The History of Black Presidential Candidates Barack Obama is on the cusp of becoming the first African-American presidential candidate to run in a general election, but he is not the first to try. Ron Walters and Clarence Page join Farai Chideya to discuss the black politicians who have eyed the highest office in the land.
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The History of Black Presidential Candidates

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The History of Black Presidential Candidates

The History of Black Presidential Candidates

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From NPR News, this is News & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya.

Barack Obama may have gotten millions more votes and raised millions more dollars than any other African-American candidate for president. But he is not the first to throw his hat into the ring.

In 1972, former US Congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm, became the first African-American to seek the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. And whether we are talking Republicans, Democrats, or Independents, there are plenty of black folks who've tried to reach the highest rung of elective office.

We are going to dig into the ways these candidates shaped history with Ron Walters and Clarence Page. Ron is a professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland. He is also the author of, "Black Presidential Politics in America: A Strategic Approach."

And Clarence Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

Hi, guys. how are you doing?

Mr. CLARENCE PAGE (Pulitzer Prize-winning Syndicated Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Hi, Farai.

Dr.. RON WALTERS (Professor of Government and Politics, University of Maryland): Good to be with you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: So, let's start with Shirley Chisholm's campaign, Ron, why did she say she was running for president and what was her approach?

Dr. WALTERS: Well, she said she was running for president, at that time, because Richard Nixon, of course, was president, and many of these presidencies have been a raid against the conservatism of that particular age.

But she wanted to make a mark for African-Americans, but she ran a campaign addressed actually to women's issues. And she was a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and a number of her colleagues had said that they are going to run, but they didn't.

But this was a very important year because this was the year of the National Black Political Convention, ten thousand blacks converging on Gary, Indiana...

CHIDEYA: And that helped shape the whole future of people, not just at, you know, the executive level, but all these different levels of government, correct?

Dr. WALTERS: Yes. It announced the coming of a new electoral age. And so, Shirley Chisholm's campaign was sort of pegged to that.

CHIDEYA: So, when you say that she focused on women's issues, what kind of platforms was she promoting?

Dr.. WALTERS: Well, you had some of the same issues that you have today, about equal pay, for equal work. Certainly, you had the women's right to choose, and those were very important issues of the time because they were part of the Women's Movement, that had come off of the back of the Civil Rights Movement. And so Gloria Steinem, and many of the people who were involved in that movement, were, actually, behind the Shirley Chisholm candidacy.

CHIDEYA: Now, Ron, I'm going to stay with you a second before we go to Clarence. You, also, worked on Reverend Jackson's campaigns in '84 and '88. So, how would you describe what the Reverend and staffers, like you, were trying to do with that campaign?

Dr. WALTERS: Well, this is also interesting, because the Jackson campaign in '84, was a raid against Reaganism. Ronald Reagan had come into office in 1980, and had shown, by 1983, that, was he was going to do, he had done a number of things, of course, to devalue Civil Rights, to put people in office who didn't believe in Civil Rights, to take money out of the urban areas, to actually be someone that we thought was really against sort of the enlightened age of the 1960s.

And so, that campaign started in Chicago, really as something against (unintelligible), and attracted a number of black ministers, and before you knew it, they were asking the Reverend to run for president, and so, we lifted that up on the national stage as a vehicle to counter Reaganism.

Same thing in 1988, of course, Ronald Reagan was just leaving office, but his policies were still there. But by 1988, the Jackson campaign had really reached a new level. Three and a half million votes in '84, seven million in '88, and by the time we got to the convention, Jackson had over 1,200 delegates.

So, it was really, people talk today about the first serious campaign, actually, it was the Jackson campaign in '88 that was the first serious presidential, black presidential campaign.

CHIDEYA: OK, Clarence, this is going to be the omnibus of questions. Compare for me Reverend Jackson's campaign in '88, Al Sharpton's campaign in 2004, and Barack Obama's campaign, today.

Mr. PAGE: I guess the best way to compare them would be evolutionary. Ron, certainly, touched on how significant the moves were from Shirley Chisholm's campaign to Jesse Jackson's campaigns via Harold Washington's campaign, which, if you look at "Eyes on the Prize II" the last episode is the Harold Washington campaign in Chicago. Many people see that as really being the epitome, in many ways, or a completion, if you will, of the legacy of the Civil Rights movement.

And, of course, it won't really be complete until we have total equal rights, and you can put Barack Obama in the (unintelligible). But could Barack Obama be where he is now were it not, not only for Jackson and Sharpton's political advances, but also for Colin Powel, for that matter being thought of, and being urged to run, even though he didn't in the mid '90s? It at least got America past the mindset of not being able to imagine a black man or woman in that job. So I'd say, you know, in a nutshell you can say that they're all part of a continuum.

CHIDEYA: Now, Ron, when you think about how the media has approached the idea of a viable black candidate, it is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot, you argued that Reverend Jackson's '88 campaign was a viable candidacy, and, certainly, he had a lot of non-black voters who did vote for him. But what does that phrase even mean?

Dr. WALTERS: Well, in my book I argue this. That it really came to mean something a little different. Because if you look at 2004, and the fact that Reverend Sharpton ran, but he didn't really do very well, the same thing with Carol Mosley Brown, it came to mean that black people were interested in finding someone who is electable.

And that is one of the reasons why they didn't vote for them because John Kerry eventually got their votes. They wanted somebody beyond race, who they could actually see in the White House.

That also was a sentiment that's carried over to the 2008 electoral cycle. Because when Barack Obama won Iowa, that really was the signal for blacks in South Carolina to come aboard. So, electability and race really have been the key determinants of what we mean by somebody who is going to run a credible black presidential candidacy.

CHIDEYA: Clarence, we have, also, had some interesting contenders. You have Alan Keyes, who has been the only black Republican to run for the White House. He campaigned two times as a Republican, he is running this time around with something called the Constitution Party. Tell us a little bit about how he approaches race, if at all, in his runs.

Mr. PAGE: I suppose. Yes. I have to, also, inject Dick Gregory. I don't want to bypass him back in 1960s, there...

Dr. WALTERS: '68.

Mr. PAGE: In the late '60s. Thank you, '68, with his protest campaign at that time, I mean, that was a very big deal at the time, just as Julian Bond's nomination from the floor of the Democratic Convention, even though he wasn't old enough to be able to accept, you know, this is all a time of great change that we've been seeing.

Alan Keyes, in many ways, is in a political world of his own a lot of folks would say because he alienated a number of fellow Republicans when he ran against Barack Obama in Illinois, because he was so far right, but he is the darling, I can assure you, of many in the Christian Right, who I've talked to.

I have been to the Christian Coalition rallies, in Virginia where Alan Keyes spoke, and predominantly white conservatives jumping up on their feet, in tears, they love the man, and he's certainly dedicated to his agenda, which is a very conservative, very socially conservative agenda, and he wants to go back to the Declaration of Independence and views the Constitution as rather a radical new document by comparison.

But he's always there, and, again, I think he did a lot to help folks, say, on the conservative right to, at least, get past the idea of not being able to imagine a black president. So, I think, you know, in many ways he's very much a part of this same history.

CHIDEYA: Now, Ron, what about independent candidates? You mentioned, you know, some of the different people who have run, essentially, as protest candidates but, you know, we have had a bunch of different people in different independent parties, and, this time around, you have former Democratic Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney of Georgia. She lost a reelection bid for her seat. She's now in the lead for delegates for the Green Party's presidential ticket. What do you think is her reason for running on the Green Party, and what do you think she will accomplish?

Dr. WALTERS: Well, we haven't tended to pay much attention to blacks running in independent parties. Clarence is right, you go all the way back to the civil rights period and you had Dick Gregory, you had, you know, people running on the, what was called then, the Peace and Freedom Party and the Freedom and Peace Party in the 1960s. The Green Party has evolved this mechanism for black candidacies, but, as I said, no one pays very much attention to them. They get less than two percent of the vote. And so that, I think, they're really parties that are around to make a statement, and a progressive statement at that.

One of the (unintelligible) here is that progressive politics simply doesn't have a voice in the American political culture. And so, this is the one place where progressive black politicians have been able to run with some slight visibility to project a progressive voice. But they don't have much political significance, i.e. voter significance for that.

CHIDEYA: Clarence, when you think about Barack Obama's campaign, which we have covered extensively and pretty much everyone who covers news has covered extensively, what do you think he might have learned from the various candidacies of both major party African-American candidates and some of the independents?

Mr. PAGE: I think he picked up, well, certainly the kind lessons we've talked about, the evolution of politics to black politics from civil rights movement on. But, I think, Barack Obama owes just as much to what he learned as community organizer in Chicago and a teacher at Saul Alinsky's school for community organizers and a man who understood that the civil rights movement was one of many movements in American history that was able to generate progress by pulling people together at the grass roots around a common cause.

You know, Dr. King's coalition was not just black followers. It was multi-racial, multi-regional, multi-religious, and it really got things done, and we can certainly see Barack Obama in Iowa, beginning in Iowa, he had more organization than anybody else. Hillary Clinton's campaign took the caucus states for granted. They regret that now.

We can see right up to the present, when they go into a new state they have more people on the ground, they rally the independents out there very effectively, and this is why Hillary Clinton has done so well in the big states because insurgent campaigns always have a tougher time in the big states because that's where more of the establishment party people are. Hillary Clinton has many more contacts with those party chairmen and that infrastructure. So, Obama has learned from history in many ways, I would say.

CHIDEYA: Ron, just quickly, give me one quick lesson that you think the Obama campaign learned from previous African-American candidates.

Dr. WALTERS: Well, I think prescience, that is to say a sense of timing, knowing where you are in history. Certainly, Reverend Jackson, no one better than him at knowing something about political timing.

I think that this campaign is not so much about Barack Obama as it is about the fact that American people really want to change course. They said that in the 2006 election cycle, where they changed the Congress from Republican to Democratic control.

He was prescient enough to pick up on that, build a campaign around it, and to be able to articulate it with his intelligence.

CHIDEYA: All right, Ron. Thanks so much. We were talking to Ron Walters, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, author of "Freedom is Not Enough, Black Candidates and American Presidential Politics."

Also, Clarence Page, a Pulitzer Prize winning syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune. And this is NPR News.

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