When Kamala Harris entered the 2020 U.S. presidential race, she chose campaign materials with a sleek typeface and red-and-yellow color scheme that mirrored those of the late politician Shirley Chisholm, who made history in 1972 after becoming the first Black woman to compete for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Although neither Chisholm nor Harris won the presidency, they are among the many women presidential candidates who “helped to put 18 million cracks” in “that highest, hardest glass ceiling,” as Hillary Clinton put it after losing the 2016 election.
As African Americans, Chisholm and Harris belong to a select group of Black women who’ve run for president, bucking society's often narrow expectations for women of their race.
“As a woman of color, you cannot let the outside world define who you are because if you do, you won't do or be anything,” says Shola Lynch, director of the 2004 documentary, “CHISHOLM ’72: Unbought & Unbossed,” and curator of the Schomburg Center’s film and recording archive.
Harris’s swearing-in ceremony as vice president on January 20, 2021, positioned her just a heartbeat away from the nation’s highest office. Her achievement follows in the footsteps of Black women who ran for president long before she did.
“Black women are coalition builders,” says Glynda Carr, president and CEO of Higher Heights for America, a Black women’s political advocacy group. “Oftentimes, you'll read in history about women or men or women of color who ran for office, and their candidacy may not have been viable, but they create a coalition of leaders, particularly women.”
These are the Black women who have made a bid for the highest office in the country.
Although it’s been widely and incorrectly reported that Chisholm was the first Black woman to run for president, Charlene Mitchell actually beat her to it. Just 38 at the time, Mitchell entered the 1968 presidential race on the Communist Party ticket with running mate Michael Zagarell, the party’s national youth director. Mitchell’s platform included plans to fight racial and economic injustice, but she only appeared on the ballot in two states.
With the motto “unbought and unbossed,” Chisholm ran for president four years after Mitchell. She had already made history when she became the first African American congresswoman in 1968, after having served in the New York State Assembly. In her campaign, Chisholm sought to advocate for low-income people, women and other marginalized groups. She also prioritized issues related to the employment and education sectors, as she had a background in education.
“She realized at a certain point that nobody's going to give her an opportunity unless she makes the opportunity happen for herself, and she could do that because she had been employed as a school teacher, she had saved money and had a stable home life, and she was supported by a group of political activists in her political district,” Lynch says. But, she adds, Chisholm’s success in politics would not have happened without the social changes that the civil rights movement had fostered. Chisholm died in 2005.
After Chisholm’s headline-making presidential bid, community organizer and civil rights activist Margaret Wright ran on the People’s Party ticket in 1976. A former factory worker and Black Panther Party education minister, Wright cared deeply about such issues as education reform, labor rights, and racial equality. She died in 1996.
Educator Isabell Masters started her own political party, called Looking Back, to run on during the 1984, 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns. Masters' five presidential campaigns are the most for any woman in U.S. history. She died in 2011.
When she ran for president in 1988, psychologist Lenora Fulani’s name appeared on every state’s ballot—a first for a woman and African American. This helped her win more votes for president than any other woman had previously. Fulani explained that she became an independent because she considered the two-party system hostile to Black Americans, saying, "My own involvement in third party politics was based on wanting to create a way out of being essentially held hostage to a two-party system that was not only hostile to [Black Americans] but hostile to the democratic participation of all the American people."
Workers World Party ticket candidate Monica Moorehead, a teacher, ran for president in 1996, 2000, and 2016. The Workers World Party identifies as a Marxist-Leninist party dedicated to fighting for social revolution. Ahead of the 2016 election, Moorhead explained her objective, saying, “As a revolutionary working-class party we use these elections to present a real alternative to the empty promises that the Democrats and Republicans convey every four years.” Moorhead writes about politics and current events for the Workers World website.
Joy Chavis Rocker
Floridian Angel Joy Chavis Rocker entered the 2000 presidential race as a Republican, the only African American on this list to do so. “We need to recruit a new breed of Republican,” Rocker said at the time. “My candidacy will force the Republican Party to look at itself and decide if it is a ‘big tent’ or not.” She died in 2003.
Carol Moseley Braun
The first Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate, a feat she achieved in 1992, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois ran for president as a Democrat in the 2004 presidential election. She lost the Democratic nomination to John Kerry.
Born in 1984, antiwar activist Peta Lindsay didn’t yet meet the age requirement to serve in the role when she ran for president in 2012 on the Party for Socialism and Liberation ticket. She cited Chisholm as an inspiration while explaining her decision to run, pointing out that they both refused “to be put 'in our place.’”
Kamala Harris announced her decision to run for president on January 21, 2019. Having served as San Francisco’s district attorney, California’s attorney general, and as a U.S. senator, she kicked off her presidential campaign with high hopes. She was forced to drop out of the race at the end of that year as she struggled in the polls and her fundraising goals fell short.
Carr sees parallels between Harris and Chisholm, both of whom were born to parents who hailed from the Caribbean. “They’re the daughters of immigrants,” she says. “They belong to historically Black Greek letter organizations. Shirley Chisholm was a member of Delta Sigma Theta, and Harris is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha. It shows that belonging to local sororities, local political organizations, and other civic organizations actually helps to build the foundation to create leaders like this.”
In August 2020, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden selected Harris to be his running mate. The pair went on to defeat incumbents President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence during the November election. With a Jamaican father and a late South Asian mother, Harris became the first woman of any race and the first Black or South Asian American to serve as vice president when she took her oath of office on January 20, 2021.
Lynch reflects that with record numbers of women serving as elected officials today, Chisholm “would be so pleased to know that she's not passing on a single baton, but there's a million relay races going on and a zillion batons being passed.”