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Pioneering Politician, Advocate Shirley Chisholm Dies

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 4, 2005; Page B06

Shirley Chisholm, who billed herself as an "unbought and unbossed" politician and who inspired a generation when she became the first black woman elected to Congress and one of the first women to vie for the presidency, died Jan. 1 at a nursing home near her home in Ormond Beach, Fla. She was 80 and had recently suffered a series of small strokes.

Mrs. Chisholm, an outspoken advocate for the disadvantaged and the underdogs, was elected to the House of Representatives from Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1968, becoming the first black woman elected to serve in Congress. Four years later, wanting to change the political structure from the top, Mrs. Chisholm sought the Democratic nomination for the presidency.


Shirley Chisholm, at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Fla., in 2002. "Whether you agree with her politics or not, she had a moral compass," says the director of a film about her. (Kelly Jordan -- Daytona Beach News-journal Via AP)

_____More on Chisholm_____
Shirley Chisholm Photo Gallery: Follow Chisholm's Life Achievements
Live Online, 12:30: Filmmaker Shola Lynch on Chisholm's Life and Legacy
Video: Key Moments in Chisholm's Life

Though the run for the Oval Office proved unsuccessful, Mrs. Chisholm's candidacy signaled significant change on the American political landscape as a new generation of blacks and women made its way into mainstream politics.

While she recognized the implication of her political firsts, they were not the achievements for which she wanted to be remembered, she once said.

"I'd like to be known as a catalyst for change, a woman who had the determination and a woman who had the perseverance to fight on behalf of the female population and the black population, because I'm a product of both, being black and a woman," she was quoted as saying in "Shirley Chisholm: Teacher and Congresswoman" (1990) by Catherine Scheader.

Besides, the former nursery school teacher thought it a "foolish reason for fame" in 1968. In her autobiography "Unbought and Unbossed" (1970), she wrote: "In a just and free society, it would be foolish. That I am a national figure because I was the first person in 192 years to be at once a congressman, black and a woman proves, I think, that our society is not yet either just or free."

Throughout her career, Mrs. Chisholm stood on her convictions and refused to be defined by party politics or racial affinities. She fought for the working poor, Haitian refugees, Native American land rights and poor mothers. One of her greatest achievements, she once said, was the inclusion of domestic workers under the minimum wage law.

To the surprise and chagrin of many, she visited presidential candidate George C. Wallace, once a strident segregationist, after he was shot in 1972, and she endorsed Republican Nelson A. Rockefeller as vice president from the floor of the House in 1974. Her unpredictability and brashness often left her at odds with her colleagues, black and white. But that did not stop her from using her incisive speech to excoriate Congress when she felt it was being unresponsive or from lambasting members of the Congressional Black Caucus, of which she was a founding member in 1969.

"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.

She was born Shirley Anita St. Hill in Brooklyn on Nov. 20, 1924. She was the oldest of four daughters of a Guyanese father who was a voracious reader and a student of political activist Marcus Garvey and a Barbadian mother who groomed her girls to use their poise and education to take their rightful place in the world.

From the time she was 3 until she was 11, she and her two younger sisters lived in Barbados with their maternal grandmother. She attended the rigorous, British-style schools, where she learned to speak and write easily, she said. In Barbados, she also gained the clipped Caribbean accent evident in her speech.

In 1934, she moved back to Brooklyn and later graduated cum laude from Brooklyn College. She made the decision there to become a teacher, believing that she could improve society by helping children. Her first job was at a child-care center in Harlem, where she worked for seven years. She attended night school at Columbia University and received a master's degree in early childhood education in 1952.

She became a director of a day-care center and then served as an educational consultant with the Division of Day Care in New York from 1959 to 1964. Her nascent interest in politics, which began at Brooklyn College, bloomed in the 1960s when she became engaged in local Democratic politics. In 1964, she was elected to the New York State Assembly, where her independent style took shape.

After four years in the assembly, she ran against James Farmer, the former national chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, to win the newly created 12th District of New York. She built a grass-roots campaign to counter Farmer's well-financed operation and used the slogan, "Fighting Shirley Chisholm: Unbought and Unbossed," which came to characterize much of her political career.

Mrs. Chisholm's reputation for rebelliousness manifested itself as soon as she began representing New York's Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn in Congress. She protested when she was assigned initially to the House Agriculture Committee and was moved to the Veterans Affairs Committee. She later served on the Education and Labor Committee, where she wanted to be, and in 1977 joined the powerful House Rules Committee.

In a 1982 interview with a Washington Post reporter on the eve of her retirement from Congress, she responded to criticism about her support of Rockefeller's confirmation as vice president and her hospital visit to Wallace.

"I don't take one incident of a person's total life and hang the person with it forever," she said, adding that Rockefeller's support when she was in the state legislature outweighed her own reservations about him.

"Just like George Wallace standing in the door of the University of Alabama preventing black young people from attending. . . . I went to the hospital when he was shot in 1972, and later he was the man who helped get the votes on minimum wages for black women. . . . I believe there is good in everybody, maybe that's a weakness I have."

After her tenure in Congress, Mrs. Chisholm was named to the Purington Chair at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., where she taught for four years. In 1984, she also helped found the National Political Congress of Black Women. She also was author of a second book, "The Good Fight" (1973).

Her 30-year marriage to Conrad Chisholm ended in divorce in 1977. Her second husband, Arthur Hardwick Jr., died in 1986. She had no children.

"She was an activist, and she never stopped fighting," said Jesse L. Jackson, who in 1984 announced his own candidacy for the presidency. "She refused to accept the ordinary, and she had high expectations for herself and all people around her."


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