Even Jackson's supporters generally conceded that he had no realistic path to winning the nomination, and his candidacy was not widely welcomed by leaders of the black political establishment.
"Since we are so frightened by the Reagan system of government," Benjamin Hooks, then executive director of the NAACP, said, "our primary concern should be ridding the nation of that system. Therefore we should vote for that candidate most likely to achieve that end." ("N.A.A.C.P. Chief Warns Against Black Candidacy," The New York Times, July 4, 1983.)
Among civil rights veterans, Jackson remained a polarizing figure. Young refused to endorse him, and so did Coretta Scott King and Julian Bond. Many black leaders instead sided with Mondale. Jackson shrugged it off: "Gandhi didn’t go to the leaders for approval for his movement. Neither did Jesus.” (“Jesse Jackson: His Charismatic Crusade for the Voters at the End of the Rainbow Coalition,” Lois Romano, The Washington Post, July 31, 1983.)
Not surprisingly, Jackson finished in single digits in the lead-off contests in heavily white Iowa and New Hampshire. His big test came on Super Tuesday, with primaries in three Southern states with significant black populations: Alabama, Florida and Georgia.
Jackson's viability was on the line: He needed to break 20 percent in at least one state or he'd be shut out of federal matching funds — and dismissed by the media. The trio of primaries was equally critical for Mondale, who was banking on strong African American support and whose candidacy was suddenly on the verge of collapse after a stunning blowout loss to Gary Hart in New Hampshire.
They both got what they needed. Mondale pulled in about a third of the black vote, enough to propel him past Hart in two of the contests, Alabama and Georgia, and put his candidacy back on track. But when it came to black voters, Jackson was the big winner, claiming an outright majority of black support in the three states, according to NBC News’ black voter data analysis.
"I feel like if we don't pull the lever for Jackson, Martin Luther King might turn over in his grave, and we want him to rest in peace," one voter in rural Alabama was quoted as saying. (“Reckoning Day For Jesse Jackson,” Art Harris, The Washington Post, March 14, 1984.)
It was a milestone moment for Jackson and for black politics. His best showing was in Georgia, where he won 21 percent of the statewide vote — the best a black candidate had ever fared in a binding presidential primary. He hit the matching fund threshold and also cleared a more informal barrier with black voters who hadn't known what to make of his candidacy. As the race moved on, Jackson won increasingly large shares of the black vote, powered by grassroots energy and pride that blunted the impact of Mondale's endorsements.
The Jackson campaign also featured an extensive voter registration drive, which increased black turnout and changed the composition of the Democratic electorate. In New Jersey, for example, black voters represented 20 percent of the June Democratic primary electorate — nearly triple the 7 percent they'd accounted for in 1980.