Frank R. Beckwith: The First Black Presidential Candidate
Attorney Frank R. Beckwith. Source: (Indianalegalarchive.com)
Long before the historic presidency of Barack Obama, one man cut himself off a little slice of that history by becoming the first African-American candidate in a major party's presidential primary election. To give you just a small idea of how gutsy he was, he did this in the middle of the turbulent Civil Rights era. It was a groundbreaking achievement and a huge step in the quest for racial equality, yet you probably don't know this man's name. History has relegated him to the footnotes of the history books, but his contributions cannot be ignored. He is Frank R. Beckwith, and this is his story.
A Hoosier Politician
Born in 1904, Frank Roscoe Beckwith grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana as the son of former slaves, where he received a public school education and graduated in 1921 from the Arsenal Technical High School. After that, Beckwith interned for two prominent lawyers in the city, Asa J. Smith and Sumner A. Clancy. From these two men, Beckwith learned about law and politics. He then went on to become a successful attorney in his own right.
A Member of the Republican Party
In the late 1920s, Frank R. Beckwith got involved in politics. The registered Republican served as the Director of Welfare and Safety on the Indiana Industrial Board for four years and lobbied the General Assembly of Indiana in favor of issues that were important the African-American community, including free busing for public school children who enrolled in schools outside their home school districts. It may seem strange in our era that a Civil Rights activist would identify as a Republican, but Beckwith was fiscally conservative, believing that government assistance would be largely unnecessary after the end of racial discrimination.
An Unsuccessful Candidate
Working out of his law office, headquartered near the African-American cultural hub of Indianapolis in the 1930s, Frank R. Beckwith launched at least two failed attempts at political office. He tried for a spot on the Indiana General Assembly in 1936 and for a seat on the City Council of Indianapolis in 1938. Both times, Beckwith lost the elections. Undeterred, he remained an active figure in city and state politics and volunteered his time and efforts to community projects to improve the lives of African-Americans in the community.
From Speech to Book
After Frank R. Beckwith was admitted to practice law before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1943, he was asked to deliver an address over the radio. His speech, titled The Negro Lawyer And The War, received such positive feedback that Beckwith expanded it into a book by the same name, which was published by the American Bar Association.
A Public Servant
Frank R. Beckwith was devoted to public service, and he didn't let his failed campaigns slow him down. In 1953, he served as president of the Yankee Doodle Civic Foundation, where he worked to end racial discrimination against workers in the public transportation industry, and served as a delegate for the Republican Party at state conventions. He was even the Indiana urban coordinator for the reelection campaign of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. His work in this arena helped him understand the inner workings of presidential politics and laid the foundation for his own future candidacy.
The First Major-Party African-American Candidate
In 1960, Frank R. Beckwith announced his campaign to become the Republican Party's presidential candidate. Other African-Americans had run for the office of U.S. President in the past---most notably Frederick Douglass in 1848, Simon P. Drew in 1928, and James W. Ford in most of the '30s---but all of them had run on independent or third-party tickets. As a loyal Republican, Beckwith was the first real contender to the presidency.
Campaigning Against Richard Nixon
Unfortunately for him, it was not to be. The Republican primary of 1960 included six candidates, one of whom was Frank R. Beckwith and another named Richard Nixon. Beckwith got about 20,000 votes, which seems like a sizable amount, but in reality, it was only about one-third of 1% of the total number of votes casts in the primary. In the end, Richard Nixon became the Republican nominee. Clearly not one to be disheartened, Beckwith encouraged the elected officials to build stronger bonds with the African-American community and end labor discrimination against minorities.
Paving the Way
Although Frank R. Beckwith was unsuccessful in his bid for the presidency, he did prove that minority candidates could be key figures in the two major political parties. Beckwith's achievement paved the way for such politicians as Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Colin Powell, and Barack Obama. Odds are that you're not a huge fan of at least one of those people, but surely we can all agree that everyone deserves the chance to be reviled by the American public.
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