The Moment A Kid Named Obama Realized A Black President 'Can Happen'

Rev. Jesse Jackson faced doubts and death threats when he ran for the White House. He also inspired some notable young politicians.
Then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) talks with Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. in Chicago Jan. 15, 2007.
Then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) talks with Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. in Chicago Jan. 15, 2007.
John Gress/Reuters

WASHINGTON -- In the winter of 1983, as he considered running for president in the Democratic primary, Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. didn’t see himself as the best choice for the job. He thought of successful African-American politicians better suited to the rigors of a national campaign and encouraged two others to run. They declined, thinking the idea was too impractical.

But Jackson couldn’t stop thinking about the enormous potential an African-American would have running for president. He saw not just the symbolic power of sharing a stage with Democrats like former Vice President Walter Mondale and Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) but the practical power of using the campaign to increase voter registration.

“We knew that if we expanded the party in the South we could have a chance of winning,” Jackson said. “We knew that the issues that mattered to us the most we could not get on the table without being on the stage.”

On this week’s episode of the Candidate Confessional podcast, Jackson talks about his presidential campaigns in ’84 and ’88 -- what inspired them, what he endured and what influences can be traced back to those historic campaigns: from inspiring a young Barack Obama to drawing the support of a little-known mayor from Vermont named Bernie Sanders.

“I was talking to President Barack Obama one day,” Jackson recalled. “He said he was a student at Columbia when Hart and Mondale and I were debating… He saw the debate and said at its conclusion -- ‘this thing can happen.’" Obama, who has had a somewhat difficult relationship with Jackson, graduated in May 1983, while the debate took place in 1984. However, the impact that debate had on the president has been well documented. "It may be the most rewarding statement I’ve heard in the whole process," Jackson said. "Our job was to plant seeds, to lay groundwork for the future.

During that campaign, Jackson didn’t just have to take on the white establishment. He had to take on many of his fellow civil rights leaders who did not endorse him. Jackson explained on the podcast that they had supported his opponents out of caution and a lack of imagination.

“They endorsed them out of a surrender to limited options,” he said. “It never occurred to them what it would mean for us to be on that stage -- with an ambition higher than go along to get along. They could not imagine an African-American thinking running was a practical thing to do. They said, 'Why would you go to Iowa?'”

When Jackson first went to Iowa while contemplating his run, the party’s elite met him with skepticism. The state political director for the United Auto Workers told a reporter at the time: "You put him out in the streets of Des Moines and he's in political trouble. He doesn't have an audience to play to. The music is different here. It's not a racial thing; things are just different here than they are in the south side of Chicago.”

On the day he declared his candidacy, Jackson said he received a secret service detail. He got more than 300 death threats during the campaign. Vandals attempted to firebomb his campaign headquarters. Jackson recalled one incident when someone had left a dead hog on the steps of his office.

“The audacity of running challenged a lot of people’s perceptions of our 'place' -- where we should be in the scheme of things,” Jackson said.

But Jackson saw that with the campaign's challenge came big crowds and a coalition beginning to form between family farmers struggling in the shadow of the corporate farm and urban workers losing out to corporate trade policies. “I didn’t have to change to get the white voters,” Jackson said. “White people had to hear what I had to say.”

“I didn’t have to change to get the white voters. White people had to hear what I had to say.”

Jackson won several states during that campaign and even more in ’88, when he captured nearly 7 million votes and 11 states and had the party's white establishment panicked that he could potentially be the nominee.

On the trail, Jackson could feel the conventions of race that had defined American politics tearing. He recalled falling asleep in a car in Columbia, Missouri, and waking up to find himself surrounded by white men wearing sacks over their heads. They were farmers who supported him but couldn’t publicly show it. Leaving a high school, he was greeted by two farmers in overalls with their grandchildren. “We really heard you tonight,” he said they told him. “We’re not quite there yet, but don’t give up on us.”

And again, in Missouri, another interaction stuck with him.

“I was with you in Selma,” a man told him. “I’m glad to see you again.”

But there was a catch.

“I was in Selma at that time with the Klan,” the man explained, “but I understand better now. I’m with you.”

The man went on to volunteer with the campaign, Jackson said.

This podcast was edited by Christine Conetta. Listen to it above or download it on iTunes. And while you’re there, please subscribe to, rate and review our show. Make sure to tune in to next week’s episode, when our guest will be former Congressman Tom Perriello on his race during the Tea Party wave of 2010.