When Hazel Dukes stepped onto the Democratic National Convention stage in 1972 to second Shirley Chisholm’s presidential nomination, it amounted to more than history.
It was a moment of hope.
The legacy of Chisholm, who famously said she was “unbossed and unbothered,” was cemented that day as the first Black woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
Dukes said Chisholm and others hoped her historic run would lay the foundation for future generations of Black women to ascend into powerful political roles to usher in systemic change within their communities.
And 48 years later, that hope is being realized as California Sen Kamala Harris prepares to accept the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nomination on Wednesday. She will be the first Black woman and first Asian American woman named to a major party presidential ticket.
“Shirley exhibited the strength of Ida B. Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune and Fannie Lou Hamer and she was a powerhouse,” said Dukes, 88, a lifelong activist and current president of the NAACP New York State Conference. “African American women, we’ve been in this struggle. And now we are showing our power and our strength. We are saying this is our moment and our space, and we are claiming it.”
That energy could decide whether Harris and Joe Biden win in November. Black voters, especially women, are a critical part of the Democratic coalition and could sway the results in critical states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Florida.
But historically, Black women have fought the racism and sexism that prevented them from having prominent roles within the movements for women’s suffrage and civil rights. While their organizing and political contributions had measurable impact, experts say, they were largely relegated to the sidelines, or in some cases, seemingly wiped from the historical record.
That reminder is especially clear as America marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote — a right that most Black women weren’t afforded until much later.
“This is certainly a watershed moment for them, but I do think it’s important to emphasize that descriptive representation, as powerful as this is for women, is only that much more sweeter when it results in substantive representation,” said Ravi Perry, Howard University’s political science chair.
“That upper glass ceiling is still there, and we are still one of the last developed nations to see a woman head of state.”
So, while Harris is set to address the nation for what some hope will be a rousing speech at a time of immense economic uncertainty and racial reckoning, others hope her remarks will be set against the legacy of the many Black women on whose shoulders they believe she stands.
Her speech follows former first lady Michelle Obama, whose powerful remarks Monday kicked off the convention and outlined the dire stakes for the election ahead. She declared that President Donald Trump was “in over his head” and the “wrong president for our country”.
Mrs. Obama hinted at the legacy of Black women in politics and how, even in 2020, a Black woman speaking with conviction at the convention might not be met with open arms by some, a stark reminder that the road to prominence within politics and the Democratic Party has not been easy for women of color, especially Black women.