Shirley Chisholm Made the Democratic Party of Today Possible

Shirley Chisholm Made the Democratic Party of Today Possible

Shirley Chisholm Made the Democratic Party of Today Possible

“I ran because somebody had to do it first,” said the African-American woman whose presidential campaign won a primary, secured delegates, and was placed in nomination 44 years ago.


Forty-four years ago this week, media attention was focused on a California Democratic primary that pitted George McGovern against Hubert Humphrey in a pitched battle for the party’s 1972 presidential nomination. But California was not the only state voting that day. So, too, was New Jersey, where delegates were chosen at the local level but a statewide primary was also on the ballot.

The headlines on the morning after the voting reported that McGovern has won California, and that he was likely to claim the nomination. But little note was made of the winner of the non-binding statewide primary in New Jersey: Shirley Chisholm, the pioneering African-American congresswoman from New York.

Yet Chisholm made history that day. And it is history that resonates to this day — as Democrats consider the prospect of replacing the nation’s first African-American president with the nation’s first woman president.

Other African-American candidates, other women candidates had competed for the presidency before Chisholm. Four years before the congresswoman made her presidential run, the name of the Rev. Channing Emery Phillips was placed in nomination at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, where he received 67 1/2 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 contest in the district as a 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.

Chisholm, who spoke of the “revolutionary” possibilities of electoral politics, took everything to the next level. She won the June 6 New Jersey 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 did not just win her statewide contest; she swept it with 67 percent of the vote.

That did not turn the tide of the 1972 race. 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.”

This year, as Democrats prepare to nominate a successor to President Obama, a woman has won 29 primaries and caucuses in states and other jurisdictions, while a Jewish contender has won 21 contests. Frontrunner Hillary Clinton and challenger Bernie Sanders are still competing to add to those totals—on a schedule that nears its completion with Tuesday primaries in California, New Jersey and other states. On Monday night, the Associated Press declared Clinton the “presumptive nominee,” reporting that she had enough pledged delegates and super-delegates to become the first woman in history to be nominated by a major party for the presidency. But the Sanders camp countered by counseling against a “rush to judgment” regarding a Democratic race in which the voting has not yet finished.

Even as the campaigns continue to wrangle with one another, there should be no question that the Democratic Party of today has become dramatically more open to political possibilities than it was in the 1970s. Nor should there be any question that the campaign Shirley Chisholm waged in 1972 did much to open 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.”

President Obama simply says, “Shirley Chisholm’s example transcends her life.”

Chisholm ran an “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 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 revolutionary 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 nothing more than siphon votes off from better-known antiwar 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 all 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, in 1968, to the U.S. House of Representatives — where she was the first African-American woman to serve in the chamber. After seven terms in the House, Chisholm 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 not run for the presidency, Chisholm would have been recognized as a significant figure in American politics. But that presidential run made her an epic figure for her party and her nation.

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 to serve another decade in the House, never expected 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 has tweeted about Shirley Chisholm from the campaign trail, while NOW President Terry O’Neill refers 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 last fall, 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 2016.

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