History

Slow Burn Episode 2: Why America’s Most Influential Black Leader Agreed to Debate David Duke

David Duke and Jesse Jackson, side by side, both speaking at press conferences
Left: David Duke at a press conference in Denver in October 1977. Right: Jesse Jackson in Santa Barbara, California, in March 1978. Denver Post via Getty Images and Paul Liebhardt/Corbis via Getty Images

In the 1970s, David Duke—the suit-wearing grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan—was looking to make white supremacy mainstream. As Duke fashioned his own movement, he took notice of the fight for black equality, a crusade he considered offensive but highly effective. He wanted to sell the idea that white nationalism was an equal and opposite force to the push for black civil rights.

In September 1977, a Chicago television host named Steve Edwards gave him the opportunity to make that case in an hourlong televised debate. Duke’s opponent was Jesse Jackson, a man widely seen as America’s most influential black leader.

Jackson and Duke went back-and-forth in an increasingly hostile fashion. But no matter who said what, the broadcast was a triumph for Duke. He was being presented as a spokesman for white America, someone whose ideas were worth batting around. Jackson, meanwhile, didn’t need this platform. But as he explained to Edwards, he had his reasons for going on TV with a blow-dried bigot. Listen to a portion of the debate, and Jackson’s rationale for doing it, below.

“Their fears can be played upon by demagogues.”

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