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The Legacy of Charlene Mitchell: The First Black Woman Presidential Candidate

Charlene Mitchell died last month, on December 14, 2022. The odds are that you haven’t heard of her. She isn’t mentioned in most accounts of the pivotal 1968 presidential campaign, despite being a candidate that year; she isn’t included in the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics list of notable women candidates for President—despite being the first Black woman to run, and to be nominated by a party.

Charlene Mitchell made history on July 4th, 1968, when she was elected by the Communist Party (CPUSA) as the first Black woman to run for President of the United States.

Running as a Communist in 1968, in the midst of the Cold War, in a United States roiled by conflict over the Vietnam War, Mitchell never had a chance to win. She was only officially on the ballot in two states, and she only received 1,077 out of 73,199,999 total votes cast.

But Mitchell’s campaign was significant nevertheless, and on its own terms. As Ms. Spinosa’s research has discovered, Mitchell constructed a campaign that presented Communism as an economic solution to the racism embedded in America's capitalism. This allowed Americans to perceive Communism in a way that was not a threat to their democracy. Mitchell emphasized what we would now call democratic socialism, in her effort to advocate for Communist values within the U.S. political system in the height of the Cold War.

“The economic system of capitalism and the political institutions which serve it have failed the people,” Mitchell wrote in a pamphlet for her 1968 campaign, “because it is incapable of destroying once and for all the racism that infects this nation.” Mitchell’s use of Communism to fight for black liberation was not an act of defiance against democracy, but a solution to the economic oppression of capitalism.

Many of her critiques would describe our economy even today: “I have a son 17 years of age and I, like every other Black mother in this country, constantly worry about his future,” Mitchell wrote. “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.”

While Mitchell was unapologetically a Communist, she saw her campaign more as a call for Black liberation and economic equality, regardless of who could achieve it. As she wrote, “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.”

In a press conference in July 1968, Mitchell was asked how she would measure the success of her campaign. She defined success by “whether or not Communists will be able to present to the American people their views and their platforms in a way that the American people can begin to understand what Communists see as some of the solutions to the problems in our country.”

And, again, Mitchell brought concerns that are still with us: “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.”

She concluded by noting how, “In the country, these demands are for people’s power. In our communities, these demands are for Black power.”

In 1968, Robert F. Kennedy inspired the nation with his campaign for the presidency, cut short by assassination. The country was still grappling with Michael Harrington’s 1962 critique of inequality in The Other America, and Democrats were proudly seeking a war on poverty and the creation of a Great Society. This is the context for Charlene Mitchell’s campaign – making her far more than just a token “first Black woman,” a trivia quiz answer, or a casualty of the nation’s fears of Communism. Mitchell pitched her campaign to the mainstream, in an effort to help shape the debate about racial and economic equality—a debate we are still having. She Americanized her campaign to speak in the nation’s political language—but she was still dismissed, because she was an outsider, a Communist, and a Black woman.

After her run for President, and in the midst of Nixon’s transformation of anticommunism and New Right politics, Mitchell’s writings became more strident: “The current aim of the conspiracy by government is to act as a preventive to mass organizations,” she wrote in 1973. “If Nixon can [succeed] in his plan to make the face of black people a criminal face, he can, on the basis of fighting crime, initiate a law to jail anyone that does not adhere to his policies for the country.”

In 2008, in the face of increasing globalization, Mitchell noted in The Black Scholar that “As the struggle continues we in the global North must join with those who have a strategy to close the gap between the North and the South. It seems to me that this is the way the labor movement here can halt and reverse the onslaught of global capitalism.” She concluded that “At the end of the day, even though 160 years have passed, Karl Marx had it right.”

Mitchell was consistent in her beliefs, despite the cycles of history, from her joining the Communist Party in Chicago in the 1930s, to running the CPUSA branch in Los Angeles, to her 1968 campaign, to her roles in advising labor unions and calling for the creation of a Black Radical Caucus in Congress. As radical approaches to racial and economic equality in the United States came and went from favor, Mitchell was steadfast—though with an ear to what the mainstream might be willing to hear. 

In 1972, Shirley Chisholm ran for the Democratic Party’s nomination for the Presidency. Hillary Clinton became the first major-party nominee in 2016, and Kamala Harris the first woman and first person of color to be Vice President in 2020. This is history you do know.

But Charlene Mitchell deserves to be better known – for her decades of activism and labor organizing, alongside Angela Davis and other Black leaders, in and out of the Communist Party. And for her run for President.