African American Presidential Politics and the Black Radical Imagination

Dick Gregory, 1964 (Herman Hiller: LOC)

In March 1969, at a grade school in Washington, D.C., an eclectic audience gathered to celebrate the inauguration of comedian Dick Gregory as the nation’s “president-in-exile.” The event was originally planned for American University, before the college’s president shut down proceedings, prompting a “hit and run occupation of campus buildings.” Gregory was unperturbed, completing his swearing-in ceremony with customary flair, before declaring to his raucous band of supporters that “whenever the occupant of the White House fails to respond to the just demands of human need, the independent army will bring their concerns to the Black House to their President-in-Exile.” According to Black weekly magazine Jet, Gregory informed spectators that his shadow presidency would be primarily concerned with ending the war in Vietnam and tackling issues such as bad housing, education, and ongoing discrimination.

Gregory’s “inauguration” marked the denouement to one of the more unlikely and entertaining presidential campaigns in American history. Over the previous eighteen months, the comedian had toured the country, focusing on college campuses and local events within Black communities, to promote his efforts to become the first Black president of the United States. While Gregory’s antics attracted considerable interest, he was just one of a number of Black activists and political campaigners who became direct participants in the 1968 presidential race. Alongside Gregory was pioneering Black feminist and labor organizer Charlene Mitchell, who ran as the presidential candidate for the American Communist Party, and Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, who parlayed his editorial role at Ramparts magazine into a New Left-backed presidential bid with the Peace and Freedom Party. Joining this trio was Paul Boutelle, the Socialist Workers Party pick for vice-president and former leader of the all-Black Freedom Now Party which had been founded during the 1963 March on Washington.

Over my next four posts on Black Perspectives, I will address each of these individuals in turn, detailing their participation in the 1968 presidential campaign and connecting these experiences to their broader political histories and trajectories. In particular, I am interested in their place within two distinct but overlapping traditions: Firstly, African American presidential politics – a term I use here in reference to both the specific efforts of Black Americans to gain access to the White House, and the historical and continuing significance of race (the way ideas about race and racial formation, as well as racial anxieties, resentments and animosities) in shaping American presidential politics; Secondly, the ways in which these individual Black presidential and vice-presidential campaigns provide an expression of and a window into what Robin Kelley and other scholars have described as the “Black Radical Imagination.”

If we needed any reminder, the potent mix of white anxieties and identity politics which propelled Donald Trump into the White House provided compelling evidence of the continuing significance of race in presidential politics. It has become almost passé to point out that Trump is a racist, something which can be traced in a straight line from his efforts to keep Black tenants out of his buildings to his role in the “Birther” movement which sought to delegitimize the election of America’s first Black president. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has argued, whiteness, for Trump, is “neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power…whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies.”

These same racial anxieties and animosities played a central role in the 1968 presidential campaign, most notably through the impact of third-party candidate and ardent segregationist George Wallace, whose message of racial hatred would carry him to more than 13% of the popular vote and victory in five Southern states. They also helped to shape the development of Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” – his racially loaded appeals to States’ rights and other touchstones for conservative white voters which underpinned the emergence of the New Right and focused the white backlash to the passage of landmark civil rights legislation such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. As scholars such as Michael Cohen have noted, racial tensions helped to guide individual campaigns, exacerbating the politics of division which characterized the campaign.1

At the same time, the 1968 election was held up as a litmus test for increasing African American political representation and as further evidence of a fundamental shift in Black voting patterns. For generations after the civil war, African Americans had remained loyal to the party of Lincoln, with a popular adage contending that “The Republican Party is the ship, all else is the sea.” However, the shifting allegiances of Black voters from Republican to Democrat – something which began during the New Deal and which cemented during the decades following World War II – would become codified during the 1968 campaign. At the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Black minister and civil rights leader Channing E. Phillips became the first African American to be nominated for president of the United States by a major political party, while Julian Bond became the first to have his name entered into nomination as a major-party candidate for the role of vice-president. These landmark (if largely symbolic) events served as a precursor to more serious Black presidential campaigns over subsequent decades, culminating in the electoral victories of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

And yet, the 1968 campaign also marked a moment of profound dissatisfaction with the two-party system among some sections of the Black community – something which has become more pronounced over the intervening years, as the limited ability of Black elected officials to change dominant political cultures within the two-party system has become increasingly apparent. At the same time, scholars such as Fredrick Harris, Michael Dawson, and Adolph Reed, Jr. have warned that growing Black political representation has been used of evidence of America’s supposed move towards a ‘post-racial society’, and a retreat from a politics aimed at challenging racial inequality head-on. Expressed in a different way by hip-hop artist 2pac Shakur, we might reflect on his contention that “although it seems heaven sent, we ain’t ready to see a Black president.” The tremendous backlash to Obama’s election and the rise of Trumpism has added further fuel to Harris’ question of whether the election of the first Black president was worth “the price of the ticket.”2

Rejecting the restrictions of the two-party system, Gregory, Mitchell, Cleaver and Boutelle instead embraced minor-party presidential campaigns as a vehicle for the expression of the “Black radical imagination.” In his 2002 book Freedom Dreams, Robin Kelley stressed the importance of imagination in the creation of Black political futures, arguing that “there are very few contemporary political spaces where the energies of love and imagination are understood and respected as powerful social forces.” Other scholars such as Robeson Taj Frazier have explored this notion with regards to Black diasporic struggle and the “philosophical shift from the pursuit of racial integration and reform within a liberal democracy to the attempt to build the prospective infrastructure for an independent Black nation.”3

None of the four candidates I discuss over the coming posts had any chance of being elected into the White House. Nevertheless, against the backdrop of the Black Power movement and the decolonization movement in Africa, their campaigns offer a window into the liberatory vision and political imagination of Black radical activists at home and abroad. Unshackled from the politics of the two-party system, Gregory, Mitchell, Cleaver and Boutelle offered distinct but overlapping visions of what a Black presidency, and Black freedom, might look like in a nation that appeared unwilling to accept either.

  1.  Michael Cohen, American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
  2.  Fredrick Harris, The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); Adolph Reed, Jr., “Nothing Left,” Harper’s,March 2014; Michael Dawson, Not In Our Lifetimes: The Future of Black Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).
  3.  Robin Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002); Robeson Taj Frazier, The East Is Black: Cold War China in the Black Radical Imagination (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014); Russell Rickford, We Are An African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
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E. James West

E. James West is a Visiting Professor and Fulbright Scholar at Elon University, and a Leverhulme Early Career Scholar at Northumbria University. His book, Lerone Bennett, Jr. EBONY Magazine and Popular Black History, is forthcoming with the University of Illinois Press.