Chisholm; ‘Unbought and Unbossed’
By: Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA Washington Correspondent
Originally posted 1/4/2005
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Retired Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.), the first Black woman elected to Congress and a 1972 presidential candidate, is being hailed in death as a die-hard heroine for justice and equality.
Chisholm, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., died at her home in Palm Coast, Fla., near Daytona Beach, on Saturday at the age of 80. She had suffered several strokes and was reported in deteriorating health, according to relatives.
But those who worked closely with one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus remember her as healthy, feisty outspoken advocate for the voiceless in society.
“When you see somebody as feisty and as gutsy as Shirley, breaking a barrier, running for Congress and then having the guts to go for broke and run for president, the effect she had was to encourage struggle, encourage people who were down and out to understand that without struggle, you could break barriers,” says D. C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton.
Norton, who was Commissioner of Human Rights in New York when Chisholm first ran for Congress in 1972 against James Farmer, former chair of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), recalls how Chisholm was ridiculed simply for running.
“The contribution that Shirley Chisholm made to America really was her feminism,” Norton says. “She had guts to spare and appealed directly to the people. She was an expert politician who kept her seat without any difficulty.”
Chisholm spent 25 years in politics, including four years as a state assemblywoman in New York from in the mid-1960s and in 1969 beginning the first of seven terms in Congress. The title of autobiography – Unbought and Unbossed – was perhaps the best description of her.
“Those of us who served with her in the New York State Assembly and watched her career in the House, to which she was elected in 1968, knew of her boldness and passionate commitment,” recalls U. S. Rep. Charles Rangel, who served with Chisholm for 13 years.
But Rangel says even New Yorkers were awed when she refused her first Congressional assignment to the Agriculture Committee. As a newly-elected representative from an urban area, Chisholm saw no advantage in serving on a committee that focused on rural America. She ultimately won a seat on the Veteran Affairs Committee, a position that grew in prominence with the escalation of the Vietnam War.
It was not the first or last time she would buck the system. The political maverick from Bedford-Stuyvesant supported Hale Boggs, a White Congressman from Louisiana for House majority leader over John Conyers, an African-American from Detroit. When Boggs won, she was rewarded with a seat on the powerful Education and Labor Committee.
She would later set her sight on the White House. She lost the 1972 Democratic nomination to George McGovern, who was badly beaten in the general election by Richard Nixon.
“Challenging all accepted practices of politics, this very junior member of the House, an African-American woman at that, by declaring for the presidency, single-handedly raised the profile and aspirations of all those newly empowered Blacks and women of that era,” Rangel states. “Today, her visionary leadership in Congress and her quest for the presidency continue to inspire new generations of young minorities and women to higher aspirations in public service.”
One of those women is U. S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who calls Chisholm a friend and mentor.
“Shirley’s courage, her determination and her commitment to justice were an inspiration to a generation,” Lee states. “I would never have gotten involved with politics if she had not run for President in 1972.”
Lee, elected in 1998, 15 years after Chisholm retired, has since earned her own reputation for courage. In 2001, she was the only member of Congress to vote against a resolution giving President Bush a free hand in reacting militarily to the September 11 terrorist attacks.
It’s easy to see why Lee admired Chisholm.
“My greatest political asset, which professional politicians fear, is my mouth, out of which come all kinds of things one shouldn’t always discuss for reasons of political expediency,” Chisholm said.
A strong supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), she was an outspoken critic of gender bias.
“I’ve always met more discrimination being a woman than being Black,” she told the Associated Press shortly before retiring from Congress. “When I ran for president, I met more discrimination as a woman than for being Black. Men are men.”
Chisholm is being lavishly praised this week by men and women.
“She ran for the U.S. presidency,” recalls Jesse Jackson, who has been both a political insider and outsider. “She had a vision for America. She was acutely aware of the role women had to play. She was from the Caribbean Islands, which gave her a sense of worldview. She fought for the Caribbean, for Africa, for those who did not have a voice.”
Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) called her “one of the founding mothers of the modern-day Black political movement.”
He explains, “She made it possible, she created the climate for the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton and all those who will come – men and women from every walk of life – who will run for U.S. president. American politics will always be indebted to Shirley Chisholm for extending its reach beyond the mainstream to include the best and brightest minds among us in the important work of public service.”
One long-time public servant, National Urban League President Marc Morial, says: “The life work of Shirley Chisholm made America a better place for all Americans. She remains a beacon for all who believe in the American dream.”
TransAfrica President and CEO Bill Fletcher issued a challenge based on her memory.
“Ms. Chisholm was an individual who viewed adversity as a challenge, rather than a road block,” Fletcher states. “The task of those who admired her work is to emulate it.”
In her life after politics, Chisholm was given an endowed teaching chair at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. She taught there for four years before traveling extensively on speaking engagements. In 1993, President Clinton nominated her to become U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica, but she declined because of health problems.
Outgoing Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Elijah Cummings also reflected on Chisholm’s impact on the future. “We must remain vigilant in our efforts to remain true to her vision of creating an America that affords equality and just to all of its citizens.”
Chisholm fought for unemployment insurance for domestic workers, increased educational assistance for poor students and programs for women and children.
The impact of Chisholm’s 1972 run for the presidency extended beyond politics, says Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe.
“She inspired countless others to knock down the barriers to equality. Her roots were in education and the lessons from her life will resonate for generations to come.”
Her life, captured in a television documentary titled, “Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed,” will be shown PBS stations in February.
Lee says, “Shirley’s willingness to challenge the status quo changed Congress and the face of American politics,” says Lee. “She fought ‘the good fight’ and she remained ‘unbossed and unbought.’”
Looking forward to the time that she would no longer be on earth, Chisholm said she did not want to be remembered for being the “the first Black woman congressman.”
She said, “I’d like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts. That’s how I’d like to be remembered.”