by Lori Lakin Hutcherson (@lakinhutcherson)
This is Shirley Chisholm. Best known as the first Black woman elected to U.S. Congress who also ran for the Democratic nomination for President in 1972.
“Fighting Shirley” — as she was known by many in Washington D.C. and her hometown district of Brooklyn, NY — was the oldest daughter of immigrant parents from Guyana and Barbados.
Chisholm worked as a nursery school teacher, got a degree in Child Education from Columbia University and by 1960, was a consultant to the New York City Division of Day Care.
Always aware of racial and gender inequality, Chisholm soon ventured into social justice work and politics by joining local chapters of the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, the Urban League, as well as the Democratic Party club in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
In 1964, Chisholm ran for and became the 2nd African American in the New York State Legislature. After court-ordered redistricting in her neighborhood occurred to counter years of gerrymandering, in 1968 Chisholm ran for and won her congressional district seat.
While in the House of Representatives “Fighting Shirley” introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation, fought for racial and gender equality, the economically oppressed, and to end the Vietnam War.
Chisholm also fought against “old men that make up the Southern oligarchy” from Day One. She complained about her assignment to the Agricultural Committee — what did agriculture have to do with her constituents in Bedford-Stuyvesant, she argued — and won reassignment even though most Congressional freshmen never questioned their committee placements.
Chisholm was subsequently placed on the Veterans Affairs Committee and the Education and Labor Committee, where she was able to work on initiatives such as the Nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
She was also a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971, and in 1977 became the first Black woman and 2nd woman ever to serve on the powerful House Rules Committee.
Chisholm’s quest for the 1972 Democratic Party presidential nomination was thwarted at every turn. Chisholm was blocked from participating in televised primary debates, and only after taking legal action, was she permitted to make just one speech.
Still, many faithful followed the “Chisholm Trail” as she entered 12 primaries and garnered 152 of the delegates’ votes (10% of the total)—despite an under-financed and under-reported campaign.
Chisholm retired from Congress in 1983, taught at Mount Holyoke College and co-founded the National Political Congress of Black Women. In 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated her to be United States Ambassador to Jamaica, but she couldn’t serve due to poor health. In the same year she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Chisholm died on January 1, 2005 after suffering several strokes. She is buried in the Birchwood Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, NY where the legend inscribed on her vault reads: “Unbought and Unbossed.”
Shirley Chisholm State Park opened in NY in July 2019, and a memorial monument of her is planned for the entrance to Prospect Park in Brooklyn by Parkside Avenue station, to be designed by artists Amanda Williams and Olalekan Jeyifous.
Some of her most famous quotes are as relevant today as they were 50 years ago: “Will part of this nation rejoice at seeing the rest oppressed, and reward a leader who has cunningly manipulated its fears and prejudices? Or will a majority of voters insist on a leader… who will appeal to their birthright of idealism and their love of justice, instead of to their heritage of racism and special privilege?” and “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
I’ve known Shirley Chisholm’s name my whole life but only a few years ago did I really learn about her in depth while helping my son with his 6th grade English project on the book P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia, which takes place in Brooklyn in 1968.
Just a few months, then U.S. Senator and now U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris name-checked Shirley Chisholm as one of the key Black women in politics whose shoulders she stands upon.
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