protest movement. Political strategists used the results to gauge interest and acquire knowledge about the demographics of his constituency.

“We didn’t have a lot of money and we didn’t have a lot of organization,” Austin said. “The only media that was done was $10,000 spent on radio spots. Essentially we were just trying to put Rev. Jackson’s name out there. The second time around, he wanted to put together a group of people who were not with him in 1984.”

Despite the small size of his campaign, Jackson garnered the support of more than three million American voters, and ultimately received 18 percent of the electoral delegates available.

Panelists said due to general disaffection toward the Reagan administration, Black voters were ready to cast their votes elsewhere such as for Jackson, while the first campaign ultimately failed to compete with Vice President Walter Mondale in the Democratic primaries in 1984, but his supporters were encouraged by the results of the first election and felt that if he were to run again, he might have a realistic shot at winning a spot on the Democratic ticket.

“We were really quite surprised with the results of the first campaign. We learned that there was substantial interest in Rev. Jackson as a candidate, and that’s what we were really looking for,” Austin said.

Andra Gillespie, another panelist and an associate professor of political science at Emory University, pointed to Jackson’s bid as both a source of excitement within the Black community and a catalyst to mobilize a subset of the population that would have otherwise remained disengaged in the election.

“Jackson’s candidacy spurred excitement across the country,” Gillespie said. “In Chicago alone, there was a 5-percent increase in Black voter registration when he announced his candidacy.”

Gillespie noted that racial demographics also played a big part in Jackson’s campaign strategy. After the results of the first election, in which college-educated, affluent Black people largely supported him, Jackson focused campaign resources on appealing to those who opposed him during his first bid. Because of the support he drew, he was able to influence party policy. 

“While there was some opposition from older Blacks, and while he didn’t necessary consolidate the support of Black elected officials and civil rights leaders, he made an important impact,” Gillespie said. “He was actually able to leverage certain concessions from the Democratic Party. The notable ones were delegate allocation and proportional representation.”

Several panelists highlighted the enduring impact of the campaigns, saying that he was instrumental in reorganizing the way candidates are elected in primaries. In particular, Jackson aimed to transition delegate representation from the states to congressional districts — a structural change that continues to impact election results today.

“Prior to 1984, if you were running for a congressional district, you got all of the delegates,” Austin said. “Jackson sent a petition to the Democratic National Committee to change the proportions of delegates, which meant that you got a proportion of the votes in the congressional district based on how many votes you got. If not for that, Obama would not have won in 2008, because Hillary Clinton won more states.”

Gillespie related Jackson’s campaign back to the 2016 presidential election, comparing his standing within the Democratic Party to that of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

“They were both insurgent candidates, they both ended up in second place in their party’s primaries and they both withheld their endorsements of the eventual Democratic nominee until they received the platform concession they knew they were going to get,” she said. “In some instances, they were arguing for the same platform concession as well.”

There was also a consensus on the panel that Jackson was effective in increasing the size and passion of the African-American political coalition in the 1980s. Leah Wright Rigueur, an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, said Jackson was more than just a cog in the machine of Black political participation — he was the primary voice for Black political empowerment.

“Hands that picked picked cotton in 1966 picked the president in 1976, and could have very well been the difference in 1980,” Rigueur said. “I think this is very much a sentiment that remains true through present day.

Before the day-long procession of events began, Rob Sellers, vice provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer at the University, said it was an honor to host Jackson on campus during these contentious political times in the United States.

“For more than a half-century, Jesse Jackson has been a vital figure in our nation’s civil rights movement,” Sellers said. “This is an incredible opportunity to learn from Jackson’s experiences as we strive to make our university a more diverse, inclusive and equitable environment.”

Ann Arbor resident Michele Finey, who attended the event, said she was not surprised to hear that Jackson was influential despite his consecutive failed bids for president.

“I mean, he was the real deal,” she said. “We all looked up to him, and knew there were brighter days for our country ahead if leaders like him were in power. I rooted, rooted, rooted for him, but unfortunately it wasn’t the time yet.”

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