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Chisholm, Shirley

political black women campaign

Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm bequeathed a political legacy to the United States that has yet to be fully utilized. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 30, 1924, and credited her father—who was born in Guyana and was a union man, a Garveyite, and a Roosevelt supporter—with fostering her political consciousness. Her mother, a native of Barbados, provided her with a strong work ethic and a desire for education. These attributes served her well as she defined her place in an environment that sought to ignore and silence her because of her race, class, and gender.

Although Chisholm did not want to be remembered as the first black woman in the United States Congress, or the first black person to run for the United States presidency, these distinctions clung to her. They did not define her, however. Chisholm’s political spirit was born out of the American dream, but its promises were withheld from her. Her family joined immigrants from the South and Europe in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a racially mixed, multicultural Brooklyn neighborhood, in the 1930s. It was there that Chisholm experienced racism, urban poverty, and survival strategies. It was there, too, that she glimpsed the pathways to political power.

Politics surrounded Chisholm all her life, from her father’s free-flowing discussions with friends in their home to her involvement in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League. She honed her political skills with her involvement in racially segregated political clubs, the Democratic League, the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League (BSPL, an organization to increase black political representation), and local grassroots organizations.

After earning a B.A. from Brooklyn College in 1946 (she would also earn a master’s degree in early childhood education at Columbia University in 1952), Chisholm continued her work in politics in the traditional role for women of fund-raising. At that time, blacks had only token representation at the local political level, and women had none. After assessing the experiences of women in her community, she fought against the limited political roles available to women. In 1958 she challenged her political mentor, Wesley McD. Holder, for the presidency of the BSPL, and although she lost, she learned valuable lessons. In1964 she decided to run for a State Assembly seat. Despite sexist challenges to her running, she won. She served in the New York Assembly until 1968, during which time she sponsored fifty bills, eight of which passed. These bills reflected her concerns for education, disadvantaged youth, women, and the poor, all of which were generally absent from the white male political agenda.

In 1968 Chisholm made history when she defeated the Republican candidate James Farmer’s well-funded, anti-female campaign and became the first black woman in the U.S. Congress, representing New York’s 12th Congressional District. By her own account, some of her colleagues resented a black woman earning the same salary that they earned. As a politician, however, she did not “play by the rules.” For example, she refused her first congressional assignment, to the House Forestry Committee, because she felt it was ill-suited to her skills and her constituents’ needs.

Chisholm was one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus (originally called the Democratic Select Committee) in 1969, and of the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971. Yet she did not always fit well in either caucus. As a black, she was marginalized by women who did not want to address the issues that blacks felt were important; as a woman, she discovered that blacks were not interested in women’s issues. In essence, she was a “womanist” long before the term was coined, working for the benefit of both men and women.

In 1972 Chisholm again made history when she entered the race for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States. Although her campaign suffered from inexperience and insufficient campaign funds, her grassroots political organizing attracted diverse constituencies, especially women and other minorities. She gave a voice to political issues that rarely made the agenda of the major political candidates, such as unemployment, poverty, the Head Start program, and the Vietnam War. During the campaign, she routinely received hate mail, and she was threatened with attempts on her life.

Race was an ever-present campaign issue. When endorsed by the Black Panther Party in California, she refused to reject them despite the political fallout such an association might bring, but instead welcomed them back into electoral politics. However, the Congressional Black Caucus steered clear of her. She was virtually isolated by its members, as they made political deals driven by expediency. Only Congressman Ron Dellums of California solidly supported her candidacy, but in the eleventh hour, even he made the political decision to support George McGovern. Chisholm nevertheless garnered 151.95 delegate votes at the Democratic Convention.

Chisholm conceded that, of the limitations placed on her, gender was a more formidable obstacle than race. In 1984 she became a cofounder, and the first president, of the National Political Congress of Black Women (NPCBW). The NPCBW was founded on the premise that black women needed a political voice that spoke to their particular concerns. Chisholm stated: “I sincerely believe that the reason so many persons become visibly concerned about the potential emergence of the black woman as a political force is because historically they know that we are resilient, we are strong, we have the stamina, the audacity, the courage, the perseverance to change this country” (Staff of Southern Changes 1985, p. 9).

After retiring from Congress in 1983, Chisholm remained active. She held the Purington Chair at Mount Holyoke College, teaching politics and sociology until 1987, and she advised Jesse Jackson during both of his campaigns for the presidency. Her impact on women, blacks, and other minorities was substantial, and one of her campaign workers, Barbara Lee, went on to become a member of Congress. But her political legacy must also be gauged by the inspiration that she instilled in others. Following her example, many individuals realized that this was indeed their country and that they had a right to participate in United States politics at every level, regardless of race, class, or gender.

In Shola Lynch’s 2004 film about the 1972 campaign, Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed , Chisholm describes her presidential bid as paving the way for other candidates who were ignored by the white male-dominated political machine. She wanted to be remembered as a woman who fought for change in the twentieth century. Shirley Chisholm died on January 1, 2005.

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