African Americans and Presidential Politics

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In this 1967 press conference clip, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. predicts what it would take, in his opinion, for the United States to elect a black president. The question, for King, was never of capability or qualification. Instead it would be a matter of consolidating black voting power, coalition-building, and unity with white liberal voters. Courtesy of WSB-TV, Walter J. Brown Media Archives via Digital Library of Georgia.

African Americans have been active political organizers throughout the nation’s history—petitioning, organizing, voting, protesting, and serving their communities from the era of early republic through the Abolition Movement, Reconstruction, and the era of lynching and segregation. By the mid-twentieth century, as the number of African American voters grew rapidly through both legislative action and political empowerment, presidential candidates were required to court their votes by appealing to their concerns. This growing constituency also made it possible for black candidates to run for office with more success, which legitimized the idea that black candidates were contenders for the presidency for an increasingly broad and interracial group of voters.

In 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party brought national attention the issue of black voter disenfranchisement in Mississippi and demanded that the Democratic Party confront the reality of injustice. Eight years later, as Shirley Chisholm ran for president, members of the National Black Political Convention met to strategize about how to build on the legal gains of the Civil Rights Movement and continue to work towards expanded political power for African Americans. In 1984 and 1988, Jesse Jackson ran for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination and earned support from a broader, and more diverse group of Americans than had previously supported a black presidential candidate, laying the groundwork for the successful candidacy of Barack Obama, who was elected as the first black president, in 2008.