Born in Indianapolis in June 1939, Alice J. Palmer earned a bachelor's degree from Indiana University in 1965, followed by a master's degree from Roosevelt University and a Ph.D. from Northwestern University. At Northwestern, Palmer co-authored two books, tutored in the campus's Black House, and ultimately served five years as associate dean and director of African American Student Affairs. Next, she worked as the national voter-education director for a citizen-action group before becoming the founding director of the Metro YMCA Youth and Government Program in 1986. Palmer also served a stint as executive director of Chicago Cities in Schools.
By the end of the 1970s, Palmer's affinity for socialism was becoming apparent. In 1980, the Maurice Bishop-led government of Grenada invited Palmer to attend celebrations commemorating the first anniversary of that Caribbean nation's Cuban/Soviet-backed revolution.
Also in the eighties, Palmer served as an executive board member of the U.S. Peace Council, an affiliate of the World Peace Council, which was an international Soviet front. Palmer participated in the World Peace Council’s Prague assembly in 1983 -- just as the USSR was launching its “nuclear freeze” movement, a scheme that would have frozen Soviet nuclear and military superiority in place. Further, she worked for the Black Press Institute and was editor of the Black Press Review.
In June 1986, the Black Press Institute contributed an article, “An Afro-American Journalist on the USSR,” to the Communist Party USA’s newspaper, People’s Daily World. The piece detailed how Palmer had recently attended the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and had been greatly impressed by the Soviet system. Palmer was quoted as having made the following statements:
On June 6, 1991, Palmer, a Democrat, replaced state senator Richard Newhouse as the representative for Illinois' 13th Legislative District, a post she would hold until January 1997.
In the mid-1990s, state senator Palmer attended a number of political meetings at the Chicago-area home of her friends and ideological allies, former Weather Underground terrorists Bill Ayers and his wife Bernardine Dohrn. At those gatherings, Palmer developed a friendly relationship with another attendee, a young aspiring politician named Barack Obama.
As late as 1994, Palmer was known to be working closely with members of the Committees of Correspondence, a Communist Party USA splinter group.
In 1995, Palmer decided to pursue an opportunity to run for a higher political office when Mel Reynolds, the congressman from Illinois’ 2nd District, resigned from the House of Representatives amid scandal.
As Palmer prepared to leave the state senate, she hand-picked Barack Obama as the person she most wanted to fill her newly vacated senate seat. Toward that end, she introduced Obama to party elders and donors as her preferred successor, and helped him gather the signatures required for getting his name placed on the ballot.
But in November 1995, Jesse Jackson, Jr. defeated Palmer in a special election for Reynolds’ empty congressional seat. At that point, Palmer filed to retain the Democratic nomination for the state senate seat she had encouraged Obama to pursue; that seat would be up for grabs in the November 1996 elections. She asked Obama to politely withdraw from the race and offered to help him find an alternative position elsewhere.
But Obama refused to withdraw, so Palmer resolved to run against him (and against two other opponents who also had declared their candidacy) in the 1996 Democratic primary. To get her name placed on the ballot, Palmer hastily gathered the minimum number of signatures required. Obama promptly challenged the legitimacy of those signatures and charged Palmer with fraud. A subsequent investigation found that a number of the names on Palmer’s signature list were technically invalid, thus she was knocked off the ballot. (Names could be eliminated from a candidate's petition for a variety of reasons. For example, if a name was printed rather than written in cursive script, it was considered invalid. Or if the person collecting the signatures was not registered to perform that task, any signatures that he or she had collected likewise were nullified.)
Obama also successfully challenged the signatures gathered by his other two opponents, and both of them were disqualified as well. As a result, Obama ran unopposed in the Democratic primary and won by default.
“I liked Alice Palmer a lot,” Obama would later reflect. “I thought she was a good public servant. It [the process by which Obama got Palmer's name removed from the ballot] was very awkward. That part of it I wish had played out entirely differently.”
After leaving public office, Palmer was hired as an associate professor by the University of Illinois' College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs. She held that post from 1996 to 2003, when she retired.
In 2008 Palmer endorsed Hillary Clinton for U.S. President. In 2011, she supported Danny Davis in his run for mayor of Chicago against former Obama aide Rahm Emanuel.