Black History Month: Shirley Chisholm

The first African–American Congresswoman, Shirley Anita Chisholm represented a newly reapportioned U.S. House district centered in Brooklyn, New York. Elected in 1968 because of her roots in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood, Chisholm was catapulted into the national limelight by virtue of her race, gender, and outspoken personality. In 1972, in a largely symbolic undertaking, she campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination. But “Fighting Shirley” Chisholm’s frontal assault on many congressional traditions and her reputation as a crusader limited her influence as a legislator. “I am the people’s politician,” she once told the New York Times. “If the day should ever come when the people can’t save me, I’ll know I’m finished. That’s when I’ll go back to being a professional educator.” Source: History, Art & Archives-United States House of Representatives 

Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm was a woman who was known for her moral character and her relentless ability to stand up for her community and what she believed. A child to immigrant parents, she learned from an early age the importance of an education and the value of hard work, both of which she applied to her political career and her accomplishments while serving as a Congresswoman.

Chisholm attended Brooklyn College where a blind political science professor, Louis Warsoff, encouraged Chisholm to consider politics based on her “quick mind and debating skills.” She reminded him that she had a “double handicap” when it came to politics—she was black and a woman. Chisholm joined the debate team and after African-American students were denied admittance to a social club at the college, she started her own club called Ipothia—In Pursuit of the Highest In All.

Shirley graduated with honors in 1946 and worked as a nursery school aide and teacher while she attended evening classes at Columbia University’s Teachers College. She received her masters degree in early childhood education in 1951, and eventually became a consultant to the New York City Division of Day Care in 1960. 

It was during her 2nd term in the House that Chisholm ran for the US Presidency. She became the 1st black woman to run for president, but this is not what she wanted people to focus on during her campaign. The fact that her campaign was seen primarily as “symbolic” by many really hurt her. She did not run on the mere base of being a “first,” but because she wanted to be seen as “a real, viable candidate.”

Her bid for the presidency was referred to as the “Chisholm Trail,” and she won a lot of support from students, women and minority groups. She entered 11 primaries and campaigned in several states, particularly Florida, but with little money she was challenged. Her campaign was “under-organized, under-financed and unprepared.” It was calculated that she raised and spent only $300,000 between July 1971 when she first thought of running, and July of 1972.

Overall, people in 14 states voted for Shirley Chisholm for president, in some fashion or the other. After six months of campaigning, she had 28 delegates committed to vote for her at the Democratic Convention. The 1972 Democratic Convention was in July in Miami, and it was the first major convention in which an African American woman was considered for the presidential nomination. Although she did not win the nomination, she received 151 of the delegates’ votes.

Chisholm served a total of 14 years in the Congress and made numerous contributions before she made the decision to retire in 1982. During her time in office she was one of the four founders of the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971, was appointed to the “powerful” House Rules Committee in 1977 and introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation. President William J. Clinton nominated Chisholm to be the U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica, but she declined due to ill health.

Chisholm went on to teach college and co-founded the National Political Congress of Black Women, which represented black women’s concerns. When asked how she wanted to be remembered, Chisholm said, “When I die, I want to be remembered as a woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be a catalyst of change. I don’t want to be remembered as the first black woman who went to Congress. And I don’t even want to be remembered as the first woman who happened to be black to make the bid for the presidency. I want to be remembered as a woman who fought for change in the 20th century. That’s what I want.”  Source: National Women’s History Museum

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