On Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, history was made when presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joseph Robinette Biden selected Sen. Kamala Devi Harris of California as his running mate.
Harris is touted as the first Black woman and woman of Indian descent nominated for the country’s second-highest office by a major political party. This observation suggests there were Black women nominated for the vice presidency by minor political parties. As we celebrate Harris’ nomination, it’s important to recover those Black women who preceded her, albeit on minor-party tickets.
Before we explore Harris’ foremothers, let’s address the significance of this moment and clarify her politics.
The Trump regime has ramped up its move toward fascism. The unidentified federal agents they deployed to U.S. cities have snatched up protesters and whisked them away to unknown sites. The regime is looting the treasury and facilitating the theft of funds meant for working people and small-business owners. Trump’s fascist minions are sabotaging the U.S. Postal Service in order to steal another election. Trump and his gangster capitalists are intent on abrogating the slivers of democracy that still exist.
This is a dire moment! The main task of radicals is to thwart Trump’s thrust toward fascism. Like it or not, we must do everything possible to elect Biden/Harris.
Harris’ record is far more progressive than most know, though not as radical as we need. In 2018, gov.track.us, the government transparency website, ranked Harris’ Senate voting record the fourth-most liberal, and in 2019, it ranked her as the most liberal. Harris is the lead author of SB 3784, the “Monthly Economic Crisis Support” bill. It would provide a monthly rebate of $2,000 per individual and each of up to three dependents until the Department of Health and Human Services declares the COVID-19 pandemic over. Harris is also the lead author of “The Justice in Policing Act of 2020.”
At the policing bill’s introduction, Harris declared, “America’s sidewalks are stained with Black blood. … How many more times must our families and our communities be put through the trauma of an unarmed Black man or woman’s killing at the hands of the very people who are sworn to protect and serve them?”
Harris will be the most progressive vice president since Henry Wallace, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president during his third term, 1941-1945. After conservative Democrats ousted him from the ticket, Wallace formed the Progressive Party and ran to Harry S. Truman’s left in the 1948 election.
With W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson and Charlotta Bass, the radical editor of the California Eagle, Wallace and the Progressives created the most radical party platform in U.S. history. In addition to calling for racial equality, the platform posited that “public ownership” of the main springs of the economy “will enable the people to plan the productive use of their resources … to create a true American Commonwealth free from poverty and insecurity.”
In 1952, Robeson nominated and Du Bois seconded Bass’ nomination for vice president on the Progressive Party’s ticket. Backed by the other two leading Black radicals in the 1950s, Bass became the first Black woman nominated for the country’s second-highest office. The Progressive Party sought Bass because of her history of struggle. Born in 1874, she was from age 20 until her death at 95 a radical Black activist who fought for Black liberation, solidarity with Mexican and Asian Americans, labor, prisoner rights and international peace.
In an acceptance speech that would resonate today, Bass catalogued U.S. hypocrisies, condemned racial oppression, colonialism and imperialism, and exposed the social basis of the tuberculosis epidemic that ravaged the Black community. A proud Black woman, Bass told the party’s delegates, “I am a Negro woman. My people came before the Mayflower.” Clearly stating her central interests, she asserted, “I am more concerned with what is happening to my people in my country than in pouring out money to rebuild a decadent Europe for a new war.”
Moving from condemnation of the Marshall Plan, Bass excoriated American hypocrisy. She excavated the underlining cause of World War I and exposed its outcome. Like V.I. Lenin in “Imperialism” and Du Bois in “The African Roots of the War,” Bass observed, “But when it ended, we discovered we were making Africa safe for exploitation by the very European powers whose freedom and soil we had defended. And that war was barely over when a Negro soldier, returning to his home in Georgia, was lynched almost before he could take off his uniform.”
Mocking the idea of tuberculosis as “the great White plague,” Bass reminded her audience that poverty, not race, caused the disease. Black people, she declared, were more susceptible because they “earn less than half of what White workers earn” and that because of residential apartheid, Black people lived in overcrowded conditions.
Update the language, change some specific references and Harris could have given this speech last Wednesday, if she was a Black radical rather than merely a Black progressive.
Nonetheless, Harris, like Angela Davis, who twice ran for the vice presidency on the Communist Party ticket (1976 and 1988), stands on the shoulders of Charlotta Bass. Davis ran in Bass’ radical Black tradition. Let us hope Harris is possessed by Bass’ spirit and it leads her to the tradition Bass shared with Robeson and Du Bois.
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