On Jan. 25, 1972, Rep. Shirley Chisholm of New York stood on a platform in a Baptist church in her congressional district in Brooklyn. Behind a dozen microphones, she waved to the crowd and took a leap into history as she declared her bid for the Democratic nomination for presidency of the United States of America.
“I am not the candidate for Black America, although I am Black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and I’m equally proud of that. I am not the candidate of any political bosses or fat cats or special interests,” Chisholm said in a clipped voice.
“I stand here now without endorsement from many big name politicians or celebrities or any other kind of prop. I do not intend to offer you the tired and glib cliches that have too long been an accepted part of our political life. I am the candidate of the people of America.”
The first Black woman elected to Congress ran against Sen. George McGovern (S.D.), who would go on to win the Democratic nomination but lose in a dramatic landslide to Republican Richard Nixon.
Chisholm’s presidential bid would be remembered for the power of her speeches, her fortitude, and her brutal honesty about racism, sexism politics and the state of the country. Chisholm’s defiant campaign has received renewed attention, especially after Joe Biden made history Tuesday by announcing that Sen. Kamala Harris will be his running mate, putting a woman of color on a presidential ticket for the first time.
During her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Harris promoted the logo, “For the People,” which her campaign said was an acknowledgment of Chisholm’s campaign. In a February 2019 interview with the Grio, Harris said Chisholm was extraordinary, powerful and courageous. “She reminds me of the many sayings of my mother and that is, ‘Don’t let anybody tell you who you are. You tell them who you are.’ That was Shirely Chisholm, unbought and unbossed. I stand as so many of us do on her shoulders.”
Chisholm has had a profound impact on many women running for office.
“Shirley Chisholm’s influence as a legislator can’t be overestimated,” said Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science and director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute at Emory University. “As the first Black woman elected to Congress and the founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, she was on the vanguard of helping Black Americans.”
Gillespie, author of “Race and the Obama Administration: Substance, Symbols, and Hope,” said if Biden selects an African American woman as a running mate, it is likely she would evoke the memory of Chisholm in her acceptance speech.
“Shirley Chisholm’s name would have to come up,” Gillespie said. “If you look at her ’72 run for president, she was doing so to advance African American issues and advance women’s issues as well. She dared to believe she could run for president as anybody else could. Her campaign was a foreshadowing for Jesse Jackson’s campaign, which helped foreshadow Barack Obama’s bid. These are big political moments. Shirley Chisholm is first in a long line of African Americans who used the platform of running for president to address issues of inequality."
Last year, New York officials announced that the city will erect a statue of Chisholm near Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. And Oscar- and Emmy award-winning actress Viola Davis plans to play the role of Chisholm in an upcoming Amazon biopic called “The Fighting Shirley Chisholm.” There has also been an effort among lawmakers to award Chisholm with the Congressional Gold Medal.
Shirley Anita St. Hill, born in Brooklyn in 1924, was the daughter of immigrants. Her father, Charles St. Hill, who was from Guyana, worked as a baker’s assistant and later in a factory. Her mother, Ruby Seale St. Hill, who was from Barbados, worked as a seamstress, according a U.S. House history account of her life.
When Shirley was 3 years old, in 1928, her mother took her and her two sisters to live in Barbados, one of the smallest islands in the Caribbean. “She planned to board us there until she and Father had saved enough to assure our future in the States,” Chisholm wrote in her autobiography, “Unbought and Unbossed."
After arriving in Barbados, the family headed for the village of Vauxhall. Their bus, chased by chickens, passed houses painted bright blue, green and yellow, with gardens of pumpkin, sweet potatoes, cassava and breadfruit, until it finally arrived at the home of Chisholm’s grandmother, Emily Seale. She stood tall and gaunt with her hair knotted at her neck.
“I did not know it yet,” Chisholm wrote in her autobiography, “but this stately woman with a stentorian voice was going to be one of the few persons whose authority I would never dare to defy.”
In Barbados, Shirley attended strict traditional British schools, which would later account for the clipped British accent she retained much of her life.
In 1934, her parents brought her and her siblings back to Brooklyn. “All three of us were frightened by the cold,” she remembered. After graduating from Brooklyn College in 1946, she worked as a nursery schoolteacher and as a day-care center director, eventually getting her master’s degree in early-childhood education from Columbia University. By then, she was married to Conrad Q. Chisholm, who worked as a private investigator, according to the U.S. House history. Then in 1964, Chisholm was elected to New York’s state legislature, representing her neighborhood in Brooklyn.
When Brooklyn’s congressional district was redrawn by court order, people in Chisholm’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood persuaded her to take a run for Congress.
The way she campaigned connected with crowds. She spoke Spanish to people who spoke Spanish and truth to people waiting for plain talk. “I have a theory about campaigning,” Chisholm said. “You have to let them feel you.”
Chisholm won the primary. In the general election, she ran against James Farmer, who was a colleague of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and a co-founder of the Congress of Racial Equality. He’d helped organize lunch counter sit-in protests and Freedom Rides that challenged segregation in inter-state travel.
But Farmer, a liberal candidate backed by Republicans, attacked Chisholm for being a woman. “Women have been in the driver’s seat” in black communities for too long, Farmer said. He argued the district needed “a man’s voice in Washington,” not that of a “little schoolteacher.”
Chisholm pushed back. “There were Negro men in office here before I came in five years ago, but they didn’t deliver,” she countered. “People came and asked me to do something. … I’m here because of the vacuum.”
Chisholm beat Farmer in 1968, an explosive year when King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated within two months of each other, riots tore apart American cities, and anti-Vietnam War protesters clashed with police outside the Democratic National Convention.
In Congress, Chisholm faced more racism and sexism. “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair,” Chisholm famously said.
She was assigned to the Agriculture Committee, until she objected, saying later, “Apparently all they know in Washington about Brooklyn was a tree grew there.” At her request, she was assigned to the Education Committee.
In Congress, Chisholm advocated for guaranteed minimum annual income for families. She pushed for the extensions of hours at day-care facilities. She advocated for national school lunches.
In her first speech from the House floor, on March 26, 1969, Chisholm criticized the war in Vietnam, calling the U.S. hypocritical for its international diplomacy of trying to “make the world free” when racism raged at home.
“When the Kerner Commission told White America what Black America has always known — that prejudice and hatred built the nation’s slums, maintains them and profits by them — White America could not believe it,” Chisholm said. “Unless we start to fight and defeat the enemies in our own country — poverty and racism — and make our talk of equality and opportunity ring true, we are exposed in the eyes of the world as hypocrites when we talk about making people free.”
In a movie, Chisholm wrote later, the House would have given her a roaring ovation for the speech. Instead some members whispered against her for giving an antiwar speech. “As I walked out, I overheard … one member say to another, ‘You know, she’s crazy!’ ” But Chisholm’s speech made her popular among many young people; she received a deluge of requests to speak on college campuses.
Chisholm explained: “What I wanted was perfectly plain. It was not to deny support to servicemen in Vietnam, for heaven’s sake, but to bring them home at once, to stop forcing them to risk death or disfigurement in the defense of a corrupt puppet dictatorship.”
Throughout her political career, Chisholm battled men — White male reporters, White male politicians, Black male reporters and Black male politicians. “I met far more discrimination being a woman than being Black when I moved out into the political arena,” Chisholm told radio host Tavis Smiley.
In 1982, Chisholm announced she would not seek reelection to Congress. “I’m hanging up my hat,'’ Chisholm told the New York Times. She moved to Palm Coast, Fla., where she continued to lecture and write. In 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated Chisholm to become U.S. ambassador to Jamaica, but she withdrew because of ill health.
Chisholm, who died Jan. 1, 2005, wrote: “I hope if I am remembered it will finally be for what I have done, not for what I happen to be. And I hope that my having made it, the hard way, can be some kind of inspiration, particularly to women.”
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