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.