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Shirley Chisholm: First Black Woman to Seek White House
Presidential candidate, seven-term congresswoman forged her own moral compass By Byron Williams
By Byron Williams
01.07.05 - I can still recall the photo of Shirley Chisholm adorning the cover of Jet Magazine. An article in it focused on her 1972 presidential bid as the first black woman to seek the White House, which drew the ire of my grandfather.
Like many people of his day, he found Chisholm's presidential bid a profound waste of time that was detrimental to the hard-fought gains in the post- civil rights period. Unfortunately for my grandfather, he, like many others of that day, failed to understand the driving force behind Chisholm's candidacy.
As we have come to learn, Shirley Chisholm meant it when she said that she was "unbought and unbossed."
Chisholm, who died New Year's Day, did not wait for the keys of opportunity to be handed to her. With an unwavering confidence, she blazed a path that many would follow, including Illinois' newly elected junior senator, Barack Obama.
Former Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn was famous for telling freshman House members, "If you want to get along, go along." Chisholm obviously missed this memo.
She was not recruited by party bosses to run for the 12th Congressional District in New York, nor did she wait until the time was right for others to demand that her House committee assignment be changed.
As the first African-American woman elected to Congress in 1968, Chisholm defied the Rayburn motto by refusing an invitation to serve on the House Agriculture Committee. She reasoned that its work, albeit important, had nothing to do with the needs of her constituents.
From the beginning, Chisholm was clear that her primary responsibility was to the individuals of the 12th District. Moreover, she recognized that among their needs was social change.
Given the turbulence of the times, one would think that African Americans as well as women would have welcomed Chisholm's presidential candidacy. The Congressional Black Caucus, of which Chisholm was a founding member, was troubled by her presidential bid, as were many progressive women organizations.
University of Illinois at Chicago professor Barbara Ransby, writing about Chisholm last year, stated, "Even though she mobilized many feminists, peace activists and other progressives to support her, Ms. Chisholm never got the serious media attention, funds or endorsements she needed to win. Some male politicians -- black and white -- mocked her, and others simply ignored her."
But like Martin Luther King Jr., who also was shunned by traditional allies when he took up the cause of international human rights, Chisholm did not allow popular opinion to navigate her moral compass.
I had the honor of meeting Chisholm while she was campaigning for Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, several years ago. She had long since retired from her congressional seat, but the steadfast commitment for social change was still present.
Upon learning of Chisholm's passing, Lee said, "Shirley Chisholm was a mentor and an inspiration to me. I would never have gotten involved with politics if she had not run for president in 1972. As a young African-American woman, she offered me a reason to get involved in our democracy, and I will always be grateful for that."
Fortunately, Chisholm's contribution to the American experiment has not been lost. In "Chisholm'72 -- Unbought and Unbossed," which will air on PBS next month, filmmaker Shola Lynch accurately captures the unapologetically progressive Chisholm.
It is rare that we are privy to those who are bold enough to be completely comfortable with their own path. In the spirit of George Bernard Shaw, while others saw things as they were and asked why. Shirley Chisholm dreamt things that never were and asked why not?
And like Robert Frost, her indelible drive reminds us:
"I shall be telling this
with a sigh
Somewhere ages and
Two roads diverged in a wood,
and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all
(c) 2004, byronspeaks.com
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