- For minor as well as major parties, see List of African-American United States presidential and vice presidential candidates
Major party African American candidates for President of the United States did not run in primaries until nearly the third quarter of the 20th century, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965) opened up political participation to blacks in the South. In addition, party changes to give more weight to candidates' performance in primaries, rather than to party leaders' negotiation in secret, opened up the fields. In 2008, Senator Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States, the first African American to win the office.
This article is only about major party candidates who completed full campaigns. Third party candidates and those of major parties who dropped out of the primary process early, can be found at List of African American United States presidential and vice presidential candidates.
In 1888 Frederick Douglass was invited to speak at the Republican National Convention. Afterward during the roll call vote, he received one vote, so was nominally a candidate for the presidency. In those years, the candidates for the presidency and vice-presidency were chosen by state representatives voting at the nominating convention. Many decisions were made by negotiations of state and party leaders "behind closed doors." Douglass was not a serious candidate in contemporary terms.
George Edwin Taylor
In 1904, George Edwin Taylor was president of the National Negro Democratic League. Southern Democrats were enacting laws that disfranchised most Black voters and were imposing segregation through “Jim Crow” laws. Northern Democrats seemed unwilling and/or unable to control the excesses of their Southern parties. The National Negro Democratic League was fractured by the debate over the issue of linking the nation’s currency to silver as well as to gold. By 1904, Taylor was positioned to abandon the party and bureau that he had led as president for two terms. It was not a good time to be a Black Democrat. It also was a time when lynching was creeping northward and when scientific racism was gaining acceptance within the nation’s intellectual and scientific community (see Nadir of race relations).
“Judge” Taylor made that change in 1904 when the executive committee of the newly formed National Negro Liberty Party asked him to become their candidate for the office of president of the United States. That party had its origin in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1897 when it was known as the Ex-Slave Petitioners’ Assembly. It was one of several leagues or assemblies that had formed at the end of the century to support bills then working their way through the United States Congress to grant pensions to former slaves. These leagues claimed that membership in a league was required to qualify for a pension, if and when Congress passed such a bill. In 1900, that Assembly reorganized as the National Industrial Council and in 1903 added issues of lynching, Jim Crow laws, disfranchisement, anti-imperialism and scientific racism to its agenda, broadening its appeal to Black voters in Northern and Midwestern states. In 1904 the Council moved its headquarters to Chicago, Illinois and reorganized as the National Negro Civil Liberty Party.
The first national convention of that new party convened in St. Louis, Missouri in July 1904, with plans to field candidates in states that had sizeable Black populations. Its platform included planks that dealt with disfranchisement, insufficient career opportunities for Blacks in the United States military, imperialism, public ownership of railroads, “self-government” for the District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.), lynching, and pensions for ex-slaves. The convention also selected “Col.” William Thomas Scott of East St. Louis, Illinois as its candidate for the office of president of the United States for the 1904 election and William C. Payne a little-known teacher from Warrenton Virginia as his Vice-Presidential running mate. The 37-year-old Payne who later founded an industrial school in Puerto Rico, served as a Cabin Steward on the USS Dixie during the Spanish-American War. When convention delegates had left St. Louis and when Scott was arrested and jailed for having failed to pay a fine imposed in 1901, the party’s executive committee turned to Taylor (who had just stepped down as president of the National Negro Democratic League) to lead the party’s ticket.
Taylor’s campaign in 1904 was unsuccessful. The party’s promise to put 300 speakers on the stump to support his candidacy and its plan to field 6,000 candidates for local offices failed to materialize. No newspaper supported the party. State laws kept the party from listing candidates officially on election ballots. Taylor’s name failed to be added to any state ballot. The votes he received were not recorded in state records. William Scott later estimated that the party had received 65,000 votes nationwide, a number that could not be verified.
In 1972, Shirley Chisholm was the first African-American major party candidate for president. She was a candidate for the Democratic Party nomination and participated in the Democratic primaries in numerous states. She campaigned in 12 states and won 28 delegates. In 1984 and 1988, Jesse Jackson was the first major party black candidate to run nationwide primary campaigns. He also competed as a Democratic Party candidate.
In 1992 Alan Keyes was the first African-American candidate to run in the Republican presidential primaries. Keyes participated again, unsuccessfully, in 1996, 2000, and 2008. In 2004, Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton were unsuccessful candidates in the Democratic primaries. "Tea Party" Republican Herman Cain has announced his candidacy for the presidency in 2012, though the nomination ultimately went to Mitt Romney.
President Barack Obama
Senator Obama was identified as a potential candidate for president of the U.S. after his eloquent speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The distinct possibility of an African American becoming elected was realized as the Democratic primary elections got under way in early 2008. Barack Obama emerged as a serious contender for the nomination and was the first African American to win the nomination of a major party in a United States presidential election. As the Democratic Party's nominee he went on to win the general election on November 4, 2008. On January 20, 2009 he was sworn in as the first African American president of the United States. He was re-elected to a second term as President on November 6, 2012.
The implications of his victory were discussed during the race, and one focus included the effect on race relations, American society and federal politics. The discussions took place in political circles, on cable news by pundits and professionals, in print journalism, academia, and on the blogosphere. Analysts addressed his heritage and cultural identification, his strong emphasis on family, academic training, community work, and two decades in an active faith community.
Impact of African-American Presidential Candidates
The results of African-American presidential campaigns have ranged from winning the presidency to ending before primary voting began. However, all of the candidates have had a political impact by making sure their voices were a part of the national debate and gaining some attention from their party’s establishment. Chisholm paved the way for African American and female candidates. Her goal was to make the Democratic Party more responsive to the people. When describing her reasons for running Chisholm said, “I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman, and I am equally proud of that…I am the candidate of the people of America.” In the 1972 primary, Chisholm won more than 430,000 votes in fourteen states and 28 delegates at the Democratic Convention in Miami. Chisholm provided a boost to George McGovern, the eventual Democratic nominee, when she campaigned for him after the convention. Chisholm’s candidacy inspired many women and African Americans to make a difference in politics. As the first African American and woman to run for the nomination of a major party, Chisholm paved the way for Jesse Jackson Sr. who would be the next major African American candidate to run. For future candidates, Chisholm advised, “the next campaign by a woman or black must be well prepared, and well financed; it must be planned long in advance, and it must aim at building a new coalition.”
Jackson seemed to follow Chisholm’s advice in his 1984 run for president. His 1984 campaign sought to bring together a “Rainbow Coalition” of African Americans, Hispanics, the poor, the elderly, family farmers, and women that would challenge the conservative policies of president Ronald Reagan. Jackson placed third out of ten candidates for the Democratic nomination with more than 3 million primary votes. He won primaries or caucuses in four states and the District of Columbia. Jackson’s campaign made enormous progress by building on Chisholm’s legacy. His 1984 campaign registered nearly 2 million voters of all racial backgrounds. By registering so many new voters, Jackson expanded the Democratic Party’s base. He also inspired African American voters. Exit polls showed that nearly 12% of all Black voters were participating for the first-time. Jackson’s campaign won him a speaking slot at the 1984 Democratic Convention, which provided a national platform for him to present his agenda. In his 1988 campaign, Jackson increased his support to 6.9 million primary votes and won 9 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
Sharpton and Moseley Braun followed Jackson’s campaign when they ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. Moseley Braun, having already made history as the only African American woman elected to the United States Senate, became the most visible female candidate to run for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. She advocated for expanding opportunity and encouraged women to seek positions of power. “Now is the time for Democrats to renew hope that we will leave [the American Dream] for the next generation in even better shape than we found it,” Moseley Braun said, “And a woman can lead the way.” Though Moseley Braun ended her campaign in January 2004, she earned a speaking slot at the Democratic Convention in Boston where she had a national platform to advocate for equal rights.
Sharpton’s 2004 campaign also focused on equal rights. In describing why he was running, Sharpton said, “ I think if we stand up for workers’ rights, stand up for a peace plan worldwide, stand up for the constitutional rights of every American, those people will come back [to the Democratic Party], and those people are the majority of Americans.” Like Moseley Braun, Sharpton’s campaign allowed him to participate in the early nationally televised Democratic Party primary debates, and earned him a speaking slot at the 2004 Democratic Convention, the same year future president Barack Obama gained national attention for his convention speech.
On the Republican side, Keyes first ran for the nomination in 1996 seeking to force his party to focus on social issues such as abortion. Keyes garnered a lot of free media during this campaign. The number of primary votes Keyes received increased from his 1996 campaign (471,716) to his 2000 campaign (914,548) but his vote total decreased in his 2008 primary run (58,977).
African American presidential candidates have a variety of reasons for joining the race. Some candidates run to because they think they can win. Others run to influence the national debate by advocating for specific policy proposals. African American candidates seek to inspire their community to participate in the electoral process and hold elected officials accountable. Some run for a combination of these reasons. Above all, African Americans run, like all candidates, to make their voices heard. Regardless of their reasons for running, these candidates have broken down barriers for other African Americas, Latino, and women. In less than four decades, African American presidential candidates have increased their support from Chisholm winning 430,000 primary votes to Obama being elected president with more than 69 million.
Various commentators have suggested a president could be recognized as the "first black president of the United States" for their contributions to the well-being of African Americans. RepublicanAbraham Lincoln was suggested because of his role as the "Great Emancipator" of four million blacks in the South after the American Civil War.
Toni Morrison labeled Democrat Bill Clinton the first black president of the United States. Morrison suggested that Clinton was "blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime." Author and professor Angela Dillard stated such claims constituted a "silly and defeatist notion" that separated the black community.