Shirley Chisholm's Legacy
Published on Tuesday, January 4, 2005 by The Nation
Shirley Chisholm's Legacy
by John Nichols
 
Thirty-three years ago this month, a member of the U.S. House from Brooklyn challenged her party and her country to think more boldly than it ever had before about what the occupant of the White House should look like. Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm, who four years earlier had become the first African-American woman to win election to Congress, declared that, "I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States. I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women's movement of this country, although I am equally proud of that. I am not the candidate of any political bosses or special interests. I am the candidate of the people."

Chisholm, who died January 1 at age 80, ran as the "Unbought and Unbossed" candidate for the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate. She campaigned in key primary states as a militant foe of the war in Vietnam and a champion of the economic and social justice movements that had organized so effectively during the 1960s. And she did not mince words. A co-convener of the founding conference of the National Women's Political Caucus, she once announced, "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 -- and Chisholm's run was dismissed from the start as a vanity campaign that would do nothing more than siphon votes off from better-known anti-war candidates such a South Dakota Senator George McGovern and New York City Mayor John Lindsay. They were not ready for a candidate who promised to "reshape our society," and they accorded her few opportunities to prove herself in a campaign where all of the other contenders were white men. "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."

Chisholm had to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission in order to participate in a televised debate featuring McGovern and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Through it all, she maintained the dignity that characterized a political career that began in the clubhouse politics of Brooklyn, saw her elected twice to the New York state Assembly and seven times to the U.S. House, and was capped by President Clinton's nomination of Chisholm to serve as U.S. ambassador to Jamaica -- an honor she was ultimately forced to refuse because of ill health. One of the most remarkable moments of the 1972 campaign came after Alabama Governor George Wallace, a foe of civil rights who also sought the party's presidential nomination that year, was shot. Wallace was shocked when Chisholm arrived in his hospital room to express her sympathy and concern. "He said, 'What are your people going to say?' I said, 'I know what they are going to say. But I wouldn't want what happened to you to happen to anyone.' He cried and cried," Chisholm recalled.

The congresswoman's compassion struck a chord with voters. While she won no primaries, Chisholm outlasted better-known and better-financed contenders such as Maine Senator Ed Muskie and Washington Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson. At that year's Democratic National Convention in Miami, she received 151 delegate votes and a measure of the respect that she was often denied on the campaign trail.

Chisholm, who would go to serve another decade in the House, never expected to win the presidency in 1972. But she did expect that her candidacy would inspire others. "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."

Chisholm was indeed an inspiration. At least one young "Chisholm for President" campaigner now serves in Congress: California Representative Barbara Lee, the only member of the House to oppose President Bush's demand for a blank check to mount military responses to the September 11, 2001, attacks. U.S. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, spoke for many African-American women in Congress when she said, "If there were no Shirley Chisholm there would be no Stephanie Tubbs Jones." And the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns picked up where Chisholm left off, hailed the woman who served as an advisor to both those candidacies. "She set the pace and pattern for other public officials," Jackson said of Chisholm. "She refused to accept the ordinary."

John Nichols' book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released by The New Press.

© 2005 The Nation

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