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 congresswoman. 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.
Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan recognizes that it’s time to honor one of America’s great political figures. He joined the initial group of co-sponsors for House legislation that would direct the overseers of the National Statuary Hall Collection to obtain a statue of Chisholm for permanent placement in the U.S. Capitol.
That legislation is sponsored by Pocan’s colleague in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Congresswomen Yvette Clarke, the Brooklyn Democrat who today represents much of the district that sent Chisholm to Congress.
“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,” said Clarke.
Clarke, the first vice chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, has long championed Chisholm’s legacy. Since Pocan signed on with the project in January, she has attracted 70 co-sponsors.
There is now, also, a parallel measure in the Senate, which was proposed in late February by California Sen. Kamala Harris, who said: “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.”
Erecting a statue to honor Chisholm would recognize progress made a half-century ago. But it would also 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 said, Chisholm truly was “a trailblazer.”
Other African-American candidates and other women candidates had competed for the presidency before Chisholm. Yet Chisholm, who spoke and wrote of the “revolutionary” possibilities of electoral politics, took everything to the next level. She was the first African-American and the first woman to win a competitive presidential preference primary — beating a prominent figure in the party, former North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford, in the June 1972 New Jersey primary.
One presidential preference primary win was not going to change the course of the 1972 race, in which George McGovern was eventually named as the Democratic 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 who would be the better nominee, there could be no question that the Democratic Party of 2016 was dramatically more open to political possibilities than the Democratic Party of Chisholm’s day. 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 1980s presidential campaigns picked up where Chisholm left off, said 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.
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 as a militant foe of the war in Vietnam and as a champion of the economic- and social-justice movements that had been organized during the 1960s. She spoke of her bid in transformational terms — arguing, as a co-convener of the founding conference of the National Women’s Political Caucus: “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. They 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. “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.”
Shirley Chisholm, who died in 2005 at age 80, did pay a price in her lifetime. She never received the recognition she deserved. But now, thanks to Yvette Clarke, Mark Pocan and others who cherish the legacy of this remarkable woman, that recognition is coming.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising.
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