Thirty-three years ago this month, a member of the U.S. House from Brooklyn challenged her party and her country to think more boldly than it ever had before about what the occupant of the White House should look like.
Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm, who four years earlier had become the first African-American woman to win election to Congress, declared that, “I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States. I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am equally proud of that. I am not the candidate of any political bosses or special interests. I am the candidate of the people.”
Chisholm, who died January 1 at age 80, ran as the “Unbought and Unbossed” candidate for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination. She campaigned in key primary states as a militant foe of the war in Vietnam and a champion of the economic and social justice movements that had organized so effectively during the 1960s. And she did not mince words. A co-convener of the founding conference of the National Women’s Political Caucus, she once announced, “Women in this country must become revolutionaries. We must refuse to accept the old, the traditional roles and stereotypes.”
That kind of talk, along with her refusal to reject the endorsement of the Black Panthers, scared the party establishment — including most prominent liberals — and Chisholm’s run was dismissed from the start as a vanity campaign that would do nothing more than siphon votes off from better-known anti-war candidates such a South Dakota Senator George McGovern and New York City Mayor John Lindsay. They were not ready for a candidate who promised to “reshape our society,” and they accorded her few opportunities to prove herself in a campaign where all of the other contenders were white men. “There is little place in the political scheme of things for an independent, creative personality, for a fighter,” Chisholm observed. “Anyone who takes that role must pay a price.”
Chisholm had to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission in order to participate in a televised debate featuring McGovern and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Through it all, she maintained the dignity that characterized a political career that began in the clubhouse politics of Brooklyn, saw her elected twice to the New York state Assembly and seven times to the U.S. House, and was capped by President Clinton’s nomination of Chisholm to serve as U.S. ambassador to Jamaica — an honor she was ultimately forced to refuse because of ill health.