In the previous installment of my article series on African American presidential politics, the 1968 campaign, and the Black radical imagination, we left Black comedian Dick Gregory at his March 1969 inauguration as the nation’s “president-in-exile.” It was a fitting end to a wildly entertaining campaign, which provided a window into the intersections of civil rights, political activism, and celebrity politics during the second half of the 1960s. But what of a figure whose campaign was in many ways more significant than Gregory’s, but who for a variety of reasons was largely ignored by both the Black press and American mainstream media?
This installment focuses on Communist Party candidate Charlene Mitchell, who became the first African American woman to run for President of the United States. Mitchell was born in 1930 in Cincinnati, Ohio, although her family relocated to Chicago when she was a child. Both parents had been born in the South and had moved northwards as part of the first wave of Black migration during the first three decades of the twentieth century. Her father was a laborer and railroad worker, who, like many African Americans in Chicago during the 1930s, became involved in local politics and eventually joined the Communist Party. At the age of 13, Mitchell joined American Youth for Democracy, the youth wing of the American Communist Party, which had formerly been known as the Young Communist League until political pressure from the federal government led to the adoption of a more “patriotic” name during World War II. Her first experience of activism came as part of an attempt to end segregated seating practices at the Windsor, a popular theater on Chicago’s Near North Side.
As scholars such as Erik McDuffie and Lisa Brock have argued, Mitchell emerged as one of the party’s most influential leaders during the 1950s and 1960s, helping to develop the party’s connections with African American labor activists and pushing for a greater engagement with Black diasporic and Third World politics. In his landmark 2011 study Sojourning For Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism, McDuffie suggests that Mitchell was one of if not the most important leader in a network of Black radical women who moved in and out of the Left during the early Cold War period. She travelled widely, connecting with activists such as Claudia Jones, a member of the Leading Committees of the Community Party in London, and Yusuf Dadoo, a leader of the South African Communist Party with strong connections to the South African Indian Congress and the African National Congress.
Despite the party’s declining influence — brought on by a variety of factors including federal suppression, internal disputes, and the growing influence of the postwar civil rights coalition and the emergence of the New Left — Mitchell remained an important party figurehead and respected organizer. By the onset of the 1968 presidential campaign, she was a logical candidate for the Communist Party ticket, and was officially nominated at the party’s national convention at the Diplomat Hotel in New York in July 1968, alongside Michael Zagarell, the party’s national youth director. In her acceptance speech, Mitchell thanked her comrades for their support and expressed her intentions to “put an ‘open-occupancy’ sign on the White House lawn.”1
While media outlets such as the Boston Globe and the New York Times acknowledged Mitchell’s nomination, her status as an African American woman was largely seen as indicative of the party’s failure to produce a “serious” candidate. The Boston Globe declared that the Communists had “nominated a black woman as presidential candidate and a man too young to hold the office of Vice President” — equating the constitutional unsuitability of Zagarell (twelve years shy of the required age of 35) and Mitchell’s de-facto unsuitability as a candidate who was both Black and female.2 Other outlets such as the Chicago Tribune saw Mitchell’s nomination as little more than a symbolic gesture to “dramatize what the Communists perceive to be the nation’s major discontents.”3 The African American press was similarly uninterested in the significance of Mitchell’s nomination, choosing to focus their attention on the more flamboyant public displays of Dick Gregory and Eldridge Cleaver.
To be sure, Mitchell’s campaign stood no chance of success — a reality Mitchell acknowledged in a press conference held after her nomination, where she quickly shifted attention away from the question of vote tallies and towards public engagement with party politics. Mitchell argued that the campaign’s success would depend on whether it could “present to the American people the [party’s] views and platforms in a way that the American people can begin to understand what Communists see as some of the solutions to some of the problems in our country.” However, the dismissal of her campaign underplayed the significance of her role within the party and her long history of political activism. From a different perspective, it relayed an uncertainty as to how to address the subject of Black presidential politics outside the lens of celebrity activism.
The low-key nature of Mitchell’s campaign was neatly encapsulated in an article by Harvard Crimson journalist Nicholas Gagarin after visiting her headquarters at the Frederick Douglass Book Store in Boston. The Crimson painted a picture of an amateur and out-of-date operation hidden amidst old copies of the Daily World and half-filled cups of stale coffee, where Mitchell spent”‘almost as much time helping friends by watching the store and answering the telephone as she does campaigning.” However, Gagarin’s profile also conveyed the sincerity of Mitchell’s political beliefs and her critique of Black activists connected with the New Left and the moderate wing of the civil rights struggle. Mitchell contended that “what we need is a revolutionary transformation … replacing white capitalism with black capitalism isn’t going to solve the problems of poverty: the problems of poverty are rooted in the nature of capitalism itself.”
A longtime Communist Party member, labor activist, and community organizer, Mitchell’s 1968 campaign helps to connect the anti-colonial and Black liberation praxis of early Cold War activists such as Claudia Jones and Louise Thompson Patterson with Black feminism during the Black Power era and the first wave of Black female elected officials, which emerged during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Furthermore, Mitchell’s experiences can be read as an important precursor to the more widely documented efforts of Shirley Chisholm to secure the Democratic nomination in the 1972 presidential race. While Mitchell was fundamentally further to the left than her Democratic counterpart, the mainstream and African American media response to her nomination was framed by the same “twin jeopardies of race and sex,” which would be dramatically amplified by Chisholm’s campaign four years later. In a campaign overshadowed by the exploits of Black male third-party candidates, Mitchell also provides an important reminder of how Black women struggled to be taken seriously as political leaders and to carve out new spaces for the imagination and articulation of Black radical politics outside of the two-party system.