Born in Indianapolis in June 1939, Alice J. Palmer earned a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University in 1965. She thereafter took at teaching job in Indianapolis before joining the faculty of Crane Junior College, later renamed Malcolm X College in Chicago. Palmer then earned a Master’s degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a Ph.D. from Northwestern University. At Northwestern, she co-authored two books, tutored in the campus’s Black House, and eventually served five years as associate dean and director of African American Student Affairs.
By the end of the 1970s, Palmer’s affinity for socialism was becoming apparent. In 1980, the government of Grenada’s Marxist-Leninist Prime Minister Maurice Bishop invited Palmer and her husband, “Buzz,” to attend celebrations commemorating the first anniversary of that Caribbean nation’s Cuban/Soviet-backed revolution.
Around 1982 in Chicago, Palmer co-founded (with her husband) the Black Press Institute (BPI), where she served as editor of the Black Press Review. In a 1986 interview with the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) newspaper People’s Daily World, Palmer explained that BPI sought to influence political figures such as the members of the Congressional Black Caucus by exposing them to articles and editorials from black newspapers across the United States. Among the contributors to the BPI journal New Deliberations were: Jan Carew (a Guyanese-born Marxist and a leader in the field of Pan-African Studies and Black Studies”; Robert Starks, closely affiliated with the CPUSA and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA); journalist Dwight Kirk, a leader of the CPUSA and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (which was dominated by the DSA); and Earl Durham, a longtime CPUSA leader.
Also in the eighties, Palmer served as an executive board member of the U.S. Peace Council, an affiliate of the World Peace Council. 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.
In January 1985 Palmer helped organize an invasion of the South African Consulate in Chicago, the goal being to draw attention to South Africa’s apartheid policies. Among those arrested for this invasion were Palmer’s husband, Buzz Palmer, as well as Heather Booth, Bob Lucas (a member of Chicago’s Fourth Ward Independent Political Organization), and civil-rights activist Addie Wyatt.
In 1985 as well, Palmer led a delegation of 16 black journalists to the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic, and Czechoslovakia. The trip was organized by Don Rojas, the former press secretary to Grenada’s late Marxist-Leninist leader Maurice Bishop, in conjunction with the Black Press Institute, the National Alliance of Black Journalists, and the National Newspaper Publishers Association. In a subsequent interview, Palmer told the CPUSA newspaper: “The trip was extraordinary because we were able to sit down with our counterparts and with the seats of power in three major capitals-Prague, Berlin and Moscow…. We came back feeling that we could speak very well about the interest of the socialist countries in promoting peace.”
In March 1986 Palmer covered the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (in Moscow) for BPI and subsequently told the CPUSA newspaper People’s Daily World: “I spent a great deal of time with a woman from the Novosti (Press Agency), and she and I had a lot in common…. I had a chance to go shopping, just as I would if were back in Chicago…. It is useful to those people who would like to demonize the Soviet people. When I stood in line, it was the same kind of line I stand in in the Jewel grocery store in Chicago. It was merely because the place was crowded, not because at the end of the line there was nothing for me to purchase.”
In June 1986, BPI contributed an article titled “An Afro-American Journalist on the USSR” to the People’s Daily World. The piece detailed how Palmer had recently attended the aforementioned 27th Congress and had been greatly impressed by the Soviet system. Palmer was quoted as having made the following statements:
While serving as vice president of the International Organization of Journalists (an international communist front) in the mid-1980s, Palmer, as author Trevor Loudon puts it: “worked with highest levels of the Soviet propaganda machine–with the Soviet journal Izvestia, with Romesh Chandra and the World Peace Council and IOJ leaders such as Kaarle Nordenstreng and Jiri Kubka.” In December 1986, the People’s Weekly World quoted Palmer saying:
By 1987, Palmer was a member of BPI’s board of directors. Other board members included: Dr. Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, a former member of the Palestine National Council, the legislative body of the Palestine Liberation Organization; Dennis Brutus, a South African-born Marxist and an affiliate of the Institute for Policy Studies; Robert Chrisman, who founded the radical Black
Scholar magazine and participated in a 1976 Communist-organized delegation to Cuba; and Dr. Carlton Goodlett, a lifelong CPUSA associate and a member of the World Peace Council, a known international Soviet front.
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 CPUSA splinter group.
In 1995-96, Palmer was a member of Illinois Public Action’s board of directors.
In 1995, Palmer decided to pursue an opportunity to run for the U.S. House of Representatives seat vacated by Mel Reynolds, when the congressman from Illinois’ 2nd District resigned amid scandal. As Palmer prepared to leave the state senate and make a bid for Reynolds’ seat, she hand-picked Barack Obama as the person she most wanted to replace her in the state senate. Toward that end, she introduced Obama to party elders and donors and helped him gather the signatures required for getting his name placed on the ballot.
Palmer’s congressional campaign was run by the organization Friends of Alice Palmer, whose leaders included such notables as Barack Obama, property developer Tony Rezko (who would later be incarcerated), and three members of the Democratic Socialists of America — Timuel Black, Danny Davis, and Betty Willhoite.
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 2005 she served on an advisory committee for the Chicago Area Friends of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
In 2008 Palmer endorsed Hillary Clinton for U.S. President.
Further Reading: “The Pro-Soviet Agent of Influence Who Gave Barack Obama His First Job in Politics” (by Trevor Loudon, 2012); “Alice Palmer Reexamined” (by Trevor Loudon, 11-17-2009); “Alice Palmer” (Keywiki.org).