As the first female Vice President elected prepared to take office in January 2021, she observed, “Shirley Chisholm has blazed a trail for me and so many others. Today, I think back to his inspiring words: “I am and always will be a catalyst for change. »
“Catalyst for Change” was the slogan that appeared on the iconic blue and white campaign buttons Chisholm supporters wore when the first black woman to be elected to Congress mounted a groundbreaking presidential bid in 1972.
This bottom-up campaign was so visionary in its painstaking advocacy for racial justice, gender equity, and a reordering of budget priorities to cut Pentagon spending and fund social services that it was often dismissed as too sweeping. Yet today, 50 years after Chisholm launched that campaign, activists and scholars still marvel at the accomplishments of a candidate who made more history with an ‘unbought, bossless’ presidential bid. than most politicians do in a lifetime.
If you answered Shirley Chisholm all of these questions, you’d be right.
By any honest historical measure, that’s an impressive list of firsts. Yet few of them gained more than marginal media coverage, if rated at all, in 1972.
For example, when Chisholm announced his candidacy on January 25, 1972, The New York Times was immediately dismissive, stating at the top of a short story that “even some of Ms. Chisholm’s admirers privately conceded that she had at least two knocks – her gender and her race – against her.” the Time suggested that “the main goal of the congresswoman and her supporters…was to exert leverage over the choice of the eventual Democratic national ticket, the party platform and even future positions on the Office”. And the report said: ‘A third likely strike against Ms Chisholm was that, at the moment, she did not appear to have overwhelming support among women, blacks or young people, although she clearly appealed to all three groups. ”
When Chisholm won New Jersey’s presidential preference primary on June 6, beating former South Carolina Governor Terry Sanford by a 2-1 margin, the Time mentioned the result only six paragraphs in an article about the wrangling between Democratic organizations in Hudson and Essex counties over the assignment of delegates to leaders George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey. McGovern and Humphrey had not participated in the nonbinding preference primary, and most newspapers and television reports did not even give a line to the fact that, for the first time in American history, a black woman won a statewide presidential vote.
Two months later, when Chisholm got more delegate votes than most of the men who had run against her for the nomination, the fact deserved a few cursory lines buried deep in the main story by the Time of McGovern’s victory.
Lest readers think I’m going after the Time, allow me to disabuse them of the notion. the Time was Chisholm’s hometown newspaper. She represented Brooklyn since 1968 and was an influential voice in city and state politics. As such, the newspaper gave him a lot Following coverage than most media outlets, which often completely ignored his candidacy.
Throughout the 1972 run, Chisholm had to fight for media attention, as she lacked the resources to run a strong radio and television advertising campaign of the type that even then , had become the norm for presidential candidates. Her campaign cash was just $44,000 when she launched her bid and never matched that of her most prominent and politically connected rivals. Chisholm had to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission in order to win a spot on a televised debate featuring McGovern and Humphrey. Yet she persevered. Even in states like Wisconsin, where she was unable to campaign, she edged out many contenders in the crowded field, and she eventually won more than 430,000 votes in a dozen primaries.
“I am a revolutionary at heart now and I have to show up, even if it could be the downfall of my career,” said the candidate.
This willingness to risk it all made Chisholm a revolutionary figure in American politics. She pushed the boundaries to such an extent that the platform she sketched out is still ahead of where many Democratic Party leaders are today. Rejecting special interest money and saying “I will raise issues that others avoid,” Chisholm argued for abortion rights before the Roe vs. Wade decision, championed full legalization of marijuana, defended immigrant rights, championed a social welfare state, and denounced “the cancerous growth of a Department of Defense budget that now consumes two-thirds of our revenue federal”.
Chisholm knew she was upsetting the status quo. She called on her party and her country to imagine a new politics that rejected corporate influence over elections and instead built multiracial urban and rural coalitions. “We must”, she said, “refuse to accept old traditional roles and stereotypes”.
That kind of talk — along with his acceptance of the Black Panthers’ endorsement — spooked party elders and media commentators, including liberals who feared Chisholm was hijacking votes from the most high-profile anti-war candidates, such as McGovern and New York. Mayor John Lindsay. They weren’t ready for a candidate who promised to “reshape our society” and they gave her little opportunity to prove herself.
“There is little room in the political order of things for an independent, creative personality, for a fighter,” observed Chisholm, who died in 2005 at the age of 80. “Whoever takes on this role must pay the price.”
Chisholm paid the price. “She was this black woman dealing with this whole power structure, and it was never easy,” recalled Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who served as a campaign aide and delegate for Chisholm in 1972. But, Lee said, the contestant never backed down because she had a sense of history.
Chisholm knew she was creating the basis for a different and more inclusive policy. “She said ‘I hope I’ve opened the door for people who look like me to see that they can do it too.’ She paved the way for Jesse Jackson and then Barack Obama,” Lee recalled in a recent Chisholm campaign tribute in 1972. “It was because of Shirley Chisholm, I am, and because of Shirley Chisholm , Kamala Harris is.”
Harris always embraced this assessment saying, “We stand on Shirley Chisholm’s shoulders and Shirley Chisholm was proud.” And she is not alone. Rep. Ilhan Omar, the Minnesota Democrat who keeps a portrait of Chisholm in her office, said that “Shirley Chisholm — the first black woman in Congress and the first woman and African American from a major party to run for president — is the reason…why black women, who have been told to wait for our turn, now have a voice in Congress.”
Barbara Lee proposes that those who appreciate Chisholm’s legacy join her this 50th anniversary year in organizing events “along the Chisholm Trail – places across the country that were integral to the life and the legacy of Congresswoman Chisholm”. It’s a great idea. And celebrations really can take place anywhere, because Shirley Chisholm changed the course of American history in 1972 and continues to do so today.