Before there was a Geraldine Ferraro or even a Sarah Palin, there was newspaper editor Charlotta Spears Bass. In 1952, Bass became the first African-American woman to run for vice-president of the United States under the Progressive Party ticket.
A true mover and shaker, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., was the pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. In 1961, he was elected chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, where he approved several federal programs for minimum wage increases, education improvement and funding for public libraries.
As a young lawyer, federal judge Constance Baker Motley represented Martin Luther King Jr., it was a precursor to a life dedicated to fighting segregation cases. In 1966, she became the first Black woman appointed to the federal bench.
Republican Edward William Brooke III was the first African-American elected by popular vote to the United States Senate in 1966. Media personality Barbara Walters revealed in her memoir, “Audition”, that she had an affair with Brooke while he was married to his first wife.
In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Thurgood Marshall as the first African-American Supreme Court judge. He died in 1993 and is buried in Section 5 of Arlington National Cemetery, where four other Supreme Court justices are laid to rest.
Trailblazer Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to Congress in 1968, where she found an effective platform to speak on the rights of women and people of color. In an even gutsier move, in 1972 she also became the first Black woman to run for president of United States.
Barbara Jordan’s legacy begins with her fight for equality and unity. In 1976, she was chosen as the keynote speaker for the Democratic National Convention, the first African-American woman to be given that honor.
Patricia Roberts Harris was a multifaceted woman who dedicated her life to public service and civil rights. In 1977, she became the first African-American Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. When questioned at her confirmation hearing about her ability to represent the interests of the poor, she responded, “I am a Black woman who could not buy a house eight years ago in parts of the District of Columbia. I didn’t start out as a member of a prestigious law firm, but as a woman who needed a scholarship to go to school. If you think that I have forgotten that, you are wrong.”
In 1984, civil rights leader Reverend Jesse Jackson announced his intention to run for the Democratic nomination and became the first African-American to make a serious bid for the presidency.
Raised in the South Bronx by immigrant parents, General Colin Powell would go on to become the highest-ranking Black man in the military when he was appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Lawrence Douglas Wilder was the grandson of slaves and named after abolitionist Frederick Douglass and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. In 1990, Wilder became the first-ever elected Black governor in the United States.
It took the sisters a little longer, but in 1990, Sharon Pratt Kelly was elected mayor of Washington, D.C., the first Black woman to lead a major American city.
In 1991, President George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to replace the retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall as a Supreme Court judge, making Thomas the second African-American to sit on the Supreme Court.
In 1992, Carol Moseley Braun became the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate.
Condoleezza Rice became the first African-American woman appointed National Security Advisor by President George W. Bush in 2001. Prior to that role, she was the Provost at Stanford University where she was responsible for a $1.5 billion annual budget.
There were early signs of greatness for Reverend Al Sharpton. He was already an ordained preacher at 10 years old, traveling on tour with gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. In 2004, he tried to utilize those same leadership skills when he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination.
This year, Illinois senator Barack Obama became the first-ever African-American to be nominated by a major party for the presidency of the United States. It’s believed that he has a credible chance of winning the general election in November.