Why you should care

Because before the audacity of hope, a lyrical reverend intoned, ‘’Down with dope, up with hope.’’

If MLK walked so that Obama could run, then Jesse Jackson certainly helped mark the trail. It’s hard to remember now, but 20 years before Barack Obama shook up the world, another African-American candidate stood poised to make American history. In 1988, right about the time young Barack was getting ready for Harvard Law School, Jesse Louis Jackson made a daring run for president. It was Jackson’s second time around the track. And this time, in the late spring, after more than 20 contests, what few people now remember is that he was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

Both Time and Newsweek, the dominant news magazines of the era, put Jackson on the cover asking, “Can He Win?” and “Jesse?!”

Fresh off of beating the eventual nominee, Michael Dukakis, in the Michigan caucuses by a whopping 54 to 29 percent, Jackson led the Massachusetts governor in the popular vote and was just seven delegates behind. Both Time and Newsweek, the dominant news magazines of the era, put Jackson on the cover asking, “Can He Win?” and “Jesse?!” What Jackson wanted was the most liberal platform of any major party candidate in generations: universal health care, an Equal Rights Amendment, a Palestinian state and severe cuts to the defense budget. White power brokers in the Democratic party scrambled to figure out how to deal with and/or derail Jackson. At a well-known meeting in Washington of Democratic Party insiders hosted by the former defense secretary and ultimate Democratic insider Clark Clifford, Jackson famously told his detractors that he believed in “turning trash into energy,” meaning that he would be willing to look past their ill will if indeed he became the nominee.

A color photo of Mike Dukakis and Jesse Jackson posing for the camera

Michael Dukakis campaigning for president supported by former candidate Jesse Jackson

Source Corbis

With all eyes on Jackson and the previously unbelievable possibility that he might win the nomination, Dukakis and Jackson squared off in Wisconsin for a make-or-break April primary battle. Aided by a large turnout, including some GOP crossover voters, Dukakis broke through and became the nominee. Jackson battled on but never regained his momentum. A preacher, Jackson had Obama’s soaring rhetorical skills (and was a better debater), but his campaign lacked the equivalent ground game and staying power of the former community organizer’s.

Twenty years later, Obama would not only take a lead against the establishment candidate, but his well-organized campaign would also hold on to it, win the nomination and the presidency. We have this idea that history is the only narrative that makes sense, and we like to think that major breakthroughs like Obama’s came at the “right” historical time. But occasionally, if we look back carefully, we see that with a break here or slight change there, history could have been written even sooner.

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