When Hazel Dukes stepped onto the Democratic National Convention stage in 1972 to second Shirley Chisholm’s presidential nomination, it amounted to more than history.
It was a moment of hope.
The legacy of Chisholm, who famously said she was “unbossed and unbothered,” was cemented that day as the first Black woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Dukes said Chisholm and others hoped her historic run would lay the foundation for future generations of Black women to ascend into powerful political roles to usher in systemic change within their communities.
And 48 years later, that hope is being realized as California Sen. Kamala Harris prepares to accept the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nomination on Wednesday. She will be the first Black woman and first Asian American woman named to a major party presidential ticket.
“Shirley exhibited the strength of Ida B. Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune and Fannie Lou Hamer and she was a powerhouse,” said Dukes, 88, a lifelong activist and current president of the NAACP New York State Conference. “African American women, we’ve been in this struggle. And now we are showing our power and our strength. We are saying this is our moment and our space, and we are claiming it.”
That energy could decide whether Harris and Joe Biden win in November. Black voters, especially women, are a critical part of the Democratic coalition and could sway the results in critical states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Florida.
But historically, Black women have fought the racism and sexism that prevented them from having prominent roles within the movements for women’s suffrage and civil rights. While their organizing and political contributions had measurable impact, experts say, they were largely relegated to the sidelines, or in some cases, seemingly wiped from the historical record.
That reminder is especially clear as America marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote — a right that most Black women weren’t afforded until much later.
“This is certainly a watershed moment for them, but I do think it’s important to emphasize that descriptive representation, as powerful as this is for women, is only that much more sweeter when it results in substantive representation,” said Ravi Perry, Howard University’s political science chair. “That upper glass ceiling is still there, and we are still one of the last developed nations to see a woman head of state.”
So, while Harris is set to address the nation for what some hope will be a rousing speech at a time of immense economic uncertainty and racial reckoning, others hope her remarks will be set against the legacy of the many Black women on whose shoulders they believe she stands.
Her speech follows former first lady Michelle Obama, whose powerful remarks Monday kicked off the convention and outlined the dire stakes for the election ahead. She declared that President Donald Trump was “in over his head” and the “wrong president for our country.”
Mrs. Obama hinted at the legacy of Black women in politics and how, even in 2020, a Black woman speaking with conviction at the convention might not be met with open arms by some, a stark reminder that the road to prominence within politics and the Democratic Party has not been easy for women of color, especially Black women.
“Now, I understand that my message won’t be heard by some people,” Mrs. Obama said. “We live in a nation that is deeply divided, and I am a Black woman speaking at the Democratic convention.”
The first Black woman to run technically for vice president was Charlotta Bass in 1952. Bass, who was a newspaper publisher, ran through the Progressive Party, according to author and Johns Hopkins University history professor Martha Jones.
Bass receives little attention, Jones said, because her radical ideas at the time were met with great resistance.
“I think there’s a temptation to kind of sanitize Black women’s political history, and I think part of the reason we don’t remember Bass is because she doesn’t fit a shiny, polished mold of respectable Black women,” said Jones, whose forthcoming book is “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All.”
“Black women have always been ambitious and nimble and willing to engage in a broad range of political views in order to figure out the problem of an American democracy that for so long disappoints Black Americans,” she said.
But the legacy of Black women extends beyond politics, according to Johnnetta Cole, who became the first African American female president of historically Black Spelman College and national chair of the National Council of Negro Women.
“I have had this extraordinary honor of seeing strong Black women leaders, and there’s an expression of, ‘If you see one, you can be one’,” said Cole, who was mentored by civil rights legends Mary McLeod Bethune and Dorothy Height. “We are shaped and we are propelled by others. There’s no question that our foremothers paved the way. But while we can talk in a moment about the extraordinary, exquisite selection of Sen. Kamala Harris, let’s not declare that it’s all victory.”
Much work remains. America has yet to have its first Black female governor. And while inroads have been made, Black women remain significantly underrepresented in politics.
And younger grassroots organizers are balancing the historic nature of Harris’ selection with her record as California attorney general and district attorney in San Francisco, which some believe could make it difficult for her and Biden to galvanize support among younger Black and Latino voters.
Some of Harris’ critics say she focused on issues that punished poor and minority families. Among them, she took on truancy and supported a statewide law modeled on her city initiative that threatened parents with jail time, fines and lost public benefits if they failed to send their children to school. But in recent years, Harris has supported more progressive criminal justice reform measures.
Karissa Lewis, the Movement for Black Lives’ national field director, said she knows many activists who are inspired by Harris and others who have been “deeply and negatively impacted by some of the historical legacy of Harris.”
But Lewis said it’s too soon to yet know whether Harris will truly follow in the steps of women who came before her like Fannie Lou Hamer, a beloved civil rights activist.
“It is clear to us at M4BL that no matter who occupies the White House in January, it will require sustained struggle in building our political power to be able to shape a true Black national agenda,” Lewis said.
“Fannie Lou Hamer is the model and someone that a lot of folks in modern-day movements look to,” she said. “So thinking back to some of Fannie’s powerful speeches, it was clear that she was speaking for the people and felt accountable to the people. I think time will tell if Harris sees herself aligned with movement and brings movement along with her.”