From Greenville to Greenfield: Jesse Jackson's 1988 Iowa caucus campaign

John Norris grew up in Red Oak, Iowa, and now lives in Des Moines. He delivered these remarks at the Jesse Jackson campaign reunion at the Rainbow PUSH Community Hall in Chicago on July 15, 2023.

I am John Norris. I was the first person hired in Iowa for the Jesse Jackson 1988 campaign, serving as Jesse’s Iowa State Director. After the Iowa caucuses I worked for a while in his national headquarters, then organized several western states, and continued on through the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta.

Also here today from Iowa are George and Patti Naylor from Greene County and David Leshtz from Johnson County. George and Patti are Iowa farmers; nothing says “white voter” quite like “Iowa farmer.” I think it is fair to say the Naylors are on the left spectrum of the Democratic Party, but in ’88 Jesse had support from liberal farmers to conservative farmers like Steve and JoAnne Heaberlin from Pleasantville. All over Iowa I witnessed farmers hugging Rev. Jackson and sometimes crying as he connected economic injustice from rural Iowa to urban Chicago.

David Leshtz is from Iowa City. He is a great organizer, but he had to take on the “I like Jesse, but” crowd. You know, those academic liberals who said, “I really love Jesse, but he can’t win.” David, who was also a Jackson ’84 supporter, did a great job challenging that “but” crowd. He helped build a stellar organization in Johnson County and continues the fight for economic and social justice to this day.

I have so many wonderful stories I would like to tell about the campaign, but today I want to share with all of you the story of Greenfield. You have heard yesterday and today many people talk about Rev. Jackson being a great communicator. How he would come up with brilliant ways to turn a phrase that captures a complicated issue and, as Jesse would say, gets it down to where the goats can get it.

The genius of Jesse Jackson that people seldom talk about and is under-appreciated is his strategic genius. Greenfield is the strategic genius of Jesse. It’s where his 1988 campaign got its start.

It was Super Bowl Sunday of 1987. Rev. Jackson spoke at the Greenfield Methodist Church at the invitation of the late Dixon Terry, an amazing farm leader who died too young. Mind you, no other candidate would schedule an event at the time of the Super Bowl. People thought it was crazy, that no one would show up. Well, the Methodist Church was packed. 

Do you remember the AP photo that ran in the Des Moines Register and throughout the state and country the next day? That’s right, it was that iconic photo of Jesse in overalls milking one of Dixon’s dairy cows. No other contender—Gephardt, Simon, Dukakis, Babbitt, or Gore—would have taken that shot. But for Jesse it was all about connecting with rural Iowa voters. He was embracing it and having fun.

This wasn’t a one-and-done for Greenfield. On Jesse’s next trip to Iowa, two months later, he went right back to Greenfield for an organizing meeting at the Greenfield Country Club. Now, this was not what you think of as a country club in Chicago. The house was packed again, and a lot of folks drove there from around the state. That is where I had my first conversation with Carolyn Kazdin from the national staff. Soon thereafter I was working for Jackson ’88.

Jesse had decided he wanted his state headquarters in Greenfield. It wasn’t exactly convenient, but the staff embraced it and the local Democrats certainly did as well. This was the strategic Jackson thinking outside the box. Stories about Jesse’s campaign would originate from Greenfield. National reporters coming to Iowa to cover the campaign had to get out of Des Moines and come to Greenfield. There was only one Black person living in Greenfield—the adopted daughter of the Methodist minister and his wife.

For the official announcement of his candidacy on October 10, 1987, Jesse returned to Greenfield. It was Greenville (South Carolina) to Greenfield (Iowa)! That event in Greenfield remains the best candidate announcement I have ever seen or been a part of. The high school band marched with the Jackson ’88 parade from the town square to the 4H Fairgrounds. Jesse rode in a convertible. The Future Farmers of America stood alongside the road with a “Welcome Home Jesse” sign. At the fairgrounds we had a huge circus tent where the Boy Scouts led the Pledge of Allegiance. We had a gospel choir from Waterloo, the Teamsters Blue Grass Band, and a reggae band. The Pork Producers provided pork burgers. Can you imagine that happening today?

While Greenfield was an example of Jesse thinking outside the box, the symbolism of Greenfield and the support he was receiving across the state from farmers and rural Iowans represented a threat to the other candidates. Jesse wasn’t staying in his box. He was supposed to rally and mobilize Black voters for the general election, not take votes away from the other candidates.

I learned from Jesse and his campaign the power of economic and social justice. It transcends race, religion, geography, class, everything. We believed in the cause, and in Jesse, and we were fearless. We didn’t feel the pressure to win or even to beat expectations that the other campaigns faced.

In Iowa we brought the rainbow out for Jesse and opened the door for the huge wins in Michigan and Super Tuesday, and took Dukakis to the wire in Arizona, Oregon, California, and many other states. We brought over 1,000 delegates to the national convention in Atlanta. What Jesse Jackson did in Iowa created the opportunity for Barack Obama to win Iowa 20 years later.

And that is the story of Greenfield. I will never forget it. Thank you, Jesse. We love you.

All photos by David Leshtz, published with permission. Top image: John Norris speaking at the Jesse Jackson campaign reunion at the Rainbow PUSH Community Hall. Norris with Jackson:

Larger campaign reunion photo:

John Norris outside the Rainbow PUSH Community Hall:

David Leshtz with Jesse Jackson:

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  • That iconic photo...

    is here!

    Thanks for the memories, John!

  • Thanks, John & David

    Thanks for sharing this reminder of the Iowa I know and still believe in. Its not the Iowa Kim Reynolds or Bruce Rastetter care about. Democrats should not have to be reminded again and again that a multi-racial, mixed income coalition of working families talking about issues they have in common can win elections, even in rural areas, if we can pull together.

  • memories of 1988

    Back in the day(1988) I supported Sen. Gary Hart – backed Gary in ’84 also. Turned out he was the poster child for bad behavior. Watch the movie “The Front Runner” as Hart would have easily been elected president instead of Bush 41.