Before Barack Obama made history as the first Black President of the United States, many African American politicians before him actively sought the hallowed office. Despite their many obstacles, these ambitious and savvy men and women dreamed big, broke barriers and worked for the greater good of their community and humanity at large.
Here are some famous Black politicians who have helped shape the vision of African Americans in the White House:
Born in 1941 in South Carolina, Jesse Jackson showed interest in sports and leadership, becoming both a quarterback and the president of his student body in college. After graduating with a sociology degree from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro, he began attending seminary school in Chicago when he got involved in the Civil Rights Movement in 1965.
Working with Martin Luther King Jr., Jackson left his divinity studies and threw himself fully into serving the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). It was there he led the initiative Operation Breadbasket, which aimed to boycott companies that did not implement fair hiring practices for Black people.
In 1972, Jackson used what he learned from Operation Breadbasket to launch what would become the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, an organization that focused on civil rights as well as social and political justice issues.
In 1984, Jackson took his political activism to the highest office, seeking a presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention. Despite his campaign being tainted by some of his negative comments about Jews and Louis Farrakhan, Jackson went on to earn more than 3.2 million votes during the primaries, coming in third to Senator Gary Hart and former vice president Walter Mondale, who ultimately took the nomination. Jackson later complained he was only awarded a small percentage of delegates and that the party's rules put him at a disadvantage. Still, he tried for one more presidential run in 1988, and although Michael Dukakis became the winner of that cycle, Jackson had increased his popularity — especially among midwestern white voters — taking close to seven million primary votes in total.
The line between American politics and celebrity have often been blurred throughout modern times, and Al Sharpton is a living example of just that. Known as a firebrand on race relations and politics, the Brooklyn-born Sharpton started laying his foundation early as a civil rights activist in the late 1960s. He later became the youth director to Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm's run for the presidency in 1972. But Sharpton's knack for entertainment was never far off; he would become James Brown's long-running tour manager.
Sharpton's political voice rose to national prominence in the 1980s and with it came controversy — from his questionable financial dealings to his involvement in the 1987 Tawana Brawley case. But the Pentecostal minister and cable news television personality — who had never won any race for public office — decided he would run for president in 2004 as a Democrat, which many people believed was his way of attempting to gain more influence as a Black leader. Despite the criticisms of his past, Sharpton forged ahead with his candidacy, leaning more on political instincts and showmanship than dependable infrastructure.
In the end, Sharpton never emerged as a viable contender for the office. He withdrew his candidacy and endorsed Senator John Kerry, who would win the party nomination.
Born as a slave in Maryland in 1818, Frederick Douglass escaped to the North and became a free man at the age of 20. Having been educated in his youth by his slave owner's wife, Douglass became one of the greatest civil rights and women's rights leaders of the 19th century. His accomplishments were many: Douglass authored three autobiographies, was a highly influential abolitionist leader and orator, edited a widely read Black newspaper, became the president of a bank, and served as a U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic and a minister resident to Haiti.
His cultural imprint was far-reaching — so much so that he found himself thrust into the elite pool of national politics, contending for the highest office of the land all based on the motivations of his followers.
While his 1888 Republican presidential nomination is his most remembered, since it came from a major party (he received a single vote from a Republican delegate in Kentucky), Douglass had previously been nominated for president four decades earlier by the National Liberty Party. He had also been nominated for vice president by the Equal Rights Party in 1872, with his presidential running mate being Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for the top office.
Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1924, Shirley Chisholm built her reputation in college as a skilled debater. After receiving her master's degree in education at Columbia University, Chisholm ran a daycare center. It was during this time that she got involved in politics, fighting for early childhood education issues as well as child welfare.
After serving in the New York State Assembly (1965 to 1968) as a Democrat, Chisholm boldly ran for a House seat in the U.S. Congress in 1968, using the catchy campaign slogan "Unbought and Unbossed." She won and became the first Black woman elected to Congress. Representing the 12th district of New York, Chisholm served for seven terms — fighting for the welfare of children, the underserved, people of color and women.
Already used to breaking new ground as a woman, minority and politician, Chisholm did the unthinkable in 1972: She became the first Black person to seek a presidential nomination from a major party. While Chisholm had strong support among Black women, she struggled to be taken seriously by all other groups — including Black men. As much as Chisholm was sincere about the nomination, she was realistic about the outcome. She was looking at the bigger picture of building a coalition, which she had hoped would then influence the outcome of the ultimate nominee at the Democratic convention.
In the end, Chisholm came to the convention with 152 delegates, coming in fourth place out of the six candidates who were seeking the nomination. Despite George McGovern's overwhelming win, Chisholm was successful in making the country rethink the idea that only white men were capable of becoming president in America.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1950, Lenora Fulani earned her doctorate in developmental psychology from the City University of New York (CUNY) in the late 1970s while also getting involved in Black nationalist politics during her studies. Known for developing social youth programs in New York, Fulani decided to make her mark in the political sphere by running for president of the United States under the New Alliance Party (NAP) in 1988, making her the first woman and African American independent candidate to access the ballot in all 50 states. She gained 0.2 percent of the vote, receiving the most votes of any woman in a national presidential election until Green Party candidate Jill Stein in 2012. Fulani ran for president once more as a NAP candidate in 1992 but ended up receiving only 0.07 percent of the vote. That same year she published her autobiography The Making of a Fringe Candidate, 1992.
Herman Cain wore many hats in the corporate world before he decided to throw his hat into the presidential ring. Born in Tennessee in 1945, Cain was a graduate of Morehouse College in Georgia and went on to obtain his master's degree in computer science from Purdue University in 1971. Moving to Minneapolis, Cain worked his way up the ladder at Pillsbury Company, becoming its vice president before being promoted to CEO of Godfather's Pizza starting in 1986.
After serving as a bank chairman, Cain went on to serve as an economic advisor to Bob Dole when the latter ran for president in 1995. In 2011, Cain announced his candidacy for the presidency under the Tea Party but had initially lagged way behind Republican candidates Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. However, along with his 9-9-9 Tax Plan and his punchy debate performances, Cain began to rise in the polls substantially before dismally plummeting after multiple reports of alleged sexual misconduct surfaced.
Just like Herman Cain's crash-and-burn presidential candidacy, Ben Carson found himself in a similar situation but with less drama and scandal. Born in Detroit in 1951, Carson grew up in a poor and broken home but rose up to become one of the premier pediatric neurosurgeons in the country. His rags-to-riches story typified the American Dream — so much so that he wrote a memoir in 1990 and became the subject of a television movie in 2009.
Carson gained national prominence in conservative circles when he denounced Obamacare at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013. He announced his presidential run as a Republican in 2015, stating he was seeking the office out of moral duty rather than for political power.
However, after allegations were raised that challenged some of his statements in his memoir, along with a number of poor performances over foreign policy in primary debates and his overly composed persona, Carson began to fall behind in the primaries.
In March 2016, Carson withdrew his candidacy and soon after endorsed Donald Trump. A year later, he became Trump's Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.