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A transformative campaign

Feb 17,2014 - Last updated at Feb 17,2014

This past week I travelled to New York City to speak at an event honouring the 30th anniversary of the 1984 “Jesse Jackson for president” campaign. It was an opportunity to reflect on the remarkable political transformations made possible by that historic movement.

I remember the day, 30 years ago, when Jackson approached me and asked me to come to work for his presidential campaign committee. When I reminded him that I already had a full-time position as executive director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee — a group I had co-founded four years earlier — he responded: “Do this and you’ll be able to do more for your community in the next four months than you’ve been able to do in the last four years.”

When I accepted his challenge and became one of his deputy campaign managers, I realised the truth of his prediction.

As a result of Jackson’s 1984 campaign, Arab Americans were provided a first ever opportunity to organise and become established as a national constituency.

Before 1984, no national campaign had ever recognised Arab Americans as a constituency, nor had any actively courted their support. There had been some outreach to Lebanese Americans or Syrian-Lebanese (as we were called in some areas), but when we organised as Arab Americans, politicians reacted shamefully — either rejecting our endorsements or returning our contributions.

What Jackson did was new. He made the community proud to identify itself as Arab Americans and he welcomed us into his Rainbow Coalition.

I can still recall the excitement generated by the campaign. All across the country, Arab Americans turned out for Jackson rallies; they registered new voters, gave money and mobilised to turn out the vote on election day.

Not only did Jackson inspire the community, he gave voice to their concerns. Never before had the issues of Palestinian statehood, the sovereignty of Lebanon, the civil rights of Arab Americans, and the need to combat negative stereotyping and discrimination of people of Arab descent been raised in national debates or addressed from the podium of a major party’s national convention.

More importantly, the dynamic set in motion by Jackson in 1984 continued into 1985 and beyond. Arab Americans originally elected four delegates to the Democratic National Convention in 1984. By 1988, the delegation had grown to 55 members and has remained at that level ever since.

Voter registration continued, as well. Dearborn, which had less than 1,000 Arab American registered voters in 1984, now has over 14,000. Arab Americans went from running for delegate to running for political office and party leadership positions.

In nine states, Arab Americans now serve as party leaders and hold public office at every level across the US.

In large measure owing to what began with Jesse Jackson in 1984, the Arab American community has gone from being unorganised and on the margins of American politics to being seen as an established and recognised part of the country’s political fabric. Of course, the Jackson ‘84 campaign accomplished so much more. Most importantly, the campaign empowered African American voters, while at the same time mobilising a broad progressive political coalition that was able to elevate a range of issues that had hitherto been ignored in the national debate. A key part of Jackson’s strategy in 1984 had been to increase African American voter registration in major urban centres in the East, Midwest and West, and across the South. The strategy worked.

As a result of Jackson’s campaign, millions were added to the voting rolls, enabling African Americans and Democrats to win key elections in the 1980s. In the years following 1984, Democrats regained control of the US Senate, winning five seats in southern states, owing mainly to the turnout of African American voters. African Americans were also elected to various political offices, such as the mayor of New York City and as the governor of Virginia (the first African American elected governor in US history). 

No less significant were the issues Jackson elevated in the national debate. Included among those first introduced in the national conventions of 1984 and 1988 were: sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime; a commitment to “no first use” of nuclear weapons; the need to invest in America’s cities and infrastructure; a call for a national healthcare system; expanding representation for women, African Americans, Latinos and other under-represented minorities; a war against AIDS; and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Those of us who participated in that 1984 campaign will never forget the experience. It was historic, it was pure excitement and it unleashed a dynamic that helped change American politics forever.

With so many of the challenges raised in Jackson’s 1984 progressive agenda still unfulfilled, much work remains to be done.

There can be no doubt that we are, as a nation and a community, stronger and better equipped to face these challenges as a result of the work that began with Jesse Jackson 30 years ago.

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