As Election Day approaches and the nation appears on the brink of electing its first Black President, the dates and events it took to get to this moment are worth recalling to gain a full appreciation of the significance of what may occur on Election Day. The ascendancy of Senator Barack Obama is the culmination of an almost five decade struggle for Black voting rights and full political participation. Though the Obama campaign has been heralded for breaking new ground in American politics, and it has, his candidacy is the beneficiary of generations of political activism, civil rights campaigns and individual achievements that have conditioned the current political landscape. While not exhaustive, the list below provides some of the key highlights that have brought us to the current turning point in history.
E. Frederic Morrow of Hackensack, New Jersey becomes the first Black to serve in the Executive Office of the President when he is appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as Administrative Officer for Special Projects. Morrow’s brother, John Morrow, was appointed the first Ambassador to Guinea.
Fannie Lou Hamer makes a dramatic appeal for voting rights on behalf of the Mississippi Freedom Democrats at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City New Jersey, as the group challenges the seating of the all-white Mississippi delegation.
Civil rights marchers are attacked by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and violently beaten as they attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965 to call for the federal government to protect Blacks’ constitutional right to vote.
Voting Rights Act of 1965
Passed by the 89th Congress, and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on August 6, 1965, the federal law ended discriminatory practices (e.g. poll tax, literacy tests, grandfather clause) and provided voting protections to Blacks in southern states, and eventually led to the election of Black elected officials to city, state and federal office.
Republican Attorney General Edward Brooke of Massachusetts becomes the first Black United States Senator since Reconstruction when he is elected in 1966. Brooke was a member of the GOP’s moderate wing and was the first Republican to call on President Richard Nixon to resign in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
Harvard economist Dr. Robert C. Weaver is named Secretary of the newly created Department of Housing and Urban Development by President Lyndon B. Johnson, making him the first Black to serve on a president’s cabinet.
U.S. Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall is appointed the first Black to serve on the United States Supreme Court by President Lyndon B. Johnson on June 13, 1967. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on August 31, 1967.
The founding of the Democratic Select Committee comprised of the Black members of Congress. The original group consisted of Shirley Chisholm (D-NY), William L. Clay, Sr. (D-MO), George W. Collins (D-IL). John Conyers (D-MI), Ronald Dellums (D-CA), Augustus Hawkins (D-CA), Ralph Metcalf (D-IL), Parren Mitchell (D-MD), Robert Nix, Sr. (D-PA), Charles Rangel (D-NY), Louis Stokes (D-OH), Charles Diggs (D-MI) and Delegate Walter Fauntroy of the District of Columbia. The group was renamed the Congressional Black Caucus in February 1971.
The election of Carl Stokes as mayor of Cleveland, Ohio in the same year as the first Black mayor of a major American city, Richard Hatcher as mayor of Gary, Indiana in 1967, and Ken Gibson as mayor of Newark, New Jersey in 1970 ushered in a new era of “Black politics” that saw the ascendancy of Black mayors, state legislators and members of Congress.
1968 Democratic National Convention
The Chicago convention is famous for the clash between anti-war protesters and Mayor Richard Daley’s Chicago police but it also marked the first time a Black candidate’s name was put into nomination for the presidency. Rev. Channing Phillips, a minister from Washington, D.C. and a local civil rights activist, was advanced as a “favorite son” candidate by members of the District of Columbia delegation. The delegation had originally been committed to Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated in April of 1968. Rev. Phillips received 68 votes on the floor of the convention.
At the same convention 28 year-old Georgia legislator Julian Bond has his name put into nomination for vice-president, becoming the first Black to be nominated by a major party. Bond declines due to the fact that his age does not meet the constitutional requirement that an individual must be 35 years-old to run for President or Vice President.
1972 Presidential Election
Rep. Shirley Chisholm of Brooklyn, New York, the first Black woman elected to Congress, makes a bold step by declaring herself a candidate for President of the United States. At the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-MN) released his Black delegates so they could support Chisholm, giving her 152 votes on the first ballot.
Tom Bradley is elected the first Black mayor of Los Angeles, California and goes on to serve for twenty years, making him the longest serving mayor in the city’s history.
President Jimmy Carter appoints civil rights leader and Atlanta Congressman Andrew Young Ambassador to the United Nations.
1984 Presidential Election
Rev. Jesse Jackson, head of Operation PUSH and aide to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., announces his candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination for President and makes a dramatic run, capturing five primaries and caucuses and 18.2 percent of the vote.
Black Mayor’s Round II
In the 1980’s Blacks made new inroads into City Hall in major cities across the country. Chicago Congressman Harold Washington broke new ground in the Windy City when he defeats former state legislator Bernard Epton on April 22, 1983, making him the city’s first Black mayor. In 1984 W. Wilson Goode, the Managing Director for the City of Philadelphia, becomes mayor of the city by defeating forer Mayor Frank L. Rizzo in a racially polarized primary. David Dinkins became New York City’s 106th mayor and first Black mayor on November 7, 1989 when he narrowly defeats Republican Rudolph Giuliani.
1988 Presidential Election
Rev. Jesse Jackson makes a second bid for the presidency and makes an even stronger showing. The civil rights leader amassed 7 million votes, won eleven caucuses and primaries and battled Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, the eventual Democratic nominee, all the way to the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. His dramatic speech on the floor of the convention marked a turning point in Democratic Party politics, as was evidenced by the naming of his convention campaign manager, Ronald H. Brown, as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
1989 Virginia Gubernatorial Election
Lieutenant Governor L. Douglas Wilder scores a major symbolic victory when he is elected Governor of Virginia on November 8, 1989. Wilder defeated Republican Marshall Coleman by less than half a percent in an election that prompted a recount. In 1992 Wilder launched a bid for the presidency but subsequently withdraw from consideration.
Chicagoan Carol Moseley Braun becomes the first Black woman and first Black Democrat, to be elected to the United States Senate on November 3, 1992.