Before Kamala Harris became Biden’s running mate, Shirley Chisholm and other Black women aimed for the White House

Before Kamala Harris became Biden’s running mate, Shirley Chisholm and other Black women aimed for the White House

Kamala Harris, a U.S. senator from California, endorsed Joe Biden for president in March. Now she is his vice presidential nominee. Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, the American daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, is Joe Biden’s choice for vice president. If Biden wins in November, Harris would break three centuries-old barriers to become the nation’s first female vice president, first Black vice president and first Black female vice president.

Geraldine Ferraro was the first female vice-presidential candidate on a major party ticket, in 1984. In 2008, Alaska’s then-governor Sarah Palin was Republican John McCain’s running mate.

Before Harris was picked as Biden’s running mate, she was his competitor for the Democratic presidential nomination. She is one of many Black American women who have aimed for the highest office in the land despite great odds.

Biden, himself a former vice president, understands the significance of the role. Mark Makela/Getty Images

Hands that once picked cotton

African Americans have endured many hurdles to political power in the United States, among them slavery, Jim Crow and disenfranchisement.

Black women, in particular, have hit barrier upon barrier. Women didn’t gain the right to vote in the U.S. until 1920, and even then Black people – women among them – still couldn’t vote in most of the South. In the 1960s, Black women helped organize the civil rights movement but were kept out of leadership positions.

As a political science professor, I address issues like these in my government and minority politics classes. But I also teach my students that Black women have a history of political ambition and achievement. As the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. said in 1984 about the progress Black voters made last century, “Hands that once picked cotton will now pick a president.”

Today, Black female mayors lead several of the United States’ biggest cities, including Atlanta, Chicago and San Francisco. Black women are police chiefs, gubernatorial candidates, and, in growing numbers, congresswomen.

Now, Black women, who once had no chance of even voting for president – much less being president – will see one of their own a step away from the Oval Office.

Biden allies have reportedly suggested that he would only serve one term if elected because of his age – Biden would be 78 on Inauguration Day – but his campaign officially denies that possibility. Either way, his vice president would be in a powerful position for the 2024 campaign.

Harris is also of Indian descent, making her place on the ticket a meaningful first for two communities of color.

‘Unsuitable’ for the job?

Kamala Harris is a registered Democrat who served as California’s attorney general and later one of the state’s U.S. senators. But, historically, most Black female presidential candidates have run as independents.

In 1968, 38-year-old Charlene Mitchell of Ohio became the first Black woman to run for president, as a communist. Like many other African Americans born in the 1930s, Mitchell joined the Communist Party because of its emphasis on racial and gender equality. Black female communists fought Jim Crow, lynchings and unfair labor practices for men and women of all races.

A portrait of Charlene Mitchell

Charlene Mitchell, America’s first Black female presidential candidate. Wikimedia Commons

Mitchell’s presidential campaign, which focused on civil rights and poverty, was probably doomed from the start. In 1968, many states didn’t allow communists on the ballot. Media outlets from the Boston Globe to the Chicago Tribune also discussed Mitchell’s “unsuitability” as a candidate because she was both Black and female. Mitchell received just 1,075 votes.

Other independent Black female presidential candidates have been community organizer Margaret Wright, who ran on the People’s Party ticket in 1976; Isabell Masters, a teacher who created her own third party, called Looking Back and ran in 1984, 1992 and 2004; and teacher Monica Moorehead of the Workers World Party ticket, who ran in 1996, 2000 and 2016.

In 2008, the year Barack Obama was elected president, Cynthia McKinney, a former U.S. representative from Georgia, was a nominee of the Green Party. And in 2012, Peta Lindsay ran to unseat President Obama from the left, on the Party for Socialism and Liberation ticket.

Only one Black woman has ever pursued the Republican nomination: Angel Joy Charvis, a religious conservative from Florida, who wanted to use her 1999 candidacy to “to recruit a new breed of Republican.”

Unbought and unbossed

These Black female presidential candidates were little known. But as the first Black female member of Congress, Shirley Chisholm had years of experience in public office and a national reputation when she became the first Black American and the first woman to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. Chisholm’s campaign slogan: “Unbought and Unbossed.”

Shirley Chisholm announces her entry for the Democratic nomination. Don Hogan Charles/New York Times Co. via Getty Images

Chisholm, who mostly paid for her campaign on her credit card, focused on civil rights and poverty.

She became the target of vehement sexism. One New York Times article from June 1972 described her appearance as, “[Not] beautiful. Her face is bony and angular, her nose wide and flat, her eyes small almost to beadiness, her neck and limbs scrawny. Her protruding teeth probably account in part for her noticeable lisp.”

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Chisholm received little support from either Black or female voters and won not a single primary.

The Black women who followed in Chisholm’s footsteps from Congress to the Democratic presidential primary, including Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and Harris herself, have seen little more success. Harris was among the first 2020 Democratic primary candidates to drop out, in December 2019.

Challenges for Black women

Why did these women’s candidacies fail?

In most cases, my research finds, America’s Black female presidential candidates haven’t made the ballot. Those who did had trouble raising funds.

And because their candidacies weren’t taken seriously by the media, they had trouble getting their messages heard. Historically Black female presidential candidates have received no real support from any segment of American voters, including African Americans and women. Generally, people – even those who might have been heartened by the idea that someone who looked like them could aspire to the White House – thought they couldn’t win.

As a vice president for two terms who had a major role in governing under Barack Obama, Joe Biden knows what the office entails. He has now selected a woman who he believes can not only help him win the election but also to govern if he is elected. It is a watershed moment for African Americans, Asian Americans and women who’ve so long been excluded from so many aspects of politics.The Conversation

Sharon Austin, Professor of Political Science, University of Florida

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

America’s Black Female Mayors on National Stage During Crisis

America’s Black Female Mayors on National Stage During Crisis

San Francisco mayor London Breed declaring a shelter-in-place order early in the coronavirus pandemic, March 17, 2020.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Mayors are elected to govern their cities, serve and protect citizens, maintain law and order and bring about economic prosperity. Those are tall orders today, as American cities are wracked by COVID-19 and anti-racism protests.

One effect of these simultaneous crises has been to thrust Black female mayors onto the national stage. That’s because, for the first time in U.S. history, Black women lead several of the United States’ largest cities, including Chicago, Atlanta and San Francisco.

Black women make up just 14% of women in the United States, and their mayoral history is a short one. But it’s a history of achievement worth exploring. My upcoming book, an edited volume called “Political Black Girl Magic: The Elections and Governance of Black Female Mayors” examines the background of 24 Black women elected to lead cities over 50,000 since 2000 to learn who these pioneering women are and how they came to power.


In 1971, Ellen Walker Craig-Jones of Urbancrest, Ohio, a town of 754, became the country’s first Black female elected mayor. She was followed, in 1973, by Lelia Foley – a poor, divorced, single mother who became mayor of the predominantly Black small town of Taft, Oklahoma. Later that same year Doris A. Davis of California became the first Black female mayor of a big city: Compton, population 78,611 in 1970.

Doris Davis, photographed in 2008, was the first Black woman to lead a major U.S. city.
Photo by Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

In the decades that followed, just a handful more cities – among them Hartford, Little Rock, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C. – elected Black women mayors.

Then came 2017, when five African American women held that office simultaneously in Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Baltimore, Toledo and Washington, D.C.
Huffington Post dubbed it the “Year of the Black Woman Mayor.” Among those elected were Vi Lyles in Charlotte and Keisha Lance Bottoms in Atlanta, both still in charge today.

In 2019, Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot, a former prosecutor, defeated another Black woman in the Democratic primary to become the city’s first Black – and first openly gay – female mayor.

Seven of the nation’s largest cities now have black female mayors. These women are part of a national wave of winning Black politicians: Twenty-two black women serve in Congress and 313 in state legislatures. These victories are huge milestones for women historically excluded from leadership positions in both traditional politics and civil rights organizations and who, in many cases, lacked even Black community support when running for office.

How she got there

The Black female mayors covered in my book range in age from their 30s to their 70s and represent cities both large and small. They have many things in common.

All but one are Democrats – Acquanetta Warren of Fontana, California, is the lone Republican – and all are very well educated. Twenty-two of the 24 have a doctorate, medical degree, law degree or master’s degree.

Most also worked in a traditional “feeder” occupation for political service like law, business, education or community activism before pursuing politics. All had held another political office before running for mayor, with most serving on the local city council or in the state legislature.

Fifteen of the 24 are members of a historically Black female sorority, primarily Delta Sigma Theta, but also Alpha Kappa Alpha and Zeta Phi Beta. These three sororities prepare Black women for politics with their emphasis on public service – other famous members include Sen. Kamala Harris, singer Aretha Franklin, and authors Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston.

Some Black female American mayors won close elections and others won by large margins, but regardless of margin most won open seats, either because the sitting mayor was term limited or chose not to run for reelection. That removed the added challenge of competing against an incumbent. Only seven of the 24 mayors defeated incumbents.

Anti-racism protests in Charlottesville, Va., May 2020. The city elected a Black woman, Nikuyah Walker, as mayor after a deadly white supremacist rally in 2017.
Ryan M. Kelly/AFP via Getty Images

Where she leads

Most Black women govern Southern cities that have a Democratic majority, though the regional exceptions – Tacoma, Pontiac and Rochester – are notable. And unlike many of the country’s first Black male mayors, who were primarily elected in poor cities, Black female mayors lead a socioeconomically and demographically diverse array of communities, including super-wealthy enclaves like San Francisco.

That means they had to attract votes from all kinds of people to win. Perhaps as a result, my research finds, Black women mayors don’t necessarily discuss race as often as America’s first Black male mayors did, campaigning instead on economic development. That’s been a winning stance for Mayor Acquanetta Warren, under whose financial stewardship, Fontana has thrived economically.

Nonetheless, the women I studied in researching my book say they’ve faced both racism and sexism in their political careers – and that racism is a more complex problem. In a recent interview, San Francisco Mayor London Breed said, “The things that African Americans have endured in this country for far too long are things that I sadly have had to endure throughout my entire life.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was called the n-word in an anonymous text message after defying Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s early reopening plan during the pandemic.

A cardboard cutout of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a former prosecutor, during protests in April 2020.
Max Herman/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In so many of the cities these women lead – from Atlanta and Ferguson to Washington, D.C. and Chicago – Black residents have struggled to achieve political and economic power despite their large population. And, as demonstrated over and over again, they have strained relations with law enforcement.

Add a pandemic to the poverty and police violence that has long plagued African American communities, and today’s Black female mayors are facing crises with little historic precedent.

Some argue that they may fare better because of their identity and personal experiences. Persistent problems with police brutality and corruption in Baltimore, which has had three Black female mayors, shows that putting women in charge doesn’t magically fix entrenched problems.

But what my research can confirm is that Black women in American politics are used to uphill battles.

This article has been updated to correct an error introduced in editing regarding the percentage of the U.S. population comprised by Black women.The Conversation

Sharon Austin, Professor of Political Science, University of Florida

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.