There was something so plain and yet so defiant about her. Studious and yet a little jazzy, especially in front of those Brooklyn church ladies.
Shirley Chisholm, the former congresswoman who died New Year's Day in Florida at age 80, came along at a moment in the 1960s when there was a bubbling symmetry between the women's liberation movement and the civil rights movement. She was holding two candles in the wind.
At church podiums in Brooklyn, she'd talk about babies eating paint they had peeled from the walls, and she'd talk about malnourished schoolchildren, and she'd raise her fist, and her big mound of cloudlike hair would bob, and she would start to crying, tears rolling from beneath those beatnik-era glasses. She would turn her back to the audience -- as if she couldn't stand her own tears -- and then turn around to face the folk in the pews, and they'd be stomping.
"I used to say to her, 'You should go into drama,' " recalls Edolphus Towns, a Democratic congressman from Brooklyn. "She could drop tears at any time."
Chisholm began her working life in 1950s Brooklyn. She was the director of a day-care center and worked as an educational consultant for the city. The tots had parents and she befriended them and got herself elected to the New York State Assembly in 1964. She was headed to Albany, the same place that launched the national political careers of Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Dewey, Franklin D. Roosevelt and many others.
In the '60s, the talk in New York of black political figures focused on names such as Basil Patterson, Percy Sutton, Charlie Rangel. They were young lions who belonged to Harlem political clubs. (There was also Adam Clayton Powell, the once-powerful congressman who had crawled back to Congress in 1969 after an expulsion and scandalous headlines. But his day was now gone.)
But Patterson and Sutton and Rangel suddenly had to yank their heads and look across the bridge, to Brooklyn.
"Shirley came out of Brooklyn, and that was one of the roughest political arenas you can come out of -- even today," says Rep. Rangel (D), who knew Chisholm for decades. "For her to succeed, she had to be a little strange -- and certainly extraordinary."
In addition to being a woman and from Brooklyn, Chisholm was also -- unlike Powell, Sutton, Rangel and Patterson -- dark-skinned. Given the history of skin color, she had an extra ladder to climb, and did so with relish, carrying herself with the insouciance of the world's most attractive woman.
So there she'd be, needing a ride to Albany and getting herself over to Harlem so that Sutton, who was also in the assembly, could pick her up.
"Shirley would meet us on the corner of 125th and Seventh -- now Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard -- and ride with us to Albany,'' says Sutton. "We did that for two years."
Sutton noted something about Chisholm on those rides. She was hungry for debate: "Even if she agreed with you, she'd want to debate you!"
With the '60s drawing to a close, Chisholm was swimming in the waters of history. "She had the imagination," says Rangel, "of being first -- and tenacious."
So she announced in 1968 that she was running for Congress. There were howls of laughter, though not from the church ladies, who saw themselves in the reflection of her beatnik eyeglasses.
In 1968, she became the first black woman elected to Congress. She grinned and gave the peace sign. It wasn't black power. It was Shirley power. She wound up serving seven terms.
She pushed for antipoverty legislation and became a star. Ebony magazine wanted her, and so did Ms. magazine. She appeared with Reps. Barbara Jordan and Bella Abzug. She was known as honest and honorable. "Chisholm would not set up any kind of a side deal for her mother, brother, or cousin," says William Howard, who served as her financial adviser.
When Chisholm announced a run for the presidency in 1972, it seemed a little strange. She was the first black to conduct a large-scale presidential campaign within one of the major parties. The Congressional Black Caucus hardly had the numbers then that it has now, but she rolled her eyes when its members asked why she hadn't discussed her presidential plans with them. "Shirley had a lot of self-confidence," says Rangel.
"I Am Woman" by Helen Reddy was humming on the jukebox that year.
"Black people needed somebody," says Sutton. "We had lost Martin and Malcolm." He raised the first $25,000 for her presidential campaign.
At the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, she was smiling from the podium -- those glasses, that hair, the dark skin. Simply getting there was a huge victory.
"The next time a woman runs," she wrote in her 1973 autobiography, "The Good Fight," "or a black, a Jew or anyone from a group that the country is 'not ready' to elect to its highest office, I believe he or she will be taken seriously from the start. The door is not open yet, but it is ajar."
And, in time, they came: Geraldine Ferraro, Jesse Jackson, Joseph Lieberman.
The last time William Howard saw Chisholm was a year and a half ago in Manhattan. She had wanted to go dancing. She was peering at him, through those beatnik glasses, out on the dance floor, imploring him to tell the band to play something jazzy.