Shirley Chisholm, Trailblazer

Shirley Chisholm was the first African American and the first woman to mount a serious campaign for the Democratic nomination for the US presidency. She was a trailblazing feminist who broke down racial and gender barriers as she demanded that government — on every level — pay more attention to the needs of working class and immigrant Americans.

The daughter of working class Caribbean immigrants, a graduate of Brooklyn public schools as well as Brooklyn College, she became a elementary school teacher and day care center administrator. But she developed a passion for politics, first as a grassroots organizer challenging New York State’s all-white and predominantly all-male political power structure. She was the first African American woman elected from Brooklyn to the New York State legislature as well as the first African American woman elected to Congress in 1968.

Percy Sutton, one of Chisholm’s friends and allies, as well as a leading figure in national Black power politics, summed up Chisholm in his impassioned nominating speech at the 1972 Democratic convention. Reminding the audience of the Black liberation struggle and invoking the legacies of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the murdered civil rights workers Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, Sutton  presented Chisholm as the embodiment of the heroism of the past and the only person with the integrity, determination, compassion and understanding to “summon each of us to march towards change, to bring out the best in ourselves – to overcome our racial fears and differences…this candidate has given a voice to the voiceless. She has brought hope to the hopeless.”

We must never forget what courage it took to mount these campaigns. At the time Chisholm was elected to Congress, the Voting Rights Act was only three years old. Most African American women were domestics, teachers or nurses, and American women, as a whole, were denied the same rights as men. Chisholm was a principled, passionate as well as pragmatic politician, but was always anchored in the central importance of education and the vote.

About the Author: Barbara Winslow is a Professor in the Secondary Education Department and the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Brooklyn College. The founder and Director of the Shirley Chisholm Project of Brooklyn Women’s Activism, she is the author of the first scholarly biography of Shirley Chisholm, Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change, Westview Press, NY, 2013.