Dr. Lenora B. Fulani: Independent political pioneerOmar H. Ali / November 2, 2018
In 1988, educator and independent political pioneer, Dr. Lenora B. Fulani become the first woman and the first African American to have gotten on the ballot in all fifty states and the District of Columbia running for President of the United States. Notably, Fulani accomplished this twenty years before President Barack Obama was elected to the highest office in the nation (he was the first African American male to get on the ballot in all fifty states; no other female has gotten on the ballot in all fifty states).
As the Democratic Party nominee, Obama was guaranteed getting on the ballot across the nation. Fulani, however, running as an independent (neither Democrat nor Republican) had to gather over 1.2 million signatures and win 11 lawsuits against state election boards since election rules have been designed by Democratic and Republican legislators to keep independents off the ballot (limiting competition and ensuring certain outcomes). In North Carolina, for instance, for an independent to get on the ballot running for U.S. President requires them getting over 100,000 signatures. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party and Republican Party nominees do not need a single signature to do this.
In the wake of the 1988 election, in which Fulani received a quarter of a million votes nationally, she was asked what was harder for her running for U.S. President—being Black or being a woman? She replied, “It was being an independent.” And that was thirty years ago.
In today’s hyper-partisan political landscape and culture, Fulani’s call three decades ago to create options outside of the two major parties for voters to give expression to their voices and exercise their power was prescient. Having more options, given the nation’s claim of being democratic, remains necessary in the face of highly-entrenched bipartisan control of the political process—which translates into what questions are asked by candidates, who gets elected, and what policies are enacted.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Below, Ali offers not only additional historical commentary but an open expression of gratitude to Fulani for her leadership on the 30th anniversary of her accomplishment—a message delivered via video to Fulani and a large gathering at the Annual Anti-Corruption Awards held in New York:
Leadership is about empowering others, and this is what you — Dr. Fulani — do, magnificently. As a historian, I hereby certify that you are indeed the first woman and first African American to have gotten on the ballot in all fifty states running for President of the United States.
This extraordinary accomplishment, however, is only one indicator of all that you have achieved and the history of which we are all a part. This history may be traced back to the Abolitionists of the 1830s and 1840s. The women and men, Black and White, who came together to make the issue of abolishing slavery a public issue. People like Maria Stewart and Frederick Douglass, who cultivated independent Black politics by movement-building, including the formation of the Liberty Party …
To Black Populists and White independents in the 1890s, with people like Walter Pattillo of North Carolina and Lutie Lytle of Kansas, via the Farmers Alliances and the People’s Party … To the modern Civil Rights Movement in the South led by Ella Baker, Dr. King, and so many others … To the work you have led over the past thirty years.
In a nation, where ideology, ‘race,’ and partisanship are used to divide and conquer us, you have helped to empower us to create our own stories, our own history.
We do this by working and building new things together.
Thank you for your courage, creativity, and developmental practice. Thank you for all you do and model for all of us to creatively imitate in our own ways. Wherever we are, we are with you, and you are with us.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Dr. Omar H. Ali, a historian of independent Black politics, serves as Dean of Lloyd International Honors College at UNC Greensboro. His book In the Balance of Power: Independent Black Politics and Third-Party Movements in the United States, published ten years ago, was described as a “landmark work” by The National Political Science Review.