Charlotta Bass: the first woman of colour to run for US vice president

Before Kamala Harris, there was Charlotta Bass. Historian Sonia Grant explores the overlooked life of a journalist and civil rights activist who became a target of both the FBI and Ku Klux Klan – and who, in 1952, became the first woman of colour to be nominated to the US vice presidency

Charlotta Bass (centre) was a newspaper publisher, activist and would-be US vice president, who fought against racial discrimination and social injustice. She's seen here with presidential running mate Vincent Hallinan (to Charlotta’s right) and singer and actor-turned-activist Paul Robeson

The FBI agent had been sitting in his hot, stuffy car all day, once again tasked with surveilling the nursing home across the street. It was another uneventful day. He noted the comings and goings: deliveries of crates of milk and groceries; the postman making his rounds; nursing staff in their starched uniforms either arriving or leaving; and, towards early evening, a steady stream of relatives visiting elderly residents. When the agent finished his shift, he drove back to the office and typed up what he determined would be his final entry: “July 3, 1967, Charlotta A Bass – Case Closed”.

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What possible security threat could a bedridden black woman in her nineties pose? Yet despite being incapacitated by a stroke, Charlotta Bass remained a target of FBI surveillance until 1967, two years before her death, and could be arrested on sight if deemed in breach of national security. Her 500-plus page dossier bulged with reports that spanned five decades. It chronicled her denunciations of the Ku Klux Klan; her elevation as the first black American woman to edit and own a newspaper; her championing of civil rights; her political agitation; and, most importantly, her 1952 bid to become vice president of the United States.

Who was Charlotta Bass?

Born Charlotta Amanda Spears in 1874 (or 1880, records differ), she was one of 11 children. Growing up in South Carolina, her family, like all black families, endured discrimination, segregation, prejudicial and, at times, violent treatment, which was sanctioned in law by the Black Codes or so-called Jim Crow laws. In later life, Charlotta would be horrified that it was her home state – long steeped in bigotry and proud of its Confederate past – that had no compunction in sending a 14-year-old black boy named George Stinney to the electric chair.

Every facet of black life was dominated by the pernicious reach of segregation: where black people could live and marry, what school or university they could attend, what type of employment or profession was either open or barred to them, and where they could worship or even be buried.

After leaving school, Charlotta moved to Rhode Island to escape the South’s overt repression and live with her brother, Ellis. She enrolled at Pembroke College (now part of Brown University) and got a job selling subscriptions for a local black newspaper. There for several years, it was the beginning of an illustrious career in journalism.

Charlotta Bass as a journalist

In 1912, a few years after moving to California, the now thirty-something Charlotta’s journalistic skills and dogged determination saw her galvanise another black newspaper, The California Eagle. She worked and ran the paper for a little under 40 years, during which she became Charlotta Bass after her marriage to Joseph Bass, the man she had originally brought in as editor.

She reached for a gun kept in a drawer and, not knowing how to shoot, brandished it and caused the KKK would-be assailants to scatter

One of Charlotta’s first campaigns called for a ban of DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a revisionist film that romanticised the Confederate South’s ‘lost cause’ in the American Civil War – the film depicted black people (white actors in blackface) as savage, and reignited interest and mass membership of the KKK. For her trouble, while Charlotta worked late at the office one evening, eight hooded Klansmen tried to break in. She reached for a gun kept in a drawer and, not knowing how to shoot, brandished it and caused the would-be assailants to scatter.

Poster for The Birth of a Nation; Charlotta Bass worked to have the overtly racist film banned
Poster for The Birth of a Nation; Charlotta Bass worked to have the overtly racist film banned (Photo by John Kisch/Getty Images)

Nonetheless, much of Charlotta’s energy throughout the 1920s was consumed by confronting the KKK and thwarting their attempts to subvert the political apparatus in Los Angeles, in part through infiltrating law enforcement agencies and the judiciary. By the 1930s, she had burnished her credentials as a formidable campaigner and gained a reputation for single-mindedness, even if it resulted in humiliation – such as when she was pelted with rotten apples while addressing an anti-draft rally in 1932.

The next two decades saw Charlotta hone her pragmatic character: she was both a member of the ‘conservative’ National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the more ‘radical’ Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) under the leadership of Marcus Garvey. Charlotta forged coalitions across racial lines and championed miscarriage of justice cases – such as the arrest of hundreds of Mexican-American youths following the so-called Sleepy Lagoon murder in 1942 – and civil liberty violations, including the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

The Ku Klux Klan reached a peak in the 1920s, with some four million members across the US
The Ku Klux Klan reached a peak in the 1920s, with some four million members across the US (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Charlotta Bass and communism

Other regular features of The California Eagle’s front pages included segregated schools, job discrimination, police brutality against black people, and housing. Racism on the west coast may have manifested differently to the South – for one lynchings were not as prevalent – but there were still clear demarcations as to where black people could live. Restrictive covenants in housing prohibited black people, including celebrities such as Gone with the Wind Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel and jazz legend Nat King Cole, from living in neighbourhoods that had been exclusively white.

Charlotta’s unwavering outspokenness in her newspaper came at both professional and personal risk. During the 1940s, the Office of the Secretary of War had the black press under scrutiny, and Charlotta drew attention with a petition against segregation in the US Army, and her promotion of the Double V Campaign (aimed at securing victory for black people both
in the armed forces abroad and at home). Her coverage resulted in The Eagle being deemed “seditious” and Charlotta herself “subversive” and a “Communist supporter”.

It was a dangerous time to face such an accusation. McCarthyism and the fear of communist infiltration meant people could be convicted and imprisoned on the flimsiest of evidence, and if suspects refused to implicate others, their associations were seen as incrimination enough. In Charlotta’s case, activists WEB DuBois and Paul Robeson – both suspected communists.

Regardless, Charlotta was especially busy in 1950. She travelled to Europe, with FBI agents ordered to tail her, “a short, elderly negro, female, grey hair, fat, wearing glasses [and] waddling walk”. Charlotta attended the Defenders of the Peace Committee of the World Congress in Paris and Prague, and spent ten days in Moscow, reporting that she encountered no racial discrimination and comparing the Soviet Union favourably to the US. This was much to the chagrin of the authorities back home. Upon her return, Charlotta was summoned to appear before California’s Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities.

In terms of her political allegiance, Charlotta had been a life-long Republican, but had grown disillusioned at what she saw as ‘the party of Lincoln’ taking black people’s loyalty for granted with little, in the way of legislation or repeal of Jim Crow laws, to show for it. Similarly unimpressed with the Democrats, Charlotta threw her support behind the left-wing Progressive Party.

After selling The Eagle in 1951, Charlotta turned her focus to politics. Although she had run unsuccessfully for a congressional seat in 1950, she made inroads with her new party. Renowned for her activism and campaigning, it was hoped that Charlotta’s profile within the black community could be capitalised, as courting the black electorate was a key part of the party’s election strategy.

Charlotta Bass is nominated to the US vice presidency

On 30 March 1952, Charlotta was nominated as the Progressive Party candidate for vice president of the United States, the first black woman ever to be selected – and over a decade before the Voting Rights Act, which would formally prohibit racial discrimination in voting.

Charlotta’s running mate, a radical San Francisco lawyer named Vincent Hallinan, had just begun a six-month prison sentence for contempt of court. He would brag that he was a descendant of Irish revolutionaries and had dozens of fistfights with other lawyers in courthouse corridors.

I shall continue to tell the truth as I know it and believe it, as a good progressive citizen, and a good American
Charlotta Bass

It was while defending union leader Harry Bridges in a high-profile fraud and perjury trial that Hallinan was imprisoned. His client was convicted of perjury — a verdict overturned by the Supreme Court – while Hallinan’s petition to have his sentence commuted (to enable him to join Charlotta and the campaign) was rejected.

Even with its presidential candidate behind bars, the Progressive Party proceeded with its convention in Chicago. Hallinan’s multi-millionaire property developer wife, Vivian, accepted the nomination on his behalf. The party’s manifesto was considered radical; some of its pledges included universal healthcare, an end to racial discrimination, reduction of armaments, recognition of the People’s Republic of China and its admittance to the United Nations, and cessation of the Korean War.

Charlotta Bass’ acceptance speech

In her acceptance speech, with the party’s co-chair Paul Robeson by her side, Charlotta proudly declared: “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.

“[For] 40 years, I stood on a watch tower, watching the tide of racial hatred and bigotry 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 a living document, a working instrument for freedom.”

In August, Hallinan finally joined the campaign after being released. They did not think they would win – their slogan was “Win or Lose, We Win by Raising the Issues” – but Hallinan and Charlotta secured just 0.2 per cent in the election (135,007 votes, compared to the more than 33 million votes gained by election winner Republican Dwight Eisenhower).

Charlotta, now in her late 70s, decided she had finished with party politics, but found other avenues, principally community activism, in order to pursue her life-long commitment to civil rights.

Towards the end of her life, as FBI agents still kept her under watch, Charlotta remained unapologetic, defiant even, despite enduring the dark days of McCarthyism, decades of government surveillance and a lifetime of relentless prejudice, saying: “I am willing to face it again… I shall continue to tell the truth as I know it and believe it, as a good progressive citizen, and a good American.”

Sonia Grant is an independent historian and author of Charlotta Bass (Penstroke Publishing, 2020)

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This content first appeaared in the November 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed