First Black woman presidential candidate: The Communist Party’s Charlene Mitchell
Charlene Mitchell was nominated by the Communist Party USA as its presidential candidate on July 4, 1968. She was the first Black woman to be nominated for the presidency by any political party. | People's World Archives

The selection of Sen. Kamala Harris as the vice presidential candidate of the Democratic Party has made history, as she is the first Black woman to be nominated for that position on a major party ticket. But history was also made on July 4, 1968 when Charlene Mitchell was nominated for president of the United States by the Communist Party USA. She was the first Black woman to be nominated for the country’s highest office by any political party. The text that follows is from a speech made by Mitchell while on the campaign trail in 1968, but it reads as though it could be delivered at a Black Lives Matter rally today. Excerpts of the speech appeared in the pages of Daily World, predecessor of People’s World. The full speech was also published as a pamphlet with the title, “Communist Candidate Speaks on Black Liberation.”

I have been a Communist for most of my adult life. I joined the party when I finally decided that the economic system that controls this country not only cannot solve the problems of Black people, it actually helps to prevent such a solution.

The economic system of capitalism and the political institutions which serve it have failed the people because it is incapable of destroying once and for all the racism that infects this nation.

It is incapable because to do so would mean putting an end to the additional profits gathered by maintaining job discrimination and an unequal wage standard. It would mean ending a situation where many Black people are maintained as a pool of unemployed and under-employed labor. It would mean ending the advantage of the bosses served by division on racial lines.

Also, such an assault on racism would remove the ideological underpinning of the conduct of foreign affairs that allows the waging of a racist genocidal war in Vietnam.

This economic system does not function to meet the needs of the people of this country. It guarantees only the bare necessities to working people; it maintains a large group of poor people; and the rich get richer and richer and richer—getting more money than they know what to do with.

The cover of the original 1968 campaign pamphlet, “Communist Candidate Speaks on Black Liberation.” | Courtesy of CPUSA Archives

While a Black mother slaves to make ends meet for her children on a meager welfare check and a Black worker is told to work harder and faster to produce more and more in less and less time, the number of billionaires increases and the rich spend more on their dogs and cats than most of us do on our children.

I have a son 17 years of age and I, like every other Black mother in this country, constantly worry about his future. The ghetto schools get older and older, the quality of education for our children gets poorer and poorer. The world is opening up great things for people to do with their hands and their minds. But for the most part, Black children are denied the preparation to take advantage of them.

Capitalism also represses us. The men who hold power in this country fear Black people and the potential power that lies in Black communities. Now Black people have moved to assert that power and the repression that follows. More and more the police club is being sent to meet the protest of Black people. Our militant leaders are being framed up and jailed. Others are subject to attempts to intimidate them into acceptance of the present situation.

Black people must get together if we are to withstand this attack. There must be unity among our people, be they socialists, liberals, conservatives, communists, or independents. We must demand that all discrimination bars that keep us from taking advantage of everything that exists for other people be destroyed at once.

We must demand power to determine the conditions in our own communities. We must demand control over the police that patrol the community, the schools that educate our children. We—the people affected—should run the welfare commission, the library commission, the draft board, and the public health board.

In the country, these demands are for people’s power. In our communities, these demands are for Black power.

These are things which can be done in our country even while capitalism hangs around. There is a lot of business we can take care of now. But as a Communist, I have decided that in time we will have to face that ultimate business—usher in a system where the people own and control the wealth together—bring on socialism.

The men who run this country…know what we want. They know what we need. They know what we are willing and able to do to get it. And so they seek to keep us divided—one from another and away from allies outside our own community.

Another thing that made me a Communist was the realization that our only possible allies in this fight are working people. For all their problems, they are the only group who do not benefit from our oppression and are oppressed by the system. The country’s rulers want to keep Black and white working people apart. The Communist Party is dedicated to the idea that—whatever the difficulties—they must be brought together, or neither can advance.

I appeal to my Black brothers and sisters to consider the alternative that my party offers. If you agree with all or most of our programs…if you want to get in this thing, join up.


CONTRIBUTOR

Charlene Mitchell
Charlene Mitchell

Charlene Alexander Mitchell was born in 1930 in Cincinnati, moved as a child to Chicago. She grew up in the Cabrini-Green public housing project. As a young teen, she picketed segregated places in Chicago. Her long career of unrelenting activism and persistence is most famously illustrated in the success of the campaign to free Angela Davis. In her solidarity visits, she met with CPUSA leader Claudia Jones who had been deported to England, Joseph Dadoo of the ANC, and other international leaders. In 1994 she served as an official observer of the first democratic elections in post-apartheid South Africa and was an observer at the congress of the South African Communist Party that year. In recent years, she returned to Cuba for rehabilitation medical treatment following a stroke suffered in 2007. Charlene Mitchell joined the Communist Party USA at 16 emerging as one of the most influential leaders in the party from the late 1950s to the 1980s. She now belongs to the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.

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