Like so many Black women, when Shirley Chisholm saw trouble, she took things into her own hands. She said, “screw it, I’ll do it.” What was “it”?
Well, not only was Shirley Chisholm the first Black Congresswoman in the US, but she was also the first Black candidate to run for a major party’s presidential nomination.
Chisholm was born in 1924, a few years before the Great Depression began. She was the oldest of four. Her parents were of Caribbean ancestry and blue-collar cut. Her mother was a seamstress and her father a factory worker. She would go on to graduate from Brooklyn College with honors, as well as Columbia University, and thereafter became an educator.
Chisholm started her political career in 1965, as a state legislator for New York. For perspective, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had just passed.
Chisholm wasted absolutely no time in making her impact. She served for three years until the opportunity arose for her to run for the House of Representatives. For perspective, Chisholm ran for Congress the same year that Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. It was a scary, emotional and trying time for folks of all colors and creeds. She hoped to aid in unifying the country, at one of its most volatile times.
When Chisholm became Representative for New York’s 12th Congressional district, her racist, sexist colleagues had no trouble wasting her time. They assigned Chisholm, a candidate representing in one of the most densely populated cities in the world…to the agricultural committee. Still, she turned lemons into lemonade. Shirley’s biggest priorities were the working poor and education.
Those two often mixed.
She used her influence concerning Agriculture to greatly increase food stamp benefits. She helped create WIC, which was a program that helped new and soon-to-be mothers feed their children. She helped create and join the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Woman’s Political Caucus. Her work in Congress was remarkable.
So obviously, the next step was to run for president.
Chisholm ran because she knew someone had to do it. It was 1972, and no one had paved the way.
So, of course, she had to.
You’d be surprised at who supported her run, and who didn’t.
Chisholm mentions frequently that she experienced more strife fighting against sexism than racism. People didn’t really know what to do with a Black woman running for the Democratic nomination. She was often a punchline.
Whereas Gloria Steinem, the feminist icon of the 70s did not endorse Chisholm’s run, Chisholm managed to gain the favor of her opponent. Someone who was perhaps one of the most racist men in America: George Wallace. You know, the man who said he wants segregation forever.
He was the governor of Alabama at the time, and he was a Democrat.
The campaign itself was rather dangerous for Chisholm and her opponents.
Wallace was shot while on the campaign trail and ended up paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. Chisholm caught a lot of flack for visiting him in the hospital, but she was simply being a good colleague. Chisholm’s life was threatened at least three times while she was campaigning, and she was appointed a Secret Service detail due to these threats.
She lost the race for many reasons, mostly because no one truly took her seriously. Her experience mattered not: she was a Black woman, and that was enough for a great deal of Americans to discount her.
After her run for the Democratic nomination, Chisholm returned to her seat in the house. She left Congress in 1983, having served in the House for fourteen years. She passed away in 2005 and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Perhaps the biggest tragedy is that Shirley Chisholm didn’t live to see Barack Obama elected into the White House. After all, she truly paved the way for him.