Why Jackson’s foreign policy was unique

25-07-2023 12:46 PM
James J. Zogby

This week, I travelled to Chicago for a two-day reunion of Jesse Jackson’s historic 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns. I was invited to speak on unique contributions he made to America’s foreign policy debates.

What made Jackson different was not just that he was a Black presidential candidate, but his view of the world and the US’s global role.

Jackson came of age during a period of profound change in the consciousness of Black Americans. The civil rights movement’s mass demonstrations and political organisation led to passage of legislation promoting civil rights, open housing, and voting rights. Jackson’s campaigns sought to build on these successes by focusing on voter registration and mobilisation.

His goal in 1984, to dramatically increase the number of Black voters across the South and in Northern cities, laid the groundwork to enhance the prospects of Black political candidates. Within a few years, his work bore fruit with Black candidates winning key races in New York, New Jersey, Ohio, and Virginia, and led to Democrats winning six Senate seats in Southern states, shifting Senate control in 1987. These successes were largely due to higher Black voter turnout.

Jackson’s role in shaping foreign policy discussions was equally consequential. Again, Jackson must be understood in the context of his era.

The Cold War helped define the thinking of many Black Americans. First, the Vietnam War disproportionately took the lives of young poor Black men less able to secure deferments from military service than wealthier young white men. And it diverted political attention and drained resources from implementing the civil rights and anti-poverty programmes the movement had worked to achieve.

This era was also defined by the anti-colonial, “national liberation” struggles in Africa, Latin America and Asia, and the emergence of the non-aligned movement.

These international developments impacted the thinking of young Black activists and intellectuals, who connected their fight against racial oppression at home and the anti-imperialist movements struggling for freedom overseas. Awakening a global consciousness, it manifested in a new cultural identity movement, including an embrace of African roots and heritage.

Some Black leaders stayed narrowly focused on domestic civil rights concerns. Others went full tilt into Cultural Nationalism and identification with anti-colonial struggles. Jackson took a different path, seeking transformation of the nation’s political culture. He uniquely fused two threads: bringing a new global consciousness into mainstream discourse and connecting it to the civil rights concerns at home.

Just a decade and a half after Martin Luther King’s upbraiding for criticising the Vietnam War, Jackson and leaders of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference met with PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Beirut and denounced the US no talk policy with Palestinian leadership. They spoke with moral authority against Apartheid in South Africa, discrimination against Catholics in Northern Ireland, and US support for oppressive military regimes in Latin America.

Jackson went further, connecting the mistaken priorities of US foreign policy with neglected domestic needs and the changes taking place in the world. While most Democrats limited their foreign policy discussions to Soviet Union (bad), Iran (bad), NATO (good), Israel (good), or just trailing Republicans on issues of security and military expenditures, Jackson’s view of the US and his own role in the world was far more expansive. He traveled to Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, challenging accepted norms, promoting peace, negotiating prisoner releases, and advancing good will. He understood that security wasn’t guaranteed by the most bombs, but by working to alleviate injustice and deprivation. He was as at home in Cairo, Kuwait, or Jerusalem as he was in Chicago or Appalachia.

Noting that the vast majority of the world’s people were not prosperous, white, male, and didn’t speak English, Jackson called for a new foreign policy that recognised the humanity and needs of all. He advanced principles of respect for international law and human rights, an end to double standards, support for the self-determination of oppressed and colonised peoples, and investment in economic and human development.

In all of his work, he never struck a note of bitterness or anger. Instead, he presented a principled commitment to justice and peace. This moral challenge and global consciousness made, and still makes, Jesse Jackson’s contribution unique.

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