MIAMI, Jan. 2 -- Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress and a candidate for the presidency in 1972, died Saturday in Florida, friends said. She was 80.
"She was our Moses that opened the Red Sea for us," Robert E. Williams, president of the NAACP in Flagler County, told the Associated Press late Sunday. He said he had learned of Chisholm's death from his pastor.
Shirley Chisholm holds a news conference prior to giving a lecture at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville on Feb. 26, 1982.
(AP File Photo)
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Shola Lynch, director of a recent documentary about Chisholm, said in a telephone interview with The Washington Post that she was told of the former congresswoman's death by her former husband, Conrad Chisholm. Shirley Chisholm had been living in the Ormond Beach area.
Chisholm was elected to the House from Brooklyn in 1968 and was an outspoken advocate for women and minorities during her seven terms. She was a riveting speaker who often criticized Congress as being too clubby and unresponsive.
"My greatest political asset, which professional politicians fear, is my mouth, out of which come all kinds of things one shouldn't always discuss for reasons of political expediency," she once said.
Chisholm became a congresswoman the same year Richard M. Nixon was elected to the White House and served until two years into Ronald Reagan's tenure as president. She was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1969.
Jesse Jackson called Chisholm a "woman of great courage."
"She was an activist and she never stopped fighting," Jackson said from Ohio, where he is set to lead a rally on Monday in Columbus. "She refused to accept the ordinary, and she had high expectations for herself and all people around her."
Chisholm ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. When rival and ideological opposite George Wallace was shot, she visited him in the hospital. Many of her followers were appalled.
Lynch's documentary, "Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed," had its premiere last year at the Sundance Film Festival. Lynch said Chisholm was the first black person to conduct a large-scale campaign for the presidency within the two-party system.
"Others tossed their hats in the ring," Lynch told The Post, "but in terms of a full-fledged campaign," Chisholm was the first.
Pragmatism and power were Chisholm's watchwords. "Women have learned to flex their political muscles. You got to flex that muscle to get what you want," she said during her presidential campaign.
Born Shirley St. Hill in New York on Nov. 30, 1924, she was the eldest of four daughters of a Guyanese father and a Barbadian mother. Her father, an unskilled laborer in a burlap-bag factory, and her mother, a domestic, scrimped to educate their children.
At age 3, Shirley was sent to live on her grandmother's farm in Barbados. She attended a British grammar school and picked up the clipped Caribbean accent that marked her speech.
She moved back to New York when she was 11. She went on to graduate cum laude from Brooklyn College and earn a master's degree from Columbia University.
She started her career as director of a day care center, and later served as an educational consultant with the city's Bureau of Child Welfare. She became active in local Democratic politics and was elected to the state Assembly in 1964.
Chisholm served in the Assembly until 1968, when she defeated James Farmer, the former national chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, to gain the House seat.
After leaving Congress, Chisholm was named to the Purington Chair at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., where she taught for four years. In later years she was a sought-after speaker.
Chisholm's 1949 marriage to Conrad Chisholm ended in divorce in 1977. Later that year, she married Arthur Hardwick Jr., who died in 1986. She had no children.
Staff writer Martin Weil in Washington contributed to this report.