Shirley Chisholm for President, ‘72
It was radical. A woman was running for president. A Black Woman. It was 1972. No one invited Shirley Chisholm to run. She didn’t ask permission of anyone in the Democratic party or the Congressional Black Caucus. She knew, “(i)f they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” That’s was exactly what she did.
If you were a little girl at the time, like I was, it was more awesome to see than the moon landings. She shifted the notion of what was possible for women. Congresswoman Chisholm changed my idea of what was possible for me and for the world.
I had just turned eight years old when Chisholm launched her run. I saw her on television and became enthralled with her. I told my mother I wanted to be Shirley Chisholm when I grew up. My mother was thrilled her daughter was a feminist. She gave me a Shirley Chisholm for President button.
When I think back on what she meant to me, I get choked up. I cry. Almost every time. For me, she was pure courage. A speaker of the truth. I heard her and I was moved.
In my kid-mind, she wasn’t a feminist the way other women were, I saw her as a doer— she wasn’t talking or marching, she was running. She went after what she wanted. I loved that. How could anyone not love that? “Fighting Shirley Chisholm,” as she was known, was the bravest living woman I knew of.
It was the ‘70’s. I lived in a liberal feminist household. When I look back, I have no idea how much I really understood at that time about feminism and the civil rights movement other than I thought they were good. I thought all people should be treated the same and have the same opportunities. The hate I saw and heard never made any sense to me and I heard a lot of hate in the ‘70’s.
If it had been another time, another decade, I doubt I would have been allowed to have an African-American hero. In fact, if my father hadn’t disappeared on us, I know what he would have done. He’d have called her a word that starts with “N”, made fun of the way she spoke, and said a woman couldn’t be president because of PMS. He would have stomped all over my love for her until I gave it up.
If it had been another time, Congresswoman Chisholm would never have been able to bring her folding chair to the table. It was a fortunate time to be a kid. An opening had begun. It was a time when our role models didn’t have to match our skin color. It was a time when more kids found role models who did look like them. Fighting Shirley was a “Catalyst for Change.” She faced ridicule and hatred, all kinds of backlash. It never stopped her.
My mother would tell me what Congresswoman Chisholm was up to and it was a beautiful thing that we could share that. She even won the Democratic primary in our state. I’d see her picture in the New York Times regularly or see her on TV and get excited. She was the revolution.
“I’m a revolutionary at heart now and I’ve got to run, even though it might be the downfall of my career.”
Shirley Chisholm challenged the thinking that the two most important qualities a presidential candidate could have were being white and male. She risked everything when she fought to open up the process to all Americans.
We’re still fighting the white male qualifications today as the Democratic B-Team of Beto, Bernie, and Biden are seen as the top contenders despite their many flaws and the strength of the A-Team — Senators Harris, Gillibrand, Klobuchar, and Warren, all of whom have had to work twice as hard to get where they did.
“I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black. Men are men. . . .”
I was thrilled when Senator Kamala Harris announced her candidacy for president on the anniversary of Congresswoman Chisolm’s announcement. It’s important for women to acknowledge those that led the way. Together we stand stronger.
If you’re a Millennial, I hope you learned about Shirley Chisolm in school. She should have been in your American History textbooks. She could have filled a complete book. If she wasn’t there, here’s what you should know about her:
A Woman of Firsts
Before she was a candidate for any office, Shirley Chisholm worked as a nursery school teacher. A few years after she began teaching, she earned a master’s degree from Columbia University in early childhood education.
During this time, she became active in the local chapters of the Democratic Party club, the Urban League, the NAACP, and the League of Women Voters. She also joined the National Organization for Women (NOW) as one of its earliest members. A few years later, in 1960, she ran for the New York State Assembly and won, becoming the second African-American in the legislature.
Shirley Chisholm won her first election to the U.S. Congress in 1968 in a newly established congressional district. Her liberal GOP opponent was James Farmer, an African-American leader in the civil rights movement. He was a co-founder of the Congress for Racial Equality. They shared many of the same positions on the issues. But Farmer tried to play the gender card and claimed that the Black community needed a man’s voice in Washington and “not that of a little school teacher.” The district was primarily Democratic and Chisholm won her election with 67% of the vote. How was that for a “little school teacher?”
When she was elected to Congress, Shirley Chisholm was the first African-American women to join the ranks. She would go on to become a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Women’s Caucus.
When Congresswoman Chisholm gave her first speech in the House of Representatives, she lashed out against the Vietnam War and vowed to vote against defense appropriation bills, “until the time comes when our values and priorities have been turned right–side up again.”
She was initially assigned to serve on the Committee on Agriculture despite the fact that her home district was Brooklyn, New York, a very non-farm area. It was a move to silence her. Not one to be the “good soldier” the House Speaker asked her to be, Chisholm challenged the assignment on the House Floor. After that, she was re-assigned to the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
If you think Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is bold, maybe it’s because she’s taken a page out of Chisholm’s playbook. Both women refused to follow the instructions of their fellow Democrats to “behave.” Perhaps AOC got a great committee assignment her freshman year because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi didn’t want her to pull a Chisholm.
When she ran for president in 1972, she was the first woman and the first African American to actively run for the presidential nomination of a major party. When she announced her candidacy, she said:
I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States of America. I am not the candidate of 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 policies or fatcats or special interests. I stand here now, without endorsements from many big name politicians or celebrities or any other kind of prop, I do not intend to offer you the tired clichés that have too long been an accepted part of our political life. I am the candidate of the people of America.
Watch the speech here, it’ll be the best 9 minutes of your day.
Congresswoman Chisholm didn’t get the kind of news coverage the men in the race did. The male Democratic candidates tried to hold a debate without her, so she got a court order citing to the equal time provisions of the Federal Communications Commission. However, she was only permitted to make one speech and that was not the same as “equal time.”
Chisholm did not come in first, but she did win 10% of the vote from a diverse electorate and finished in fourth place. That was more than anyone expected when she announced her candidacy. Shirley Chisolm was on the ballot in 22 states. That was a major accomplishment for someone “unbought and unbossed.” The fundraising she did was truly grassroots. There were only mailers and rallies, no PAC’s, no big money behind her.
“I ran for the Presidency, despite hopeless odds, to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo”
She might have done even better had it not been for Alabama Governor George Wallace’s support. She was leading NYC Mayor John Lindsey in Florida primary polling when Alabama Governor George Wallace stood up for her and said that if you can’t vote for me, vote for Shirley. Did he mean well? His endorsement took away her lead.
When Wallace was shot, Congresswoman Chisholm visited him. He told her she shouldn’t be there. But she felt it was important to pay her respects because what happened to him, shouldn’t have happened to anyone. She was always guided by her own moral compass and did what she knew was right even if her supporters complained about it.
As a member of Congress, she fought for programs like Head Start, school lunches and food stamps. She advocated for the minimum wage for domestic workers. She helped establish the national commission on consumer protection and product safety.
Shirley Chisholm left Congress in 1983 to teach at Mt. Holyoke College. Never one to slow down, she also co-founded the National Political Congress of Black Women and worked with Jesse Jackson on his two runs for president.
Congresswoman Chisholm passed away in 2005. In 2015, President Barack Obama posthumously honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Amazon films has signed Viola Davis to star in “The Fighting Shirley Chisholm.” That is something to look forward to, don’t miss it. If you can’t wait until then, find out who Chisholm was in this and other interviews available on Youtube.