Shirley Chisholm fought so many historic political battles before others recognized the necessity of those struggles that it has taken decades for her to begin to receive the recognition that she has deserved since the day she was elected as the nation’s first African-American congresswomen. But that recognition is beginning to come—in part because a new generation of leaders understands the role Chisholm played in making their politics possible. And in part because, now more than ever, the United States needs role models like Chisholm.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Chisholm’s election to the House in 1968 as an “Unbought and Unbossed” reformer from Brooklyn. It also marks 46 years since her groundbreaking 1972 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“Shirley Chisholm’s labor and contributions to Brooklyn, Congress, and the nation continues to bear fruit today. She has paved the way for many other women—myself included— to run for elected office at all levels,” says Congresswomen Yvette Clarke, a Brooklyn Democrat who today represents much of the district that sent Chisholm to Congress on the same day that Richard Nixon won the presidency.
Clarke, the first vice chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and a leading figure in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has long championed Chisholm’s legacy. In January, she introduced legislation that would direct the Joint Committee on the Library, which is responsible for oversight of the operations of the Library of Congress and the management of the National Statuary Hall Collection, to obtain a statue of Chisholm for permanent placement in the United States Capitol. That legislation now has 70 cosponsors.
It also has a parallel measure in the Senate, proposed in late February by California Senator Kamala Harris, who says: “Shirley Chisholm created a path for me and the 40 Black women members of Congress who have served after her. While there is still work to be done for equal representation, we must also stand back and celebrate our triumphs along the way. Shirley’s legacy is one that encourages us to keep up the fight for our most voiceless and vulnerable, and deserves to be cemented in the United States Capitol.”
The 16 Senate cosponsors include Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer of New York, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Cory Booker of New Jersey, who says, “Shirley Chisholm was a remarkable woman who defied boundaries and prejudices to blaze a trail for African Americans. It’s only fitting that the fearless leader who demanded a seat at the table be honored with a statue at the Capitol. This bill is a testament to the debt and gratitude leaders in America owe to Shirley for paving the way and helping make our government more representative and reflective of the people it serves.”
Erecting a statue to honor Chisholm, who died in 2005 at the age of 80, would recognize progress made a half-century ago. But it would also recognize progress that is being made now—and serve as a beacon for progress that must be made in the years ahead. This is especially the case when we consider the future of presidential politics—a field in which, as Congresswoman Clarke says, Chisholm truly was “a trailblazer.”
Other African-American candidates and other women candidates had competed for the presidency before Chisholm. Four years before the congresswoman mounted her presidential bid, the name of the Rev. Channing Emery Phillips was placed in nomination at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, where he received 67.5 delegate votes from 18 states for a candidacy that voting-rights campaigners said was meant to communicate the message that “the Negro vote must not be taken for granted.” During the course of the 1972 Democratic primary season, the District of Columbia’s non-voting representative to the US House, the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, won an essentially uncontested race as the district’s favorite-son candidate. On the Republican side, Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith campaigned in a number of primary states in 1964 and, though she did not win any contests, her name was placed in nomination at the GOP convention that chose Barry Goldwater.
But Chisholm, who spoke and wrote of the “revolutionary” possibilities of electoral politics, took everything to the next level. She won the June 6, 1972, New Jersey presidential preference primary as an African-American woman facing a prominent figure in the party, former North Carolina governor Terry Sanford, a two-time presidential contender in the 1970s who would go on to serve as a US senator. (Other contenders had skipped the statewide primary to focus instead on the complex set of local contests that would name delegates.) Chisholm swept that statewide contest with 67 percent of the vote.
One presidential preference primary win was not going to change the course of the 1972 race that eventually named South Dakota Senator George McGovern as the Democratic presidential nominee. But Chisholm put down a marker that anticipated the future. “I ran for the Presidency, despite hopeless odds, to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo,” Chisholm wrote in her 1973 book, The Good Fight. “The next time a woman runs, or a black, or a Jew or anyone from a group that the country is ‘not ready’ to elect to its highest office, I believe that he or she will be taken seriously from the start…. I ran because somebody had to do it first. In this country, everybody is supposed to be able to run for President, but that has never really been true.”
In 2016, as Democrats prepared to nominate a successor to the nation’s first African-American president, a woman won 34 primaries and caucuses in states and other jurisdictions, while a Jewish contender won 23.
Even as supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders debated about who would be the better nominee, there could be no question that the Democratic Party of 2016 was dramatically more open to the political possibilities that Democrats in the 1970s would struggle even to imagine. Nor could there be any question that the campaign Chisholm waged in 1972 cleared the way for this new politics. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns picked up where Chisholm left off, says that the woman who served as an adviser to both of his national candidacies “set the pace and pattern” for the campaigners who followed her. President Obama simply says, “Shirley Chisholm’s example transcends her life.”
In 1972, Chisholm ran her “Unbought and Unbossed” campaign for the nomination of a party where old-school political bosses retained a good deal of influence. She hit the trail in primary states across the country as a militant foe of the war in Vietnam and as a champion of the economic- and social-justice movements that had organized so effectively during the 1960s. And she did not mince words. She spoke of her bid in transformational terms—arguing, as a co-convener of the founding conference of the National Women’s Political Caucus, that “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 marginal bid that would do little more than siphon votes off from better-known anti-war candidates such as McGovern and New York City Mayor John Lindsay. Party leaders were not ready for a candidate who promised to “reshape our society” and who decried “the meaningless platforms and empty promises” not just of Republicans but of Democrats. Those leaders accorded Chisholm few opportunities to prove herself in a campaign where the leading 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 Humphrey. She had to scramble to get on state ballots, and she had to run a national campaign on a budget so small that her backers typed up their own literature. Through it all, she maintained the dignity that characterized a political career that began in the clubhouse politics of Brooklyn. Chisholm was eventually elected twice to the New York state legislature, and then to seven terms in the House. Later, she enjoyed a distinguished career in academia, before being nominated by President Bill Clinton to serve as the US ambassador to Jamaica—an honor she was ultimately forced to refuse because of ill health.
Even if she had never run for the presidency, Chisholm’s legacy would merit consideration for recognition in Statuary Hall. But that presidential run made her an epic figure for her party and for her nation—and it makes the honor proposed by Clarke and Harris essential.
One of the most remarkable moments of the 1972 campaign came after Alabama Governor George Wallace, a foe of civil rights who also sought the party’s presidential nomination that year, was shot. Wallace was shocked when Chisholm arrived in his hospital room to express her sympathy and concern. “He said, ‘What are your people going to say?’ I said, ‘I know what they are going to say. But I wouldn’t want what happened to you to happen to anyone.’ He cried and cried,” Chisholm recalled.
The congresswoman’s compassion—and her commitment—struck a chord with voters. Chisholm outlasted better-known and better-financed contenders such as Maine Senator Ed Muskie and Washington Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson. At that year’s Democratic National Convention in Miami, she received 152 delegate votes and a measure of the respect that she was often denied on the campaign trail.
Chisholm, who would go on to serve another decade in the House, did not expect to win the presidency in 1972. But she did expect that her candidacy would inspire others. She succeeded. A young “Chisholm for President” campaigner and delegate to the 1972 convention will be drafting this year’s Democratic platform: California Representative Barbara Lee. During the course of the 2016 campaign, backers of leading Democratic contenders have hailed Chisholm as a political and ideological role model. Hillary Clinton tweeted about Chisholm from the campaign trail, while former NOW president Terry O’Neill referred to Chisholm as a feminist leader who “helped make Hillary Clinton’s journey possible.”
When President Obama awarded the late congresswoman and presidential candidate a posthumous Medal of Freedom in 2015, he said, “There are people in our country’s history who don’t look left or right—they just look straight ahead. Shirley Chisholm was one of those people.” In 1972, when she looked straight ahead, Shirley Chisholm saw all the way to 2018—and, yes, to 2020.