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.”