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Before Palin, Before Ferrarro, There Was Charlotta Spears Bass

Though partisans continue to debate the merits and demerits of Sarah Palin’s candidacy, the fact is that she is the first female vice presidential nominee for the Republican Party. This is also true of Geraldine Ferrarro for the Democratic Party in 1984. But even Ferrarro cannot lay claim to being the first female vice presidential nominee on the national ballot.

That honor goes to Charlotta Spears Bass who ran for Vice President of the United States on the Progressive Party ticket in 1952. Bass was also the first African American female to run for the office. Her candidacy did not cause a media sensation. In fact she was virtually ignored by most news outlets. An exception is Time magazine’s brief scoff that the Progressive Party’s platform is the usual “shocking pink,” and dismissal of Bass as “dumpy,” “domineering,” and “husbandless.”

But Bass was use to criticism by mainstream powers. Before entering politics, she frequently irked city officials in Los Angeles by organizing direct action campaigns against the city’s discriminatory employment and housing practices. For over thirty-five years, she used the power she wielded as owner and editor of the California Eagle, at the time one of the oldest African American newspapers on the West Coast, to motivate her readers to fight racial injustice. She ran for local political office twice but lost both times.

Frustrated by a government she believed was corrupt and that ignored the needs of the people, in the late 1940s she left the Republican Party and joined Progressives. Many of her colleagues in the Black press criticized her roundly for abandoning mainstream politics in favor of a party whose ideals were unpatriotic and impractical. Despite these criticisms she ran for national office on the party’s ticket.

Her ascendance in the party came at a time when the Progressive Party was in disarray after the defection of former Vice President Henry Wallace. Despite the party’s chaos or perhaps because of it Bass was tapped and she answered her party’s call.

Realizing they had little chance of winning the election, Bass and Hallinan campaigned on the slogan “Win or Lose, We Win by Raising the Issues.” Their goal was to push the debate and give citizens an alternative to politics as usual. They condemned the major parties as captives to the same interests. They charged the government with “war mongering” and of promoting a “war economy” that allowed corporate interests to profit from the war. They defended labor rights and civil rights.

As an African American Bass was well aware of the injustices Blacks in America suffered. Her decades-long activism had put her on the font lines of this battle. She also knew well the reluctance of the government and Democrats and Republicans alike to take a hard line against discrimination. She and her party labeled segregation “America’s shame” and called for full and equal rights for all citizens. Though she was especially concerned for “her people” she also decried racism against Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Jews.

Coincidentally, some of the same dynamics shaping the current presidential election also shaped the election of 1952. An unpopular president was leaving office. Americans had turned soured on war they once supported. The United States and Russia were in diplomatic conflict. A military hero was running for president, and controversy swirled around the Republican vice presidential nominee.

Bass and her running mate received less than one percent of the vote. Their landslide loss probably came as no surprise, but victory for them came in raising the issues.

At the time she ran for office Bass’s stand on the issues was viewed as unrealistic and unpatriotic. In 1952, the idea that the government should protect all citizens from discrimination regardless of color or national origin, that our reasons for going to war are not always good or honorable, and that gender should not limit the heights to which a woman can aspire in politics, were indeed radical in 1952. But the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s and the profound and sometimes tragic consequences of failed domestic and foreign policies compel us to reinterpret the platform of Bass’s party and thus her candidacy in a new light.