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Remembering Shirley Chisholm

Shola Lynch
Monday, January 3, 2005; 12:30 PM

Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress and a candidate for the presidency in 1972, died Saturday in Florida at the age of 80. Filmmaker Shola Lynch, director of a recent documentary about Chisholm, was online Monday, Jan. 3, at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss Chisholm's life and legacy.

Lynch's documentary, "Chisholm '72," will premiere on PBS on Feb. 7th.

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Savannah, Ga.: I am sadden to learn of the passing of a great legislator, Shirley Chislom.

What was Congresswoman Chislom's most significant legislation that impacts America today? What is the legacy that she leaves for future generations of African Americans?

Shola Lynch: It is a question I asked her as well. How would you like to be remembered? This was/is her answer..."When I die, I want to be remembered as a woman who lived in the twentieth century and who dared to be a catalyst of change. I don't want to be remembered as the first black woman who went to Congress. And I don't even want to be remembered as the first woman who happened to be black to make a bid for the Presidency. I want to be remembered as a woman who fought for change in the twentieth century. That's what I want."

I hope that is what we do. I also hope that is what the documentary helps make possible as well.


Washington, D.C.: Why, in your opinion, have no African-American politicians been able to garner even a party ticket in the presidential race yet? Chisolm tried in '72. It's now several decades later and I feel that no progress has been made. Do you plan to chronicle the careers of any other African-American politicians?

Shola Lynch: This is something I think about all the time. In my estimation, part of it is our culture. We need to win all the time. Mrs. Chisholm was not afraid to loose that presidential race. In fact, she did not even think about it that way. She was winning because her candidacy could bring more people into the process. The voting age had just changed from 21 to 18, many, if not most, of her constituents were in this group of new voters. For her that was winning.

She also did not have to raise billiions of dollars. In fact, she supported her campaign by small fundraisers and her saving from being a teacher, State Assembywoman (1964), and Congresswoman (1968).

As for me, I'd like to make more documentaries. I love movies and we do not tell enough good stories.


Washington, D.C.: What did you learn about Ms. Chisolm that surprised you the most?

Shola Lynch: I guess this should not have surprized me, but I learned how stubborn she was. What I mean by that is she stuck to her guns, followed her convictions, and did not let what other people thought about her keep her from doing anything. I was surprized by the force and bigness of the personality that came out of such a little "school teacherish" body.


Arlington, Va.: How did Rep. Chisholm manage to become the first black congresswoman?

Shola Lynch: I think this is an important questions. Mrs. C was formidable politician, who came at the right time. In other words, there were historical circumstances that made her run for Congress possible. The Civil Rights Acts passed earlier in the sixties made more opportunities available and, which is a crucial detail, corrected gerrimandering that made black districts impossible. Gerrimandering had often been used to keep black people without representation with it corrected people like Mrs. C could be elected. It happened all over the country so in 1968 there are a handful of new black representatives in Congress.


Washington, D.C.: Can you point to any early personal or mentoring relationships that Ms. Chisolm had that helped to shape her political activity?

Shola Lynch: As child, Mrs. C looked up to her father, who was a Union man and a Garveyite. She learned a lot about politics by listening to him talk about it at home. The two women that impacted her life greatly are Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt. She met them both a young school girl and they both separately made a strong impression on her.


Anonymous: I was lucky enough to see a copy of the film a few weeks ago, and it was wonderful. One thing that struck me was the feeling of optimism and youth that seemed to surround the Chisolm campaign. I couldn't help but compare it to the early days of the Howard Dean campaign, which I volunteered for last year. There was a sense that this was a truly different candidate who actually cared about making a difference for all Americans. Do you think a candidate like that can ever succeed?

Shola Lynch: YUP! I am a believer. That is what the American Spirit is about. What is being a winner? Mrs. C, I think, would say, "fighting the good fight." She would also probably add, "and continuing the fight the good fight." By her own example, she stayed the course of her presidential campaign untilt he bitter end at the Democratic convention. She also stayed in in politics until the eighties.


Huntingtown, Md.: Can you give a short bio of Mrs. Chisholm? I have heard of her, but I would like some of the highlights of her life.

Shola Lynch: I can type but not that fast so for bio and back ground about Mrs. C. you can see my website: www.chisholm72.net/

As well, Point of View has a even more information about the documentary (www.pov.org).


Rehoboth, Del.: How far did Shirley get in her run for the presidency? Which ticket did she run on?

Shola Lynch: Mrs. C ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1972. She ran in the majority of the primaries and went all the way to the Democratic National Convention with delegate votes.

She entered the race because there was no strong Democratic front runner. Bobby Kennedy had been killed in 1968. So, there were about 13 people running for the nomination. The other thing is that 1972 was the first election impacted by the voting age change from 21 to 18. There were going to be millions of new voters. Mrs. C wanted to attract these young folks as well as anyone who felt left out of politics. She wanted to bring these people into the process with her candidacy.

She played ball until the end because she knew her delegate votes could have been the difference between the two candidates in a closely contested nomination battle. It did not exactly turn out that way but it was a sound, and clever, political strategy. At least, I think so.


Clifton, Va.: Did Chisholm make any lasting legislation or changes while she was a member of Congress? How long did she serve?

Shola Lynch: Mrs. C was in Congress from 1968 - 1983. She had her hand in most progressive causes and legislation from speaking out against the Vietnam War, supporting the ERA, and strong educational policy. As a school teacher turned politician, she had a great emphasis on education as well as after school programs. To do so she would often work with her colleagues across the isle. She was very issue oriented in that way.


Denver, Colo.: In the course of making your documentary, did you uncover items about Rep. Chisholm that surprised you? Also, what drew you to make this film?

Shola Lynch: What drew me to make this documentary is the fact knew so littel about her. On top of it,whatever I did know about her did not resonate emotionally or mean very much. That might be a harsh thing to say, but I do not think that I had the context to understand what it meant and took to be the type of person and politician that she was. This spurred me to try and make a film that brought these emotions alive. I want the viewers not to just be told about her but to feel the journey too.

I knew her run for president a good story but I am surprised that I continue to admire her boldness as much as I do.


Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: How extensively involved was she in your documentary? Did she see the final version, or at least rough cuts? If so, what were her reactions?

Shola Lynch: Mrs. C was a perfect documentary subject. She gave me the interview and then let us make the documentary. She told me later that she never really thought it would get made.

Her reaction to the documentary was priceless. She was taken back to 1972. She had forgotten what she was like and the impact, both positive and negative, she had. You have to remember that she never got to see herself give a speech or see the news footage later. So, she talked to the movie. She talked to her younger self.."OHHH, I said that!!" She talked to the people in it and shook her head sometimes and laughed out loud other times. She was particularly glad that her sense of humor showed.

She also did not ask me to change a thing. I appreciated her letting me tell the story in the way that I saw it and understood it. I think that takes a brave person.


washingtonpost.com: This concludes today's discussion. Thank you for joining us online.


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