The race for Chicago’s next mayor has attracted much attention across the nation as many watch in excitement while the city elects its first Black female mayor. Regardless of who wins, the election is historic as it is the first time in Chicago’s history that a Black woman will hold this significant political office.
As writer Michelle Duster emphasizes, these women’s involvement in city politics was made possible because of the efforts of Black suffragists who paved the way, including famed Civil Rights activist Ida B. Wells. The successes of the two mayoral candidates in Chicago, Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot, was also made possible because of decades of Black women’s radical politics in the city — long before the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Indeed, Chicago was a hotbed of Black radical activity during the 20th century, and Black women were at the forefront of these movements.
Black women in the Chicago-based Peace Movement of Ethiopia (PME) were among the group of Black radical women who rose to prominence in the city in the 1930s and 1940s. Unlike activists in groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League (NUL), women in the PME resisted integrationist efforts. Although they were equally committed to improving the lives of Black people, women in the PME embraced political views that many considered radical — including the call for Black separatism, the support of African liberation struggles, and an anti-imperialist critique of US foreign policy.
These principles formed the core of the PME, which Black activist Mittie Maude Lena Gordon established in Chicago in December 1932. Best described as a Black nationalist and internationalist organization, the PME worked to build transnational political alliances during the years of the Great Depression. One significant aspect of their political platform was a belief that Black people should leave the United States and relocate to the African continent to improve their economic and political standing.
Black women in the PME found a space in which to engage in Black radical politics even at a moment in which they were being denied full citizenship rights. Their political activities were often unconventional and generally took place in unlikely spaces, including restaurants and on Chicago street corners, without much fanfare or public recognition. The earliest meetings of the PME, for example, took place in Gordon’s restaurant — located only doors away from her apartment on the South Side of Chicago — where Gordon and other working-class Black activists discussed the plight of Black people in their city and across the nation. In this small but bustling space, they broke bread while carefully laying out plans for the future. They also dabbled in Black internationalist politics, forging collaborations with Asian activists who were interested in dismantling global white supremacy.
As they skillfully worked to broaden their alliances during the years of the Great Depression, Black women in Chicago’s PME also worked to obtain federal aid for Black people. Inspired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s promise of a New Deal to boost the US economy, Gordon drafted a petition that made an unconventional appeal to the US government to allocate funds for Black Americans desiring to leave the country. Several New Deal Programs were already in place, including 1933’s Federal Emergency Relief Act, which provided hundreds of millions of dollars in aid for unemployed Americans. Gordon and other PME leaders drew inspiration from the New Deal — which failed to provide economic security for dispossessed, unemployed Black people who needed it most, among other exclusionary practices — to make a demand for federal support. In 1933, they mailed a petition to FDR with an estimated 400,000 signatures of Black Americans who were willing to leave the country.
Although the FDR administration ignored their demands, these women worked tirelessly to advance their political goals by organizing Black working-class people in Chicago and across the Midwest.
In the end, they galvanized thousands of Black people by emphasizing the need to challenge global white supremacy and employing various strategies and tactics to secure both civil and human rights.
The PME also provided a space for Black women, especially members of the working poor, to strengthen their leadership and organizing skills. Black women — including some who had not been previously involved in political groups — became active members and leaders of the PME. While other political groups, such as the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), enforced a strict gendered hierarchy that limited women’s roles and responsibilities, the PME offered many leadership opportunities for women. Women could be found serving in a variety of visible formal leadership roles from national organizers to members of the executive board. For example, Celia Jane Allen, a Mississippian who joined the PME in Chicago in the early 1930s, became one of the organization’s leading national organizers.
These women were also thought leaders and used a variety of mediums, including Black newspapers, to popularize their radical ideas. They boldly challenged racism, sexism, and discrimination in Chicago, and they used their platform and their networks to call for revolutionary social changes.
While often hidden in mainstream historical narratives, Chicago-based activists like Mittie Maude Lena Gordon and Celia Jane Allen cultivated a vibrant space in which Black women would not stand on the sidelines but boldly lead the city — and the nation — forward.
In this spirit, and because of these earlier efforts, Black women like today’s mayoral candidates are leading a new generation of activists in Chicago. To be sure, Lightfoot and Preckwinkle maintain diverse views, and their political visions do not always align with those who came before them. Yet their very presence in contemporary politics and the possibilities their election holds for realizing meaningful change are part of a long and rich legacy of Black women’s politics in Chicago and across the nation.
About the Author
Keisha N. Blain is the editor in chief of The North Star. She is an award-winning historian of the 20th century United States with broad interests in African American History, the modern African Diaspora, and Women’s and Gender Studies. Blain is the author of several books, including Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom; and To Turn the Whole World Over: Black Women and Internationalism.