Remembering Shirley Chisholm's legacy
In 1972, when Shirley Chisholm announced her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, she had two strikes against her: She was a woman. And she was black.
As to whether gender or race presented the greater obstacle to her political ambitions, Chisholm addressed the House of Representatives in May 1969: "As a black person I am no stranger to race prejudice. But the truth is that in the political world I have been far oftener discriminated against because I am a woman than because I am black."
The Brooklyn-born daughter of a seamstress and a factory worker, Chisholm was America's first black Congresswoman, and like most pioneers, she suffered the consequences of her ideas, which, considering the U.S. has yet to elect a woman or a black to the nation's highest office, are still considered bold. In the documentary Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unbossed, director Shola Lynch uses candid campaign footage, interviews with supporters and detractors, and images of the Vietnam War and poverty to capture the essence of the era while chronicling Chisholm's public triumphs and private frustrations.
"If you can't support or endorse me," Chisholm tells a crowd, "get out of my way. You'll go your way and I'll go mine."
Later, when long-time supporter Ron Dellums turned against her, switching his support to front-runner and ultimate Democratic nominee George McGovern, Chisholm cries.
Seven years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, racism still flourished, although it was frowned upon. Yet, as Chisholm stated in 1969 in an address supporting the Equal Rights Amendment, "Prejudice against women is still acceptable." Women couldn't apply for a credit card in their own name, but had to register it under their husbands'. Women were steered toward teaching or nursing careers, but rarely encouraged to become principals or doctors. Even esteemed journalist Walter Cronkite showed his bias when he announced Chisholm's candidacy on the national news: " ... a new hat, or rather, a bonnet, has been thrown into the presidential ring today."
Through her campaign, Chisholm sincerely wanted to close the gap between black and white, men and women in America, insisting, "I am not the candidate of Black America. I am not the candidate of the women's movement in this country. I am the candidate of the people of America."
Yet, Chisholm could not bridge the division within her own race and gender. When Dellums rolled over for McGovern, he joined the majority of African-American politicians in the black Congressional caucus who opposed Chisholm's campaign. (The Black Panthers, however, endorsed Chisholm and raised money for her.) "The reluctance of the black caucus to support me," Chisholm said, "is a woman-man syndrome."
While Wallace survived his assassination attempt, and subsequently was confined to a wheelchair for life, Chisholm was attacked three times but suffered no physical injuries. "A man tried to get at me with a 10-inch blade," she said. "I don't like to talk about that."
Chisholm served in the House for seven terms, retiring in 1982. She died last month at age 80 after a series of strokes. Near the end of the film, Chisholm says, "When I die, I don't want to be remembered as the first black woman who went to Congress or the first woman who happened to be black to make a bid for presidency. I want to be remembered as a woman who fought for change in the 20th century."
Although the Equal Rights Amendment never passed, Chisholm's legacy endures in the thousands of women - and some men - of all races who, inspired by her message, continue to fight for racial and gender equality.
Journalist Nat Hentoff, who was on a CBS presidential panel discussion with Chisholm, told the Current in a phone interview, "I had great admiration for her. I just wish she were still here. There are too few members of Congress who think for themselves. She's an example of one who did." •
By Lisa Sorg