Charlotta Bass was the first Black woman to run for Vice President of the United States, on the Progressive Party ticket in 1952. Her speech is particularly relevant as Kamala Harris builds on her legacy today.
Los Angeles newspaper owner and political activist Charlotta Bass began her career as a conservative Republican. By the 1940s, however, she moved to the political left. In 1948 she supported Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace in his failed bid for the Presidency. Four years later she was nominated for Vice President on the Progressive Party ticket. She was the first African American woman to carry a political party’s nomination for the second highest office in the land. Bass’s acceptance speech given at the Chicago convention of the Progressive Party on Sunday, March 30, 1952, appears below.
I stand before you with great pride.
This is a historic moment in American political life.
Historic for myself, for my people, for all women.
For the first time in the history of this nation a political party has chosen a Negro woman for the second highest office in the land.
It is a great honor to be chosen as a pioneer. And a great responsibility. But I am strengthened by thousands on thousands of pioneers who stand by my side and look over my shoulder—those who have led the fight for freedom—those who led the fight for women’s rights—those who have been in the front line fighting for peace and justice and equality everywhere. How they must rejoice in this great understanding which here joins the cause of peace and freedom.
These pioneers, the living and the dead, men and women, black and white, give me strength and a new sense of dedication.
I shall tell you how I come to stand here. I am a Negro woman. My people came before the Mayflower. 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. We have lived through two wars and seen their promises turn to bitter ashes. Two Negroes were the first Americans to be decorated for bravery in France in World War I, that war that was fought to make the world safe for democracy. 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. That war was scarcely over before my people were stoned and shot and beaten in a dozen northern cities. The guns were hardly silenced before a reign of terror was unloosed against every minority that fought for a better life.
And then we fought another war. You know Dorie Miller, the spud peeler who came out of his galley to fight while white officers slept at Pearl Harbor. And I think of Robert Brooks, another “first Negro”, and of my own nephew. We fought a war to end fascism whose germ is German race superiority and the oppression of other peoples. A Negro soldier returned from that war—he was not even allowed to take off his uniform before he was lynched for daring to exercise his constitutional right to vote in a Democratic primary.
Yes, we fought to end Hitlerism. But less than 7 years after the end of that war, I find men who lead my government paying out my money and your money to support the rebirth of Hitlerism in Germany to make it a willing partner in another war. We thought to destroy Hitlerism—but its germ took root right here. I look about me, at my own people—at all colored peoples all over the world. I see the men who lead my government supporting oppression of the colored peoples of the earth who today reach out for the independence this nation achieved in 1776.
Yes, it is my government that supports the segregation by violence practiced by a Malan in South Africa, sends guns to maintain a bloody French rule in Indo-China, gives money to help the Dutch repress Indonesia, props up Churchill’s rule in the Middle East and over the colored peoples of Africa and Malaya. This week Churchill’s general in Malaya terrorized a whole village for refusing to act as spies for the British, charging these Malyan and Chinese villagers who enjoyed no rights and no privileges—and I quote him literally—“for failing to shoulder the responsibility of citizenship.” But neither the Malayan people—nor the African people who demonstrate on April 6—will take this terror lying down. They are fighting back.
Shall my people support a new war to create new oppressions? We want peace and we shall have freedom. We support the movement for freedom of all peoples everywhere—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 and share of the world’s goods, a reign of terror the like of which this nation has never seen.
For 40 years I have been a working editor and publisher of the oldest Negro newspaper in the least. During those 40 years I stood on a watch tower, watching the tide of racial hatred and biogotry rising against my people and against all people who believe the Constitution is something more than a piece of yellowed paper to be shut off in a glass case in the archives, but living document, a working instrument for freedom.
Yes, during those 40 years, the Eagle stirred her nest, led the struggles of my people, taught them to work with labor as the one group that could help break down racial differences and open the door for Negro people. I have stood watch over a home to protect a Negro family against the outrages of the Ku Klux Klan. And I have fought the brazen attempts to drive Negroes from their homes under restrictive covenants. I have challenged the great corporations which Negroes in their plants. I have stormed city councils and state legislatures and the halls of Congress demanding real representation for my people.
I have fought not only for my people. I have fought and will continue to fight unceasingly for the rights and privileges of all people who are oppressed and who are denied their just share of the world’s goods their labor produces. I have walked and will continue to walk in picket lines for the right of all men and women, of all races, to organize for their own protection and advancement. I will continue to cry out against police brutality against any people, as I did in the infamous zoot suit riots in Los Angeles in 1944, when I went into dark alleys and reached scared and badly beaten Negro and Mexican American boys, some of them children, from the clubs and knives of city police. Nor have I hesitated in the face of that most unAmerican Un-American Activities Committee—and I am willing to face it again. And so help me God, I shall continue to tell the truth as I know it and believe it as a progressive citizen and a good American.
As I stand here on this platform presenting the cause of the Progressive Party, I cannot help but hark back to the 30 years I spent in the Republican Party as an active member. Often as a member of the Republican Party I was as bewildered and as hopeless for the future as the children of Israel when they marched through the Jordan and failed to envision on the other side. I remember 1940, when I was chosen as Western Regional Director for Wendell Wilkie’s campaign for the pre-Republican headquarters right here in Chicago, I found two worlds—upstairs was a world for white Republicans and down below was the world for Negro Republicans.
Yes, I could not see the future clear in the Republican Party, as the children of Israel did not see their future. But if you remember, when the liberation came to these victims of Pharoah’s hate, as they crossed over, they dragged from the bed of the stream 12 stones and built a monument to commemorate the rolling away of the burdens of their bondage. As a member of the great elephant party, I could not see the light of hope shining in the distance, until one day the news flashed across the nation that a new party was born. In 1948, in the Progressive Party, I found that one political world that could provide a home big enough for Negro and white, for native and foreign born, to live and work together for the same ends—as equals.
Here in this party was the political home for me and for my people. Here no one handed me a ready made program from the back door. Here I could sit at the head of the table as a founding member, write my own program, a program for me and my people, that came from us. In that great founding convention in Philadelphia in 1948 we had crossed the Jordan. There we shared in the labor of building a platform stone by stone, choosing candidates, creating a new political party—as equals.
Now perhaps I could retire. I had helped to found a home for my people. I looked forward to a rest after forty years of struggle.
But how could I retire and where could I retire as long as I saw what Frederick Douglass saw and felt what he did, the need to stand up for the downtrodden, to open my mouth for the dumb, to remember those in bonds as bound with me.”
Could I retire when I saw that slavery had been abolished but not destroyed, that democracy had been won in World War I, World War II, only to take roots in my own country where it blossomed and bloomed and sent forth its fruits to poison the land my people had fought to preserve! Could I retire without thinking of Dorie Miller, of Robert Brooks, of my own nephew John Kinloch who gave up a brilliant career, helped set up the first mixed regiment of white and Negro troops, and then went ahead of them to die in the Battle of the Bulge? I think often of John who was to take over my beloved paper, of John who died that those for whom he fought might enjoy the freedom and liberty for which he lay down his life.
I could not retire and step aside when Rose Lee Ingram and her two boys were railroaded to jail for defending themselves. Could I turn a deaf ear to Rosalie McGee? Where was that Shangri-La in these United States where I could live and breathe in dignity? Where my people enjoyed the rights for which their sons and nephews died? In the North there were the Trenton Six demanding justice; in the Middle West was Cicero. In the South there stood Amy Mallard, the Wartinsville Seven, and unnamed hundreds of unavenged deaths that cried out. There was no rest in Florida—there a cross was burning and a bomb killed Harriet Moore and her husband; and white justice sniffed out the life of Samuel Shepherd, threatened Lee Irvin.
No, this new uprising of Terror was not confirmed to the South. It spread throughout the country, goaded and inflammed by persons in high places who created hysteria every time they opened their mouths. In, New York, just a few miles from where I live, they stoned my people at Peekskill—and a governor of a great state defended them. Only last week a Yonkers policeman shot and killed Wyatt and James Blackhall in cold blood—and was held on a minor charge.
Where were the leaders of my nation—yes, my nation, for God knows my whole ambition is to see and make my nation the nest in the world—where were these great leaders when these things happened? Why was my President silent when Harriet Moore died? And why did he not call on the Governor of Florida, a fellow Democrat, on his visits to Key West? What did General Eisenhower say or do about mob lynchers and legal lynchers of my people? General MacArthur rode through Georgia in triumph, like another general 85 years ago, but this general drew the applause of the Klan, the Moore dynamiters the lynchers.
Where were these great leaders who talked so grandly about freedom and spent even more grandly to crush it—what were they doing about my people losing jobs in Detroit while profits were piling up.
To retire meant to leave this world to these people who carried oppression to Africa, to Asia, who made profits from oppression in my own land. To retire meant to leave the field to evil. For there is an evil that stalks in our land, evil that strikes at my people, that would enslave all people, that would send up the world in flames, rob us of our earnings to waste on arms, destroy out living standards, corrupt our youth, silence and enslave us with Smith Acts, McCarran Acts, passed by concentration camp Congressmen.
I believe in a world of good and not of evil. A month ago in New York City, doctors announced the discovery of a new drug that promised a real cure for tuberculosis, that dread killer. Only last week I looked at the pictures of the patients who had offered themselves to try out this new drug. I looked closely at these pictures. I counted the faces. There were ten patients shown. Eight of these ten were Negroes. And seven of these eight were Negro women. Who was it that named tuberculosis the “great white plague”—when three times as many Negroes as whites died from it?
Those pictures symbolize the plight of our people today—yes, and the promise of tomorrow. Tuberculosis is not a disease of race—it is a disease of poverty. It strikes my people hardest because North and South Negro workers earn less than half of what white workers earn. It strikes my people here in Chicago who live 90,000 to the square mile. It strikes my people who live in Harlem 4,000 to the square block, so crowded that all of America could be put into half of New York.
This is what we fight against. We fight to live. We want the $65 billion that goes for death to go to build a new life. Those billions could lift the wages of my people, give them jobs, give education and training and new hope to our youth, free our sharecroppers, build new hospitals and medical centers. The $8 billion being spent to rearm Europe and crush Asia could rehouse all my people living in the ghettos of Chicago and New York and every large city in the nation.
We fight that all people shall live. We fight to send our money to end colonialism for the colored peoples of the world, not to perpetuate it in Malan’s South Africa, Churchill’s’ Malaya, French Indo-China and Middle East.
You have called me to lead the fight against evil, the fight for human life and human dignity. I am indeed proud to answer the call of this party of progress. Can you conceive of the party of Taft and Eisenhower and MacArthur and McCarthy and the big corporations, calling a Negro woman to lead the good fight in 1952? Can you see the party Truman, of Russell of Georgia, of Rankin of Mississippi, of Byrnes of South Carolina, of Acheson, naming a Negro woman to lead the fight against enslavement?
I am stirred by the responsibility that you have put upon me. I am proud that I am the choice of the leaders of my own people and leaders of all those who understand how deeply the fight for peace is one and indivisible with the fight for Negro equality.
And I am impelled to accept this call, for it is the call of all my people and call to my people. Frederick Douglass would rejoice, for he fought not only slavery but the oppression of women. Above all, Douglass would counsel us not to falter, to “continue the struggle while a bondsman in his chains remains to weep.” For Douglass had that calm resolution which led fast while others waivered, that steadfastness which helped to shape the party of Abraham Lincoln and held it fast to the fight for abolition.
I make this pledge to my people, the dead and the living—to all Americans, black and white. 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. For I know that my kingdom, my peoples of all the world, is not beyond the skies, the moon and the stars, but right here at our feet—acres of diamonds—freedom—peace and justice—for all the peoples if we will but stoop down and get them.
I accept this great honor. I give you as my slogan in this campaign—“Let my people go.”