History's pick: Kamala Harris joins a long list of forerunners

History's pick: Kamala Harris joins a long list of forerunners
© Greg Nash

Imagine the courage it took to be a sharecropper’s daughter in Mississippi, the youngest of 20 children who started picking cotton at age 6. Imagine the strength it took to live in the worst kind of generational poverty, feeling as if the whole world were against you, and still believing in change. 

Imagine committing yourself to that belief and facing down the threats and the harassment, the violence and brutality of Jim Crow Mississippi, and still organize Freedom Summer and the Freedom Democratic Party — because the worst they could do is kill you, and it seems they’ve been trying to do that since you were a child.

Imagine being a voice so strong that it scares none other than the president of the United States. 

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Her name was Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil rights activist who helped to found the National Women’s Political Caucus.

Imagine being a simple teacher from Brooklyn, pushing back against one of the strongest political machines in the country, a power structure that appears to not care what a woman has to say, especially when that woman is Black. 

But you keep pushing, keep organizing and keep agitating, until you blaze a trail through the New York State Legislature to become the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first Black candidate for president from a major political party.

Her name was Shirley Chisholm, and she sought the Democratic Party nomination in 1972, though barred from the televised primary debates.

Imagine being a 20-year-old domestic worker from rural Eastover, S.C., punched in the gut and thrown off a bus in downtown Columbia on a hot June day. But instead of giving in, as they expect, you stand up and fight back, taking the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to lay the foundation for Rosa Parks’s fight more than a year later. 

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Her name was Sarah Mae Flemming, and she, too, took a seat up front to take a stand on segregated buses.

Imagine not just Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisholm and Sarah Mae Flemming, but also Sojourner Truth, the former slave turned abolitionist, or teacher and civil rights activist Septima Clark, or South Carolina public health worker Modjeska Simkins, or Mary McLeod Bethune, the founder of Bethune-Cookman College and the founding president of the National Council of Negro Women, a woman so celebrated her life earned her a statue in Washington and a postage stamp. 

These trailblazers and others, some whose names have been forgotten, paved the way for Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaMichelle Obama: 'Don't listen to people who will say that somehow voting is rigged' Michelle Obama and Jennifer Lopez exchange Ginsburg memories Social media platforms put muscle into National Voter Registration Day MORE to become first lady and now, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisButtigieg stands in as Pence for Harris's debate practice First presidential debate to cover coronavirus, Supreme Court Harris joins women's voter mobilization event also featuring Pelosi, Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda MORE to be the first Black woman vice presidential nominee.

The truth is, though, this moment wasn’t fated — it was earned.

Let’s be honest, Harris (D-Calif.) is a remarkable leader and a trailblazer in her own right. Born in Oakland, Calif., to immigrant parents from India and Jamaica — a national leader in breast cancer research and an economics professor — she grew up looking beyond glass ceilings. And her parents’ teachings worked.

Harris has the opportunity to become Joe BidenJoe BidenOmar fires back at Trump over rally remarks: 'This is my country' Trump mocks Biden appearance, mask use ahead of first debate Trump attacks Omar for criticizing US: 'How did you do where you came from?' MORE’s vice president not only because she was California’s Attorney General and the only Black woman serving in the U.S. Senate. It’s not just because she’s a wife, a mother, an HBCU graduate, and a member of the powerful Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and The Links, Inc., one of the country’s oldest nonprofit volunteer organizations. It’s not just because Harris has experienced desegregation busing, workplace discrimination and racial criminal injustice firsthand that would bring a much-needed perspective to the White House. 

It’s because she represents countless women who gave everything they had to make this moment possible, who believed not only in who we are, but who we could be. 

We should congratulate not only Harris, but also all the unsung black women upon whose broad shoulders she stands at this moment in history. Kamala Harris isn’t just Biden’s pick — she’s theirs, and ours. 

Now it’s up to the Biden/Harris ticket to show Fannie Lou Hamer’s spirit by working in the trenches to organize grassroots and grasstops across America. 

They have to show Shirley Chisholm’s strength, building a coalition for change that leverages new gains in North Carolina, Florida and Texas, while engaging the voters Democrats missed four years ago in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. 

They have to show Sarah Mae Flemming’s courage by taking on issues such as health care, wages, affordable housing and justice reform — issues that might be controversial on the surface but that serve as the cornerstone to the American Dream.

By choosing Kamala Harris, Joe Biden has embraced the symbol of the countless Black women whose sacrifices made history. Now it’s time to follow their examples.

Antjuan Seawright is a Democratic political strategist, founder and CEO of Blueprint Strategy LLC, and a CBS News political contributor. Follow him on Twitter @antjuansea.