As we move through the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency, and as we watch Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders vie for the Democratic Party nomination, my thoughts turn to the person who became the first black woman to be elected to Congress in 1968, and was also the first black woman to run for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 1972. I am, of course, thinking of Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm.
In one dynamic package, Mrs. Chisholm combined many of the intersectional elements we have in front of us in today’s Democratic Party. She opened the campaign doors for African Americans and for women. She also took on the establishment, refusing to be bowed or cowed by the weight of the innumerable powerful interests that shape our political landscape. The essence of her campaign slogan—“Unbought and unbossed”—has been adopted by many who came after her.
Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders owe her props.
I have written about her here before, for Black Kos, and have included some of that material in this essay.
Shirley Anita St. Hill was born on November 20, 1924, in Brooklyn, New York. She was the oldest of four daughters of Charles St. Hill, a factory laborer from Guyana, and Ruby Seale St. Hill, a seamstress from Barbados. For part of her childhood, Shirley St. Hill lived in Barbados on her maternal grandparents' farm, receiving a British education while her parents worked during the Great Depression to settle the family in Bedford–Stuyvesant. The most apparent manifestation of her West Indies roots was the slight, clipped British accent she retained throughout her life. She attended public schools in Brooklyn and graduated with high marks. Accepted to Vassar and Oberlin colleges, Shirley St. Hill attended Brooklyn College on scholarship and graduated cum laude with a B.A. in sociology in 1946. From 1946 to 1953, Chisholm worked as a nursery school teacher and then as the director of two daycare centers. She married Conrad Q. Chisholm, a private investigator, in 1949. Three years later, Shirley Chisholm earned an M.A. in early childhood education from Columbia University. She served as an educational consultant for New York City's Division of Day Care from 1959 to 1964. In 1964, Chisholm was elected to the New York state legislature; she was the second African–American woman to serve in Albany.
A court–ordered redistricting that carved a new Brooklyn congressional district out of Chisholm's Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood convinced her to run for Congress. The influential Democratic political machine, headed by Stanley Steingut, declared its intention to send an African American from the new district to the House. The endorsement of the machine usually resulted in a primary victory, which was tantamount to election in the heavily Democratic area. In the primary, Chisholm faced three African–American challengers: civil court judge Thomas R. Jones, a former district leader and New York assemblyman; Dolly Robinson, a former district co–leader; and William C. Thompson, a well–financed state senator. Chisholm roamed the new district in a sound truck that pulled up outside housing projects while she announced: "Ladies and Gentlemen … this is fighting Shirley Chisholm coming through." Chisholm capitalized on her personal campaign style. "I have a way of talking that does something to people," she noted. "I have a theory about campaigning. You have to let them feel you."
She would go on to win the election, and serve seven terms in the House, retiring in 1983.
In an article titled “Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change,” Stephen Marble wrote:
Imagine the scene: The first-term U.S. Representative steps up to the House podium and promises to vote "No" on any new spending. Sound familiar? Well, it might, except that it was March, 1969, and the speaker was the newly elected member from the Twelfth District of New York, the first African-American woman elected to Congress, Shirley Chisholm. Chisholm had come to Congress to "focus attention on the nation's problems," and her promise to vote "No" on additional spending did just that: she would not vote to support any new money for the Defense Department and its ongoing war in Vietnam.
The war was at its peak, with over 500,000 U.S. troops deployed in Vietnam, and growing tensions between supporters and opponents of the war had sparked violent confrontation in the streets of American cities. The position taken by the new Congresswoman from Bedford-Stuyvesant in Queens, NY, was not a popular one; in essence, she stood alone. But she had stood alone before. After all, she was not interested in popularity, but in solving problems like the war, poverty, equality for women and racial minorities, and poor housing.
In an article titled “Waging ‘The Good Fight’: The Political Career of Shirley Chisholm, 1953-1982,” Julie Gallagher wrote:
"I will fight until I can't fight anymore. I don't mind the challenge," Shirley Chisholm boldly declared after her historic victory in 1968 over James Farmer, former head of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). (1) Taking a momentous step, she advanced from the New York State Assembly to become the first African American woman elected to the United States Congress. Chisholm hailed from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, one of the poorest urban districts in the nation. She was a vocal advocate for an activist government to redress economic, social, and political injustices, and frequently used her national prominence to bring attention to racial, sexual, and class-based inequality. At a time when some people within the black and feminist communities chose radical resistance to "the system," Chisholm chose to remain a part of it. She had a firm belief in the promise of the political structure, but she felt there was much to be changed before it could be truly fair and responsive.
This essay explores Chisholm's political career from her early years as a grassroots activist to her election to the House of Representatives and her still unprecedented success as a woman in a major-party primary election for the U.S. presidency. It examines the ways she successfully navigated the rough political landscape, contending with racial and gender discrimination which were deeply embedded in the political culture, and achieved victory where other African American women had earlier tried and failed. Chisholm clearly benefited from the changes that the civil rights and women's movements had yielded. However, Chisholm's success as a political "first" was the result of far more than a timely campaign. She won because of a combination of factors, including her ideas about equality and justice, her political acumen and strong personality, consistent support she received from African American women in her district, and the efforts of other grassroots activists. Chisholm used her position in New York state politics to fight for the rights of all women, people of color, and the poor. In arguing for women's rights, Chisholm forced the State Assembly and Congress to contend with sexual discrimination in ways that they had hitherto not done, and she pushed members of the predominantly white, middle-class, feminist establishment to address their weaknesses in thinking about the needs of women of color. In fighting to end racial discrimination and for anti-poverty programs, Chisholm joined with other African American political leaders and white progressives in the Democratic Party to demand that Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs make good on their promises. At the same time, while Chisholm was successful at gaining access to the inner chambers of political power and fought for progressive legislation, her ability to get bills passed was hindered by the political structures she confronted.
If you have never seen the documentary about Chisholm, Unbought and Unbossed—you should.
Shirley Chisholm, a Democrat from New York, was the first black woman elected to the United States Congress (in 1969), and then--long before the likes of Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton--the first African American of either gender to seek a major party's presidential nomination, an effort recounted in Unbought & Unbossed. Chisholm, who died in January 2005 (the 76-minute documentary was produced the previous year), undoubtedly knew that her chances of winning her party's 1972 nomination, let alone the general election, were nil; she ran, she said, to "shake up the system." But while her quest may have been hopeless (as it turned out, so was that of George McGovern, the eventual nominee, who lost to incumbent Richard Nixon in a landslide of historic proportions), it was hardly quixotic. Well-educated, articulate, and tough, Chisholm faced plenty of opposition, including from women and other black politicians; she was even physically attacked on the "Chisholm Trail," as she called her campaign ('72 was also the year that Alabama governor George Wallace, another would-be Democratic nominee, was shot and paralyzed). But she stayed the course all the way up to the Democratic convention in Miami, when she finally released her delegates to McGovern, and continued serving in the House of Representatives until 1983.
Chisholm’s autobiography and details of her presidential campaign can be found in her book, The Good Fight. She does not mince words about sexism—from both white and black men—in the political arena.
One of her most powerful quotes and predictions in the book was:
“The next time a woman runs, or a black, or a Jew or anyone from a group that the country is ‘not ready’ to elect to its highest office, I believe that he or she will be taken seriously from the start … I ran because somebody had to do it first.”
There are of course many other salient quotes from Chisholm which delineate her positions and perspectives. Among them are
“At present, our country needs women's idealism and determination, perhaps more in politics than anywhere else.”
“Tremendous amounts of talent are lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt.”
“You don't make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas.”
“Of my two handicaps, being female put many more obstacles in my path than being black.”
The National Visionary Leadership Project has a series of oral history interviews with Ms. Chisholm in its archives, conducted by journalist Renee Poussaint.
I enjoyed hearing her speak of the six years of her childhood spent in Barbados, and how that time had an impact on her life.
She talks about the influential women who inspired her: Her grandmother, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
While in Congress she was a co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus and in 1984 she helped found the National Congress of Black Women, where she was the first national chair. In 1990 she co-founded African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom, along with:
Byllye Avery (National Black Women's Health Project) Rev. Willie Barrow (Operation Push) Donna Brazile (Housing Now)
Rep. Cardiss Collins (U.S. Congress)
Romona Edelin (National Urban Coalition)
Jacqui Gates (National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women's Clubs, Inc.)
Marcia Ann Gillespie (Ms. Magazine)
Dorothy Height (National Council of Negro Women)
Jewel Jackson McCabe (National Coalition of 100 Black Women)
Julianne Malveaux (San Francisco Black Leadership Forum)
Eleanor Holmes Norton (Georgetown University Law School)
C. Delores Tucker (DNC Black Caucus)
Patricia Tyson (Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights) Maxine Waters (Black Women's Forum) Faye Wattleton (Planned Parenthood Federation of America)
Chisholm was a member of Delta Sigma Theta, one of the many members of their ranks with a career in politics.
The Shirley Chisholm Project on Brooklyn Women's Activism is located at Brooklyn College.
The Shirley Chisholm Project of Brooklyn Women's Activism is a repository of women's grassroots social activism in Brooklyn since 1945 and ongoing in the present.
In the spirit of Chisholm's legacy as a path-breaking community and political activist, the archive will also follow the many paths she pioneered by including materials representing the wide range of women's grassroots activism throughout the borough.
The archive consists of documents and other materials, including oral histories from people who knew or worked with Chisholm and from the extraordinary diversity of women's activist organizations in Brooklyn since 1945. Housed in the Brooklyn College Library, it is a resource for students of all ages, community activists, public policy experts, scholars and the general public. The archive will expand our understanding of women's place in history and of the significance and consequence of social activism itself.
At the end of her career in 1993, Chisholm was nominated to be U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica by President Bill Clinton, though she had to decline due to failing health.
Posthumously, she was put on a 2014 Forever stamp, and in 2015 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.
It was covered by NY1 news:
Shirley Chisholm spoke about the audacity of hope decades before Barack Obama. In 1972 she became the first black woman to run for the White House on a major party line. Now she's being honored posthumously with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by the first African-American commander in chief.
William Howard was one of Chisholm's dearest friends and was treasurer for her presidential campaign.
"We thought that we could win and we took the chance to win. But the exciting portion of it we had less than $500,000 for the entire national race and and now $500,000 won't buy you two minutes," he recalled.
Howard reminded viewers that she was also one of the founders of the West Indian American Day Parade and Carnival in New York City, which attracts more than 3 million visitors.
Recently, I asked my students if they knew who Shirley Chisholm was. They didn’t.
They will now.