We, as a people, love “firsts”—even when we recognize that they are long overdue. This week, many have been celebrating the announcement of Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) as Joe Biden’s running mate as a historic first: the first Black—and Asian—woman to be nominated for vice president of the United States. But as the Washington Post reminds us, that’s only partly true; while Harris is indeed the first Black (or Asian) woman on a major-party ticket, there was another Black woman from her home state who walked so Kamala could run for the second-highest office in the country.
“This is a historic moment in American political life,” the journalist and political activist Charlotta A. Bass told the delegates of the Chicago convention of the Progressive Party as she accepted their nomination for vice president on Sunday, March 30, 1952, according to BlackPast.org, which reprints her speech in full. “Historic for myself, for my people, for all women. For the first time in the history of this nation, a political party has chosen a Negro woman for the second-highest office in the land.
“I don’t think you can understand how we got here in 2020 if you don’t appreciate the way in which Black women have built this moment,” Martha Jones, a historian at Johns Hopkins University told The Washington Post. “Kamala Harris doesn’t just drop from the sky. She’s a political figure whose career is very much linked to a history.”
That history is extensively covered by the Post, which notes that Bass’s activism can be traced back to 1910. It was then that she and her husband migrated from South Carolina Los Angeles and started became joint publishers of the black-focused newspaper the California Eagle, which openly lambasted racist organizations and propaganda (such D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation), as well as promoting the women’s suffrage movement, proving Bass both fearless and well ahead of her time.
As the Post reports:
Bass’s commentary created change, too. Her pieces on employment discrimination resulted in the first Black hires at a major hospital and several big telephone companies, she said in her biography. She later got involved with the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP and Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, as well as local and state politics.
After serving as a delegate to the California Republican convention, she switched to the Democratic Party and, finally, denounced both major parties entirely. Both had neglected Black and women’s rights, she wrote in an editorial, by trying to prove their commitment to fighting communism in the era of Republican Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy’s Red Scare.
Bass would become a target of the anti-communist surge herself, eventually leaving journalism in favor of political organizing and lobbying and co-founding the aptly named Black women’s group “Sojourners for Truth and Justice.” Within the year, she joined the presidential ticket of San Francisco progressive attorney Vincent Hallinan, who “announced his presidential bid a day before he was set to enter prison [for contempt of court], so Bass took on most of the in-person campaigning,” writes the Post. It was a symbolic run—but an impactful one, nevertheless.
“During such a politically repressive moment, it speaks to her dedication to Black freedom and dignity for Black women,” Erik McDuffie, an associate professor at the University of Illinois told The Post.
Dwight D. Eisenhower (who ironically has long been rumored to be of mixed-race heritage) won the 1952 presidential election. But Bass deserves credit for being the first to plant the vision of a Black female vice president in the American subconscious, even if the electorate wouldn’t be ready to seriously consider it for nearly another 70 years. And while Harris—who, coincidentally, would serve under and subsequently oust Hallinan’s son Terrence as San Francisco’s district attorney—may not be the “first,” per se, she is indisputably making the most of the path Bass trod.
“To my mind, it makes Kamala Harris all the more admirable in her accomplishments, because they are so hard-won,” Prof. Jones said. “Charlotta Bass is not a detractor. To the contrary, it shows how far we have come.”
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