Charlene Mitchell, 92, Dies; First Black Woman to Run for President
She was the Communist Party candidate in 1968 and later led the campaign to free Angela Davis. But she eventually split with the party.
A black-and-white photo of a woman smiling, wearing a dark sleeveless top and hoop earrings, with a curtain behind her.
Charlene Mitchell in 1968, when she was chosen as the Communist Party’s candidate for president. Communism, she believed, provided the best path toward racial justice.Credit...Gene Kappock/New York Daily News, via Getty Images
By Clay Risen, New York Times
Dec. 23, 2022
Charlene Mitchell, who as the Communist Party’s presidential nominee in 1968 became the first Black woman to run for the White House, died on Dec. 14 in Manhattan. She was 92.
Her death, in a nursing home, was confirmed by her son, Steven Mitchell.
Ms. Mitchell joined the Communist Party in 1946, when she was just 16, and over her long career worked at the intersection of issues that have come to define the left’s agenda for the last 50 years, including feminism, civil rights, police violence, economic inequality and anticolonialism.
Her rise in the party leadership came at a moment of crisis. The Communists had been decimated by the repressive tactics of the McCarthy era, then by the exodus of members disaffected by the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. By the late 1950s it counted barely 10,000 members, down from its height of about 75,000 in 1947.
To find new recruits, the party drew on its roots in radical civil rights activism to appeal to a new generation of Black leaders. Ms. Mitchell joined the party’s national committee in 1958; she was its youngest member ever.
In the 1960s, she founded an all-Black chapter in Los Angeles called the Che-Lumumba Club, which quickly became one of the most active in the country. The club’s choice of namesakes, the Argentine Marxist Che Guevara and the Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, pointed to Ms. Mitchell’s abiding insistence that the American left had to be rooted in an international matrix of freedom struggles.
She traveled widely, meeting fellow leftists in Europe, South America and Africa, and she was among the first Americans to highlight the plight of Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. By 1968 she was one of the best-known and most widely respected American Communist leaders.
“I don’t know of anything that Charlene was involved in where she was not the leader,” Mildred Williamson, who met Ms. Mitchell at a 1973 anti-apartheid conference in Chicago, said in a phone interview.
Ms. Mitchell became the Communist Party's presidential nominee when she was just 38. At its convention in Manhattan, she accepted the nomination below a banner that read “Black and White Unite to Fight Racism — Poverty — War!”
“We plan to put an open-occupancy sign on the White House lawn,” she declared and, taking a swipe at the pet project of the first lady, Lady Bird Johnson, added, “We propose to put a woman in that house to beautify not only our highways but to beautify ourselves.”
Her run for office came four years before the New York congresswoman Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman to seek the nomination for president from a major party.
Though she and her running mate, Michael Zagarell, appeared on just four state ballots and received just over 1,000 votes, her candidacy put a new face on the Communist Party at a time when the student-led New Left was gaining ground in left-wing politics and some party members had grown disillusioned with its uncritical support of the Soviet Union.
In contrast to the student movement, which was largely male, middle-class and white, she offered a vision of the left that was rooted in the experience of working-class women of color. Among her acolytes was an assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, named Angela Davis.
After Dr. Davis was arrested in 1970 for providing weapons used in the killing of a Marin County judge, Ms. Mitchell led her defense committee.
Dr. Davis was acquitted in 1972, and Ms. Mitchell used the experience to create the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, a group that, in its focus on police brutality and the legal system, foreshadowed later racial justice movements.
“Black Lives Matter and modern Black feminism stand on the shoulders of Charlene Mitchell,” Erik S. McDuffie, a professor of African American studies at the University of Illinois, said in a phone interview.
Among Ms. Mitchell’s many successful campaigns was the acquittal of Joan Little, a North Carolina inmate accused of murdering a prison guard who had sexually assaulted her. She also lobbied on behalf of the Wilmington 10, a group of nine Black men and one woman, also in North Carolina, who were convicted of arson and conspiracy in 1971 and later exonerated.
“I don’t think I have ever known someone as consistent in her values, as collective in her outlook on life, as firm in her trajectory as a freedom fighter,” Dr. Davis said at a 2009 event honoring Ms. Mitchell.
Charlene Alexander was born on June 8, 1930, in Cincinnati. Her parents were part of the Great Migration of Black Southerners who moved north in the first part of the 20th century — her father, Charles, came from Georgia and her mother, Naomi (Taylor) Alexander, from Tennessee.
Her marriages to Bill Mitchell and Michael Welch both ended in divorce. Along with her son, she is survived by two brothers, Deacon Alexander and Mike Wolfson.
When she was 9, Charlene, her parents and her seven siblings moved to Chicago, where her father worked as a Pullman porter and a hod carrier. He was also active in the labor movement and served as a precinct captain for Representative William L. Dawson, one of the few Black members of Congress.
The family settled in Cabrini Homes, a mixed-race public-housing development on Chicago’s Near North Side, which was a center of left-wing politics. When she was 13, Charlene joined the local branch of American Youth for Democracy, the youth branch of the Communist Party.
By the early 1940s she was already an activist, helping to lead a protest against a nearby theater, the Windsor, that required Black patrons to sit in the balcony. Black and white students, attending a matinee, simply switched places one day, and the theater dropped its segregation policy soon after.
Ms. Mitchell studied briefly at Herzl Junior College in Chicago (now Malcolm X College). She moved to Los Angeles in the early 1950s and to New York City in 1968.
Although Ms. Mitchell remained a committed socialist, she drifted from the Communist Party in the 1980s, especially after the death of Henry Winston, its most prominent Black leader, in 1986. The party, she came to believe, was becoming too focused on class issues at the expense of fighting racial and other injustices.
“I am not suggesting that all of a sudden there was racism in the party, or that some people were mean, or anything like that,” she said in a 1993 interview. “You had a situation where attention to certain questions that African American comrades felt were important was downgraded.”
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ms. Mitchell joined more than 100 other party members in calling for the party to reject Leninism and take a more democratic socialist path. In retaliation, the party’s longtime general secretary, Gus Hall, froze them out of subsequent national committee meetings.
Ms. Mitchell later left the party to help found the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, which sought to rebuild the left along more pluralistic lines.
But she remained committed to the values of the far left, and of communism as she understood it.
“The country’s rulers want to keep Black and white working people apart,” she said in a 1968 campaign speech. “The Communist Party is dedicated to the idea that — whatever the difficulties — they must be brought together, or neither can advance.”
Clay Risen is an obituaries reporter for The Times. Previously, he was a senior editor on the Politics desk and a deputy op-ed editor on the Opinion desk. He is the author, most recently, of “Bourbon: The Story of Kentucky Whiskey.” @risenc
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