Kamala Harris is not the first black woman to run for vice president — that distinction goes to Charlotta Spears Bass, who accepted the vice-presidential nomination on the Progressive Party ticket nearly seventy years ago.
Bass was an activist, an educator, a newspaper owner and a columnist who used her fearless voice to support civil rights, women’s rights, and justice for all minorities. Her historic acceptance speech in 1952 at the Chicago convention is a example of her fiery rhetoric and fighting spirit — and still ignites passion.
“We support the movement for freedom of all peoples everywhere,” she told the crowd, “in Africa, in Asia, in the Middle East, and above all, here in our own country. And we will not be silenced by the rope, the gun, the lynch mob or the lynch judge. We will not be stopped by the reign of terror let loose against all who speak for peace and freedom. . .’
“We will not be silenced by the rope, the gun, the lynch mob or the lynch judge. We will not be stopped by the reign of terror let loose against all who speak for peace and freedom.”
It was the culmination of a lifetime of speaking out for progressive causes.
In 1910, Bass had taken a job selling subscriptions to the Los Angeles newspaper, the California Owl — the oldest black weekly in the West, with a circulation of 60,000.
The paper kept its readers up to date on jobs, housing and news about the black community, which was largely ignored by the white press. When the paper’s founder passed away, Bass and her husband took it over and renamed it the California Eagle.
Her weekly column, “On the Sidewalk,” drew attention to discrimination and injustice. She fought the Ku Klux Klan, police brutality, school segregation, racially restrictive housing covenants, even the racist D.W. Griffith film, “Birth of a Nation.” She endorsed female candidates in local races.
Bass pulled no punches in her advocacy or her outrage — not when she was repeatedly called a Communist, not when she was surveilled by the FBI, not when her life was threatened.
“I will not retire nor will I retreat, not one inch, so long as God gives me vision to see what is happening and strength to fight for the things I know are right.”
She ran unsuccessfully for Los Angeles City Council in 1945 and U.S. Congress in 1950. The following year, she retired from the paper and turned her full focus to politics.
On March 30, 1952, she accepted the vice-presidential nomination at the Chicago convention of the Progressive Party, joining long-shot presidential candidate Vincent Hallinan. Paul Robeson nominated her, and W. E. B. Du Bois seconded the nomination.
The Progressive platform supported women’s rights, civil rights, an end to the Korean War, and peace with the Soviet Union. “I will not retire nor will I retreat,” Bass thundered at the Chicago convention — “not one inch, so long as God gives me vision to see what is happening and strength to fight for the things I know are right.”
But it was a quixotic campaign — Hallinan and Bass garnered only 140,000 votes, and Dwight Eisenhower won in a landslide.
Bass’s slogan was, “Win or lose, we win by raising the issues” — and that she did, with her vocal activism and her idealist faith in American democracy.
In her 1960 autobiography, Forty Years: Memoirs from the Pages of a Newspaper, Bass reflected:
“It has been a good life that I had, though a vary hard one. But I know the future will be even better. And as I think back I know this is the only kind of life: In serving one’s fellow man one serves himself best.”
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