Remembering Shirley Chisholm, the first woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination

"If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair."

Shirley Chisholm, Democratic Party, Nomination, 1972, Hillary Clinton

Shirley Chisholm announcing her candidacy in January, 1972 [YouTube]

Hillary Clinton has made history, becoming the first woman in America to receive the nomination from a major political party in the race for the White House. But she lags some 44 years behind a bespectacled black woman who took to a podium in 1972 asking for the Democratic Party to nominate her. Shirley Chisholm, the first African America woman ever elected to the United States Congress, struck a blow for her race and her gender, but is largely forgotten today.

Going up against George McGovern, the ultimate nominee who would go on to lose every state bar one and DC in the election, Chisholm’s short-lived campaign paved the way for Hillary’s speech in Philadelphia this week. “I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am black and proud,” she announced. “I am not the candidate of the woman’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and I am equally proud of that.

“I am not the candidate of any political bosses or fat cats or special interests. I stand here now without endorsements from many big-name politicians or celebrities or any kinds of prop. I do not intend to offer to you the tired and glib clichés which for too long have been an accepted part of political life. I am the candidate of the people of America.”

The slogan Chisholm chose for her campaign was “Unbought and unbossed,” and it neatly summed up a political career that involved not only near daily crackings of the glass ceiling, but a dedication to blowing the entire roof off while she was at it.

Almost immediately dismissed by her party’s establishment, Chisholm announced her campaign with plenty of substantial political experience. For years, the native New Yorker had served in the New York State Assembly and had a vocal and voting base in Brooklyn. As a Congresswoman, she argued tirelessly for unpopular bills like Head Start, a programme providing comprehensive early-childhood education, health, nutrition, and parental support to low-income families. In the years since Head Start was introduced, it has helped more than 30 million children in the US. Chisholm was a vocal critic of the Vietnam war, a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Women’s Caucus.

At the time, male African American leaders were considering throwing their names into the ring for the Democratic nomination, most notably Carl Stokes, the Cleveland mayor (and the first black one in US history). Others wanted to bide their time, thinking it better to support a white candidate sympathetic to their cause. In the middle of all the toing and froing, Chisholm just up and announced she was running, to the surprise of almost everyone.

“They were standing around, peeing on their shoes,” one of her former aides told The New York Times. “So Shirley finally said the hell with it and got a campaign going. If she hadn’t, we’d still be without a black candidate.”

An election poster for Chisholm's unsuccessful bid for the nomination, complete with the phrase that became her calling card [US Library of Congress]

It was a difficult campaign. Chisholm had to battle for inclusion, suing the television networks to ensure she was allowed to participate in the televised debates. The most infamous moment of the 1972 election came when George Wallace, who famously once announced “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” was shot five times in an assassination attempt. Left paralysed for the rest of his life, to the surprise of everyone, and to the disgust of many of her base, Chisholm paid him a visit while in hospital.

“I couldn’t stay long because he was very ill,” Chisholm revealed in an interview decades later. “And the doctors told me, ‘Congresswoman, you have to leave him.’ And he held onto my hand so tightly, he didn’t want me to go.”

When Wallace’s run ended with his shooting, even with fewer candidates in the field, Chisholm lagged in the polls. She found it particularly to convert the two disenfranchised groups she could best represent, minorities and women. She arrived at the Miami Beach Convention Center for the Democratic National Convention with only 5% of the vote, leaving her in fourth position of 13 possible candidates. She had hoped to use her delegates to influence George McGovern in the case of a deadlocked convention, intending to see him select a black running mate and to put a woman on his cabinet. But having managed to drum up more than 57% of the votes, McGovern showed no interest in her ideas.

Chisholm takes her place with the other candidates at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Florida [Pixabay]

Chisholm returned to Washington DC, where she served in Congress until 1981, when she returned to the classroom as a teacher, teaching politics and sociology at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Retiring in 1991, President Bill Clinton nominated her to be the US Ambassador to Jamaica in 1993, but ill health prevented her from taking the appointment. She died on New Year’s Day, 2005, after suffering several strokes. Buried in a cemetery in Buffalo, New York, the legend on her tomb reads “Unbought and Unbossed.”

With America’s first black president soon to leave office and with the country on the cusp of potentially electing its first female one, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton owe a debt of gratitude to the woman that laid the first paving stones on their way to Pennsylvania Avenue. Shirley Chisholm changed the game, but modestly denied that for the rest of her life.

“I want history to remember me... not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States,” she said. “But as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be herself. I want to be remembered as a catalyst for change is America.”

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