Rainbow Debates

This summer, Organizing Upgrade hosted an online discussion with veterans of the Rainbow Coalition to revisit the history of this dynamic left political experiment and elaborate the strategic questions posed by their experiences for today’s left organizers.  Nearly 35 years ago, large numbers of revolutionaries and progressives threw themselves into Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns and the Rainbow Coalition, which played an anchor role in that period’s resistance to the Ronald Reagan-led turn to neo-liberalism, military aggression and intensified racism. The Rainbow also had potential to turn resistance into an eventual offensive, given its promise of becoming the broad, mass-based independent political vehicle that many radicals from the 1968-generation had dreamt of. Though the Rainbow failed to achieve its potential, its impact and shortcomings hold numerous lessons.  This series of articles and videos will consider the legacy of the Rainbow and its lessons for a new generation of leftists searching for effective strategies that combine electoral and non-electoral work.


ARTICLE: Lessons for Today from the Rainbow Coalition in the 1980s, Bill Fletcher, Jr. 

In this piece, Bill Fletcher, Jr makes bold claims about the lessons today’s activists should draw from the Rainbow Coalition.

VIDEO EXCERPTLessons from the 1980s Rainbow: Reflections from Bill Fletcher, Jr.

In this short video, Bill Fletcher, Jr gives a pithy 10-minute historical overview of the Rainbow Coalition and left involvement in Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 campaigns.

VIDEO EXCERPT: Learning from the Successes of the Rainbow Coalition in Vermont, Ellen David Friedman

In this short video, Ellen David Friedman reflects on the successes and long-term impacts of the Rainbow Coalition in Vermont.  She lays out the importance of the years of independent electoral organizing that had been undertaken in Vermont prior to the Rainbow Coalition and why it meant that the Vermont Coalition was able to sustain the demobilization that shut down Rainbow Coalitions in other regions in 1989. She draws a number of lessons about the importance of independent electoral organizing that can shape our work today.

ARTICLE:  How Can the Left Participate in Electoral Campaigns?, Warren Mar

Warren Mar asks why the left came out of the Jesse Jackson campaigns weaker than when they went in, in this ground-level reflection by the longtime labor activist


Articles by Ellen David Friedman and Luke Elliott-Negri.

Videos including:

  • An excerpt of the debate on the relationship between social movements and electoral politics,
  • (Hopefully) a follow-up dialogue of the veteran Rainbow organizers who joined us for the initial discussion.