Kamala Harris

From Shirley to Kamala: The Path to a Black Woman President

An Oakland local writes on the motivations of the Bay Area contender

J Scott Applewhite/AP/Shutterstock

Last week, Kamala Harris’ triumphant homecoming to Oakland, California ushered thousands into Frank H. Ogawa Plaza for her first rally as a 2020 presidential candidate. Flanked by the mayors of San Francisco and Oakland and engulfed by her “For the People” signs, Harris took the stage, and enchanted the crowd with possibilities of an American future built on togetherness.

Throughout the speech, Harris challenged attendees to think critically about the nation’s identity, and the historical efforts made by suffragists, abolitionists and civil rights leaders to procure equal treatment for all Americans, instead of a privileged elite. A byproduct of the Bay’s liberal politics, Harris emphasized her political track record as a public servant who advocated for disenfranchised communities within America’s political systems, from county to federal level.

In her closing remarks, she forecasted the nation’s future under her administration as one centered on the people’s principles of truth, equality and justice. Within one speech, Harris bewitched more than 20,000 attendees, and as she exited from the podium, her hometown erupted into “Kamala Harris for 2020” cheers.

Broadcast on Good Morning America, the senator announced her presidential run on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and reflected upon how his legacy influenced her fight for the highest political office in the nation. “These neoliberal revisionists thrive on the spectacle of their smartness and the visibility of their mainstream status–yet rarely, if ever, have they said a mumbling word about what would have concerned King,” Cornel West wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian about attempts orchestrated by politicians to weaponize King’s legacy for their own platform. More than fifty years after his assassination, King’s ideologies have been exploited to enhance the social and civil awareness of candidates running for political office.
In 2016, the Obama coalition refused to vote for the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, but Sen. Harris will be the one to bring them back to the polls.
Prominent in the lexicon of black civil rights leaders who laid the foundation for the nation’s moral consciousness is Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the House of Representatives. She defied the Democratic Party in 1972, when she campaigned for the Democratic nomination for president, being the first woman and black person from the major political parties. Connected through their experiences as the daughters of Jamaican immigrants, Harris paid homage to Chisholm’s campaign in her promotional materials and slogan.

A pioneer, Chisholm centered her political career on the uplifting of communities who were silenced in policy-making decisions. She sought to mobilize a coalition composed of women, people of color, immigrants, and low-income individuals to influence the power structures of the Democratic party. Her awareness of how policies impact individuals at the intersection of several identities challenged progressive politicians to pay more attention to these groups. “Shirley’s legacy is one that encourages us to keep up the fight for our most voiceless and vulnerable, and deserves to be cemented in the United States Capitol,” Senator Kamala Harris stated in a press release for a bill to honor Chisholm’s legacy.

Chisholm’s political coalition has been employed by black male politicians who have sought the office of the presidency, such as Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama. The Rainbow Coalition, an organization of working-class people of color, youth, and whites in Chicago founded by Fred Hampton was brought into mainstream political consciousness by Jackson during his presidential campaign in the 1980s. Jackson’s speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention changed the Democratic Party’s strategy to attract marginalized communities.

His coalition of marginalized groups set the precedent for future Democratic candidates—one of whom would be Barack Obama nearly 25 years later. The Obama Coalition, composed of college-educated individuals, millennials, independents, women and people of color, elected Barack Obama to the office of the presidency in 2008 and 2012. As the first black person to receive the Democratic Party’s nomination, Obama applied the principles of Chisholm’s progressive coalition building and mobilized the shifting demographics of the nation to support his candidacy. His platform, inspired by Chisholm’s progressive politics, appealed to diverse communities eager to gain significant representation in the nation’s political system.

Sen. Harris is well-versed in the movement of our nation’s political game. From her political upbringings in the San Francisco Bay Area under the mentorship of California politician Willie Brown, to her memorable first years in the Senate in defiance against Trump-appointed administrators; she has gained traction from party stakeholders eager to regain control of the Oval Office. Reminiscent of the last Democrat president, a young multiracial woman who occupies several key identities of the progressive voting coalition, Harris has attracted significant attention from donors and party stakeholders. Evidenced by primaries, the black vote is a crucial one for Democratic candidates, and Harris is posed to secure that electorate. In 2016, the Obama coalition refused to vote for the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, but Sen. Harris will be the one to bring them back to the polls.

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