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Frank R. Beckwith: The First Black Presidential Candidate

Historical Facts | September 11, 2019

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. 

Beckwith was a prominent lawyer in Indianapolis beginning in the 1930s. Source: (indystar.com)

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. 

Beckwith joined the Republican Party and became an active member. Source: (homesteadmuseum.wordpress.com)

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.

Beckwith worked to racial equality in Indianapolis. Source: (indystar.com)

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. 

Beckwith's radio broadcast was so popular that the American Bar Association released it as a book. Source: (golden-agetv.uk)

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. 

Beckwith worked on the reelection campaign of Dwight Eisenhower. Source: (Photo by Bert Hardy/Getty Images)

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. 

It is true that other African Americans ran for the presidency before Beckwith, but none of them, including Frederick Douglass, ran on a major party ticket. Source: (psmag.com)

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.

Beckwith, along with Richard Nixon, were among the six candidates vying for the Republican nomination in 1960. Source: (cnn.com)

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.

Beckwith's effort may have laid the foundation for Barack Obama's candidacy. Source: (pbs.org)

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.

Tags: Republican Frank R. Beckwith | The First Black Presidential Candidate

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.