The sitting Republican president was unpopular and divisive. The country was a pressure cooker of partisan rage. Big names in the Democratic Party were mulling whether to jump into the presidential race: past candidates; high-powered senators; known personalities.
But then in January 1972, a political outsider announced a surprise run for the White House — upsetting the party’s power brokers and making history.
Forty-seven years ago this week, Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.) announced she was seeking the Democratic 1972 nomination, becoming the first woman and first African American to run for a major political party’s presidential ticket.
“I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud,” Chisholm said in her announcement as supporters cheered. “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 or any political bosses or fat cats or special interests. . . . I am the candidate of the people of America.”
This week, on Monday, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) announced her candidacy for the 2020 presidential election in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
As one of only a handful of African American women to run for the nomination, the 54-year-old former prosecutor rolled out her campaign by consciously evoking the first.
Not only was Harris’s announcement timed with the anniversary of Chisholm’s own, eagle-eyed political watchers noted Harris’s campaign logo has borrowed the same striking yellow-and-red color scheme as the former congresswoman. A Harris campaign spokesman told the Guardian the senator’s decision to honor Chisholm’s legacy was a “no-brainer.”
“Like Shirley, I believe that to restore confidence and trust in our institutions and leaders, we need to speak truth,” Harris wrote of Chisholm in a February 2018 essay in Essence. “We need to acknowledge that racism is real in this country. Anti-Semitism is real in this country. Sexism, sexual assault, and workplace harassment are real in this country. We need to speak the truth that America was founded by immigrants, and we should not be vilifying people who come here in search of greater opportunity for themselves and their children.”
Harris is not alone in channeling Chisholm, even though the longtime congresswoman’s legacy is not widely remembered outside of political circles.
The Congress’s new freshman class contains a diverse array of trailblazers, many who cite Chisholm — who battled bias and bucked the wishes of her own party — as an inspiration. Chisholm’s 1972 bid for the White House now serves as a blueprint of how an outspoken politician can upend the status quo.
“She ran to win, but she knew she wouldn’t win,” Anastasia Curwood, a Chisholm biographer and associate professor at the University of Kentucky, told History.com last year. “She said many times: I just want to show it can be done."
Chisholm was from Brooklyn, and she entered politics in the mid-1960s after working as a nursery schoolteacher and educational consultant for the city, The Washington Post reported last year. In 1965, she was elected to the New York State Assembly — becoming only the second African American woman elected to the state legislature.
In 1968, she ran for a newly redrawn U.S. congressional district covering Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, made up mostly of African American and Puerto Rican residents, according to a 2018 NPR report. She entered the race despite not having the backing of the local Democratic Party. A fluent Spanish speaker and longtime resident of the area, Chisholm won over both constituencies and sealed the election 2 to 1.
The election meant Chisholm would be the first black woman elected to Congress — a distinction Chisholm recognized for what it was.
“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,” she would later state.
As a freshman lawmaker, Chisholm made it clear she would not quietly ride the backbench and simply vote when told to by party leaders. She was initially assigned to the Agriculture Committee — an odd choice for a representative from New York. As The Post reported, Chisholm publicly stood up to then-House Speaker John W. McCormack (D-Mass.) over the assignment. He eventually relented, reassigning the new congresswoman to the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
“There are a lot more veterans in my district than trees,” Chisholm said in response.
“She was unafraid of anybody,” Robert Gottlieb, a former Chisholm intern, told Smithsonian Magazine in 2016. “Her slogan was ‘unbought and unbossed.’ She was really unbossed.”
Chisholm’s decision to run in 1972 also put her at odds with the party’s establishment. Numerous candidates jumped in for the opportunity to take on President Richard M. Nixon, including front-runner Sen. George S. McGovern (D-S.D.) and the party’s 1968 candidate, former vice president Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.).
The primaries were thrown into more chaos when Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace, then a vociferous proponent of segregation, announced his own candidacy.
But Chisholm was undaunted by the competition. “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair,” she once quipped.
Her campaign, however, struggled to capture momentum. Both women and African Americans lent their support to other candidates. Major civil rights figures, like the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and John Conyers Sr., campaigned for McGovern. As Gottlieb, her former aide, told Smithsonian, her campaign literature was defaced with racial slurs in the South.
Chisholm stuck it out to the end, arriving at the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach with 152 delegates — more than former nominee Humphrey but well below the number she needed to negotiate with McGovern. After the election — and McGovern’s landslide defeat against Nixon — Chisholm returned to Congress, where she would serve until 1983.
Chisholm achieved much in the halls of Congress — she was a founding member of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the Women’s Caucus — but her greatest legacy might be as an example for the latest freshman class in the House, a group that contains a record number of women and minorities.
“I want history to remember me not just as the first black woman to be elected to Congress, not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and dared to be herself,” Chisholm once stated. “I want to be remembered as a catalyst for change in America.”
Following her career in Washington, Chisholm returned to education, teaching at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. She died in January 2005 at 80.
Her impact, however, continues American politics.
This month, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) announced she would be occupying Chisholm’s old office in the Longworth House Office Building.
“Shirley Chisholm has been a shero of mine since I was a girl,” Pressley, the first African American woman to represent her state in Congress, told HuffPost. “Her commitment to fighting injustice and lifting up the voices of the disenfranchised is an inspiration and an example I hope to follow.”
Pressley had not drawn the office originally. Another freshman, Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.), offered to swap with Pressley.
“Shirley Chisholm was always so clear that women supporting women would move our politics forward,” Hill told HuffPost. “That is more true now than ever before.”
At least in one way, the presidential politics Harris is entering are different from what Chisholm faced: although Harris is the first African American to declare her candidacy, she is the fourth woman to announce for 2020.
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