Shirley Chisholm Fought the Good Fight

By Lynch, Shola | The Crisis, January/February 2005 | Go to article overview

Shirley Chisholm Fought the Good Fight


Lynch, Shola, The Crisis


When I first met Shirley Chisholm, I, like so many others, viewed her 1972 run for the presidency as purely symbolic. Her own words confirmed as much: "I ran because someone had to do it first. I ran because most people think that the country is not ready for a Black candidate, not ready for a woman candidate. I ran for president, despite hopeless odds, to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo."

Shirley Chisholm, a former Democratic member of the House of Representatives from New York and the first Black woman to seek a major party's nomination for president, died Jan. 1 in Ormond Beach, Fla. She was 80 and had recently suffered a series of strokes.

Chisholm was a schoolteacher who first became involved in politics as a volunteer at the local Democratic Club. When she saw things in her community that needed to be addressed, instead of complaining, she tried to do something about it. She was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1964, representing the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. In 1968, she became the first Black woman elected to Congress.

For four years, beginning in 2000, I got to know Chisholm while working on my documentary Chisholm '72 - Unbought & Unbossed. During the time, I took to calling her "Mrs. C." Chisholm was much smaller than I expected, well-dressed, a perfect lady. I could not believe that this unassuming person had caused the waves that she did in her day. Then she started to talk, and as she told her stories, she seemed to grow in stature. She was much more than the symbolic firsts or the two-dimensional, "fighting Shirley Chisholm" portrayed in the media.

When a reporter asked me recently what surprised me most about Chisholm, I responded that aside from her wicked sense of humor, I was astonished to find that she had a viable political strategy for her presidential run.

A variety of circumstances made Chisholm's 1972 run for president somewhat feasible. Richard Nixon, a popular Republican, was in the White House, but among the Democratic challengers, there was no strong front-runner. African American and women voters were still finding their voices in electoral politics as a result of the civil rights acts passed in the last decade. Also, the newly implemented 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, was expected to send 10 million first-time voters to the polls.

Chisholm wanted to encourage the participation of these new voters by offering them an outspoken and progressive candidate. She even accepted an endorsement from the Black Panther Party, which called her the "People's Candidate," and declared, "A Vote for Chisholm is a Vote for Survival. …

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