The Rainbow Coalition, Speech to the Democratic National Convention

Image: [i.e., interview with] Rev. Jesse Jackson. Leffler, Warren K. (1983) Library of Congress, Miscellaneous Items in High Demand.
Race and Civil Rights
What did Jackson see as the common bond shared by the groups composing his “Rainbow Coalition”? Was the coalition he envisioned defined more by what it supported or what it opposed? To what extent did Jackson’s conception of his party as a coalition of identity groups foretell the course of the Democratic Party’s development in the twenty-first century? To what extent is it indicative of the evolution of civil rights advocacy into multi-culturalism? How well could Jackson’s “Rainbow” idea promote his stated objective of national unity?
How does Jackson’s effort at coalitional politics compare or contrast with Bayard Rustin’s vision of a class-based, progressive governing coalition for the post-civil rights era? How does Jackson’s conception of the United States as a patchwork quilt of identity groups compare or contrast with the Black Power authors’ conception of American society?

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Jesse L. Jackson (1941– ) is a Baptist minister, a longtime civil rights activist, and a two-time presidential candidate. His 1984 and 1988 campaigns were at the time the most successful attempts by a black candidate for a major-party presidential nomination in U.S. history.

Born in Greenville, South Carolina, Jackson was educated at the University of Illinois, North Carolina A&T in Greensboro, and at the Chicago Theological Seminary. He became involved in the civil rights movement during his undergraduate years, and began working for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) after participating in the Selma March in spring 1965. From 1967 to 1971 he served as national director of Operation Breadbasket, an offshoot of the SCLC focused on enhancing employment opportunities for black workers. After resigning from the SCLC in 1971, he founded Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity), a Chicago-based organization aimed at promoting black uplift. In preparation for his presidential runs, he raised his profile nationally and internationally by leading voter-registration drives and by highly publicized efforts in private diplomacy in conflict-ridden areas including South Africa and the Middle East. After his second presidential campaign he remained influential in the Democratic Party, served as official lobbyist for Washington, DC, statehood, and hosted a CNN political commentary program. In 2000 President Bill Clinton awarded Jackson the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In the present selection, Jackson sketches his vision of an expanded and more inclusive Democratic Party and a broader spirit of unity for the country.

—Peter C. Myers

Source: Keeping Hope Alive: Sermons and Speeches of Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., ed. Grace Ji-Sun Kim (New York: Orbis Books, 2019), 53–62. Reprinted by permission of Orbis Books. The speech as delivered, portions of which are included in this excerpt, differs from this printed source. The speech as delivered is available at Used in accordance with C-SPAN’s terms and conditions of use.

Tonight we come together bound by our faith in a mighty God, with genuine respect and love for our country, and inheriting the legacy of a great party, the Democratic Party, which is the best hope for redirecting our nation on a more humane, just, and peaceful course. . . .

We are gathered here this week to nominate a candidate and adopt a platform which will expand, unify, direct, and inspire our party and the nation to fulfill this mission. My constituency is the desperate, the damned, the disinherited, the disrespected, and the despised. They are restless and seek relief. They have voted in record numbers. They have invested the faith, hope, and trust that they have in us. The Democratic Party must send them a signal that we care. I pledge my best not to let them down. . . .

I went to see Hubert Humphrey1 three days before he died. He had just called Richard Nixon2 from his dying bed, and many people wondered why. And I asked him. He said, “Jesse, from this vantage point, the sun is setting in my life, all of the speeches, the political conventions, the crowds, and the great fights are behind me now. At a time like this you are forced to deal with your irreducible essence, forced to grapple with that which is really important to you. And what I’ve concluded about life,” Hubert Humphrey said, [is that] “when all is said and done, we must forgive each other, and redeem each other, and move on.”

Our party is emerging from one of its most hard-fought battles for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in our history. But our healthy competition should make us better, not bitter. We must use the insight, wisdom, and experience of the late Hubert Humphrey as a balm for the wounds in our party, this nation, and the world. We must forgive each other, redeem each other, regroup, and move on. Our flag is red, white, and blue, but our nation is a rainbow—red, yellow, brown, black, and white—and we’re all precious in God’s sight.

America is not like a blanket—one piece of unbroken cloth, the same color, the same texture, the same size. America is more like a quilt: many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread. The white, the Hispanic, the black, the Arab, the Jew, the woman, the Native American, the small farmer, the businessperson, the environmentalist, the peace activist, the young, the old, the lesbian, the gay, and the disabled make up the American quilt. . . .

From Fannie Lou Hamer3 in Atlantic City in 1964 to the Rainbow Coalition in San Francisco today; from the Atlantic to the Pacific, we have experienced pain but progress, as we ended American apartheid laws. We got public accommodations. We secured voting rights. We obtained open housing, as young people got the right to vote. We lost Malcolm, Martin, Medgar, Bobby, John, and Viola.4 The team that got us here must be expanded, not abandoned.

Twenty years ago, tears welled up in our eyes as the bodies of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney5 were dredged from the depths of a river in Mississippi. Twenty years later, our communities, black and Jewish, are in anguish, anger, and pain.6 Feelings have been hurt on both sides. There is a crisis in communications. Confusion is in the air. But we cannot afford to lose our way. We may agree to agree; or agree to disagree on issues; we must bring back civility to these tensions.

We are co-partners in a long and rich religious history—the Judeo-Christian traditions. Many blacks and Jews have a shared passion for social justice at home and peace abroad. We must seek a revival of the spirit, inspired by a new vision and new possibilities. We must return to higher ground. We are bound by Moses and Jesus, but also connected with Islam and Mohammed. These three great religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—were all born in the revered and holy city of Jerusalem.

We are bound by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Heschel,7 crying out from their graves for us to reach common ground. We are bound by shared blood and shared sacrifices. We are much too intelligent, much too bound by our Judeo-Christian heritage, much too victimized by racism, sexism, militarism, and anti-Semitism, much too threatened as historical scapegoats to go on divided one from another. We must turn from finger pointing to clasped hands. 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.

Twenty years later, we cannot be satisfied by just restoring the old coalition. Old wine skins must make room for new wine.8 We must heal and expand. The Rainbow Coalition is making room for Arab Americans. They, too, know the pain and hurt of racial and religious rejection. They must not continue to be made pariahs. The Rainbow Coalition is making room for Hispanic Americans who this very night are living under the threat of the Simpson-Mazzoli bill;9 and farm workers from Ohio who are fighting the Campbell Soup Company with a boycott to achieve legitimate workers’ rights.

The Rainbow is making room for the Native American, the most exploited people of all, a people with the greatest moral claim amongst us. We support them as they seek the restoration of their ancient land and claim amongst us. We support them as they seek the restoration of land and water rights, as they seek to preserve their ancestral homeland and the beauty of a land that was once all theirs. They can never receive a fair share for all they have given us. They must finally have a fair chance to develop their great resources and to preserve their people and their culture.

The Rainbow Coalition includes Asian Americans, now being killed in our streets—scapegoats for the failures of corporate, industrial, and economic policies.

The Rainbow is making room for the young Americans. Twenty years ago, our young people were dying in a war for which they could not even vote. Twenty years later, young America has the power to stop a war in Central America and the responsibility to vote in great numbers. Young America must be politically active in 1984. The choice is war or peace. We must make room for young America.

The Rainbow includes disabled veterans. The color scheme fits in the Rainbow. The disabled have their handicap revealed and their genius concealed; while the able-bodied have their genius revealed and their disability concealed. But ultimately, we must judge people by their values and their contribution. Don’t leave anybody out. I would rather have Roosevelt in a wheelchair than Reagan on a horse.

The Rainbow is making room for small farmers. They have suffered tremendously under the Reagan regime. They will either receive 90 percent parity or 100 percent charity. We must address their concerns and make room for them. The Rainbow includes lesbians and gays. No American citizen ought be denied equal protection from the law.

We must be unusually committed and caring as we expand our family to include new members. All of us must be tolerant and understanding as the fears and anxieties of the rejected and the party leadership express themselves in many different ways. Too often what we call hate—as if it were some deeply rooted philosophy or strategy—is simply ignorance, anxiety, paranoia, fear, and insecurity. To be strong leaders, we must be long-suffering as we seek to right the wrongs of our party and our nation. We must expand our party, heal our party, and unify our party. That is our mission in 1984.

We are often reminded that we live in a great nation—and we do. But it can be greater still. The Rainbow is mandating a new definition of greatness. We must not measure greatness from the mansion down, but the manger up. Jesus said that we should not be judged by the bark we wear but by the fruit that we bear.10 Jesus said that we must measure greatness by how we treat the least of these.

. . .In 1984, my heart is made to feel glad because I know there is a way out—justice. The requirement for rebuilding America is justice. The linchpin of progressive politics in our nation will not come from the North; they, in fact, will come from the South. That is why I argue over and over again. We look from Virginia around to Texas, there’s only one black congressperson out of 115. Nineteen years later, we’re locked out of the Congress, the Senate, and the governor’s mansion. What does this large black vote mean? Why do I fight to win second primaries and fight gerrymandering and annexation and at-large [elections]. Why do we fight over that? Because I tell you, you cannot hold someone in the ditch unless you linger there with them. Unless you linger there.

If you want a change in this nation, you enforce that Voting Rights Act. We’ll get twelve to twenty black, Hispanics, female, and progressive congresspersons from the South. We can save the cotton, but we’ve got to fight the boll weevils.11 We’ve got to make a judgment. We’ve got to make a judgment.

It is not enough to hope ERA will pass.12 How can we pass ERA? If blacks vote in great numbers, progressive whites win. It’s the only way progressive whites win. If blacks vote in great numbers, Hispanics win. When blacks, Hispanics, and progressive whites vote, women win. When women win, children win. When women and children win, workers win. We must all come up together. We must come up together. . . .

As I leave you now, we vote in this convention and get ready to go back across this nation in a couple of days. In this campaign, I’ve tried to be faithful to my promise. I lived in old barrios, ghettos, and reservations and housing projects. I have a message for our youth. I challenge them to put hope in their brains and not dope in their veins. I told them that like Jesus, I, too, was born in the slum. But just because you’re born in the slum does not mean the slum is born in you, and you can rise above it if your mind is made up.

I told them in every slum there are two sides. When I see a broken window—that’s the slummy side. Train some youth to become a glazier— that’s the sunny side. When I see a missing brick—that’s the slummy side. Let that child in the union and become a brick mason and build—that’s the sunny side. When I see a missing door—that’s the slummy side. Train some youth to become a carpenter—that’s the sunny side. And when I see the vulgar words and hieroglyphics of destitution on the walls—that’s the slummy side. Train some youth to become a painter, an artist—that’s the sunny side. . . .

Young America, dream. Choose the human race over the nuclear race. Bury the weapons and don’t burn the people. Dream—dream of a new value system. Teachers who teach for life and not just for a living; teach because they can’t help it. Dream of lawyers more concerned about justice than a judgeship. Dream of doctors more concerned about public health than personal wealth. Dream of preachers and priests who will prophesy and not just profiteer. Preach and dream! Our time has come.

Our time has come. Suffering breeds character. Character breeds faith. In the end, faith will not disappoint. Our time has come. Our faith, hope, and dreams will prevail. Our time has come. Weeping has endured for nights, but now joy cometh in the morning.13

Our time has come. No grave can hold our body down. Our time has come. No lie can live forever.

Our time has come. We must leave racial battle ground and come to economic common ground and moral higher ground. America, our time has come. We come from disgrace to amazing grace.

Our time has come. Give me your tired, give me your poor, your huddled masses who yearn to breathe free, and come November, there will be a change because our time has come.

Thank you and God bless you.

  1. 1. Hubert H. Humphrey (1911–1978) served as U.S. senator from Minnesota and as vice president in the Lyndon Johnson administration from 1965 to 1969. He was Democratic Party nominee for president in the 1968 election
  2. 2. Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994), a Republican, served as U.S. representative and senator from California, as vice president in the Dwight Eisenhower administration, and as the thirty-seventh president from 1969 to 1974, having defeated Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election.
  3. 3. Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977) was a civil rights and women’s rights activist. In 1964 she cofounded and was vice chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). That year she testified at the Democratic National Convention, arguing unsuccessfully for the replacement of delegates from the regular Mississippi Democratic Party by delegates from the MFDP
  4. 4. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Robert F. Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, and Viola Ruffner all fell victim to racially or politically motivated murderers in the 1960s.
  5. 5. Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, two white Jewish men and a black man, were civil rights workers who were abducted together and murdered in June 1964 in Mississippi.
  6. 6. Jackson refers to the controversy that ensued after he referred to Jews as “Hymies” and to New York City as “Hymietown” during a conversation with a Washington Post reporter in January 1984.
  7. 7. Abraham Heschel (1907–1972) was an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, an influential theologian, and a civil rights activist who shared speakers’ platforms with King on several occasions.
  8. 8. Jackson paraphrases Luke 5:36–39.
  9. 9. The Simpson-Mazzoli bill, named for its coauthors Senator Alan Simpson (R-WY) and Representative Romano Mazzoli (D-KY), placed restrictions on the hiring of illegal immigrants, strengthened border enforcement, and created conditions for legalizing those who had immigrated illegally prior to 1982. The bill was enacted into law as the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986.
  10. 10. A reference to John 15:1–8.
  11. 11. “Boll weevils” was a name given to conservative southern Democrats in Congress in the mid-to-late twentieth century.
  12. 12. The Equal Rights Amendment is a proposed constitutional amendment that provides, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” It was approved by Congress in 1972 but was never ratified by the required number of states.
  13. 13. Psalm 30:5.
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