Later Interview about why Shirley Chisholm ran for President
Black women and politics have had a difficult relationship in America’s history. Just this month, Bill O’Reily made a sexist and racist comment about Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA). Black women have always had a contentious relationship with America’s political system. During the last presidential cycle, I had a hard time listening to other women say that Hillary Clinton was the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. It was just another moment where I felt like black women were being erased from American history. It was actually Shirley Chisholm who first sought the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Not only was she the first woman to do so, she was also the first black person to run. Aside from this, she the first black woman to be elected to the United States Congress in 1968. Let that sink in. The first black woman was elected to Congress only 49 years ago and in 2017, there is only a single black woman in the Senate (Kamala Harris) and 17 in the House of Representatives. Not nearly enough attention has been given to Shirley Chisholm and what her campaign did for both the Democratic Party and black women who wanted to run for higher office. Her election highlighted the unique position of black women in society.
Shirley Anita St. Hill was born on November 30, 1924, in Brooklyn, New York. She was born to immigrant, working class parents from Guyana and Barbados. She spent her younger years on her grandparents’ Barbadian farm until her return to New York in 1934. She went on to graduate from Brooklyn College in 1946. While pursuing her MA in elementary education at Columbia University, she taught nursery school. It was her work in education and with children that initially sparked her interest in politics. While in Brooklyn, she joined local Democratic clubs that were largely white. She worked with other leaders to challenge the white member on issues that were being ignored in black neighborhoods. She quickly became an outspoken member of the local party and the leaders tried to quiet her so she was removed from her post on the board of directors.
When a black Assemblyman named Thomas R. Jones decided to run for a judgeship, the community selected her as his replacement from 1964-1968. After a ruling about redistricting, the 12th Congressional District was created and Shirley ran. Her campaign slogan was “Unbought and Unbossed” and when she won, she became the 1st black woman elected to congress. Her election, along with two other black men, brought the total count of black Congress-people to its largest total at that point, nine. She was also the only new woman to enter Congress in 1969. However, her outspokenness made her unpopular amongst her colleagues. In her first floor speech, she came voiced her opposition to the Vietnam and vowed to vote against the military appropriations bill. Leaders tried to punish her by denying her spots on the Committees she asked for. As an educator, she was qualified to sit on the Education and Labor Committee, but instead, she was placed on the Agriculture Committee. Shirley was a Congresswoman from Brooklyn, agriculture did not pertain to her constituents, so she appealed her decision and went to the Democratic Caucus. After multiple tries, she was eventually removed from that committee and placed on the Veteran’s Affairs Committee. After this she famously said, “There are a lot more veterans in my district than trees.” She was not appointed to the Education and Labor Committee until 1971 and she remained there until she was given a spot on the coveted Rules Committee in 1977. In 1971, she also became one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus and of the National Women’s Political Caucus.
During her second term in Congress, Shirley ran for President. Her campaign was incredibly underfunded and only ended up spending $300,000. Additionally, many people refused to take her candidacy seriously. The Democratic establishment ignored her, feminists leaders were split over supporting her, and very few of her black male colleagues supported her. Her campaign also struggled to be put on state ballots. At the 1972 Democratic National Convention, with the delegates she won during the primaries, she received a total of 152 ballot votes. When asked why she ran, she said, “in spite of hopeless odds…to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.”
Shirley Chisolm continued to serve in the House of Representatives until she announced her retirement in the eighties. While in Congress, she fought for things like the right to a minimum wage, school lunch programs, increased spending for education and health care, a decrease in military spending, and opportunities for inner-city residents. She never let her position as a member of the Democratic party get in the way. She was often just as critical of her Democratic colleagues as she was of Republican administrations.
After leaving Congress, she went back to working in education. She joined the faculty at Mount Holyoke College and taught classes in multiple disciplines, with a focus on women and race. She eventually began touring college campuses in an attempt to keep young people politically engaged.
Shirley Chisolm passed away in 2005 and despite her prevalence in politics while she was in Congress, most of the recognition she has received has come posthumously. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Many black female members of Congress have cited her as their inspiration for entering Congress. For example, Congressman Barbara Lee first met Shirley when she volunteered on her presidential campaign and Lee says that it was Shirley Chisholm who first told her to get involved in Politics. It was Congresswoman Lee who lobbied to have Shirley Chisholm’s portrait to be hung in Congress and for a stamp to be created in her honor. While both of those efforts were successful, Shirley Chisholm is still not as well known as she should be. She was a fierce advocate for many of the social programs that are designed to protect the poor and working class. Programs like WIC and food stamps would not have been possible without her advocacy. Despite the fact that she paved the way for candidates like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Shirley Chisholm should be remembered for her work as a political leader who did what she thought was right, despite how it made others view her.
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