From the Archives: Shirley Chisholm, 80; Ran for President, Served 13 Years in Congress
Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress and the first African American to seek a major party nomination for president, has died. She was 80.
Chisholm died Saturday night at her home in Ormond Beach, Fla. The cause of death was not immediately known, but she had been in failing health for some time.
“She was an activist ... and a woman of great courage,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said in a statement Monday that was posted on the Operation PUSH website. “She refused to accept the ordinary. She had high expectations for herself and the people around her.”
A strong, independent voice for the underprivileged in New York City’s 12th Congressional District, which she represented for 13 years, Chisholm was elected to the House of Representatives in 1969.
In 1972, she ran a largely symbolic campaign for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, pressing her antiwar and aid for the disenfranchised agenda.
She won no primaries but stayed in the race into the party’s convention and ended up with 152 delegates before withdrawing. George McGovern, the South Dakota senator, was the party’s standard bearer that year but lost in a landslide to President Nixon.
Chisholm later wrote in her memoir, “The Good Fight,” that she made her historic campaign because “someone had to do it first.”
“In this country everybody is supposed to be able to run for president, but that’s never really been true. I ran because most people think this country is not ready for a black candidate, not ready for a woman candidate.”
The eldest of four children, Chisholm was born Shirley Anita St. Hill in Brooklyn on Nov. 30, 1924. When she was 3, her financially strapped parents sent Chisholm and her two sisters to live with their maternal grandmother in Barbados. Chisholm would later write that her time there was precious to her because of the excellent education she received in “strict traditional, British-style schools.”
“If I speak and write easily now, that early education is the main reason,” she said.
Even though her family’s financial situation was still not good, she and her sisters returned home seven years later. By then a fourth sister had been born.
Chisholm’s father, a well-read man who worked in a factory, tutored her in the teachings of the early black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. Her mother, who worked as a domestic, sought to make her daughters Renaissance women.
Chisholm later recalled: " We were to become young ladies — poised, modest, accomplished, educated and graceful, prepared to take our places in the world.”
Chisholm graduated from high school with excellent marks. Offered scholarships to Vassar College and Oberlin College, she settled for the more financially prudent Brooklyn College.
After earning a bachelor’s degree, she worked at a child-care center in Harlem for seven years while getting a master’s degree in childhood education at Columbia University. She also met and married Conrad Chisholm, a graduate student from Jamaica. They divorced in 1977. Her second marriage to Arthur Hardwick Jr. ended with his death in 1986. She had no children.
She started working in electoral politics in the early 1950s, helping to elect a leading black lawyer to the municipal court.
Her own career in political office started in 1964 when she ran for the New York state Assembly and won in a landslide. In the Assembly she sponsored legislation to enable disadvantaged students with less than stellar grades to enter state universities and receive remedial training. She also worked to get unemployment insurance for domestic employees.
Court-ordered reapportionment led to the creation of a new congressional district for the 1968 election. The district, with a large Democratic voter base, encompassed much of Brooklyn, including the impoverished Bedford-Stuyvesant area.
Chisholm won the party primary against a much-favored candidate. Despite serious illness during the general election campaign, including surgery for what turned out to be a benign tumor, she went on to win.
She bested by a 2 1/2 -1 margin James Farmer, a Liberal Party candidate backed by Republicans. Farmer, an African American, was formerly national chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality.
Already known as an articulate politician who went her own way and wasn’t afraid to ruffle the feathers of Democratic Party leaders, she cemented those credentials after she was sworn into Congress.
As a freshman representative, she had made it known that she would be interested in serving on committees that either had urban affairs or foreign affairs, specifically Africa, as their focus. Her posting on the Agriculture Committee’s forestry and rural villages subcommittee led her to protest the assignment before the House Democratic caucus, calling the seniority system, which determined committee assignments, a “petrified, sanctified system of seniority.”
“Only nine people have been elected to Congress,” she added, noting the number of African Americans coming into the House, “and those nine should be used as effectively as possible.”
Her protest led to an unprecedented reversal of assignment and she was named to the Veterans Affairs Committee. Two years later, she was moved to the Education and Labor Committee, a panel in which she had more interest.
In the House, Chisholm championed legislation calling for a 90% federal reimbursement of state welfare programs. Echoing a New York Assembly pursuit, she also tried to get federal support to open schools to disadvantaged students. She campaigned for increasing the minimum wage and federal funding for day-care centers.
But she was openly critical of the House leadership for failing to make adequate progress on social programs.
” ... I have grown to detest many of the white Northern liberals who are always ready with rhetoric about equal opportunity in jobs and education. [However] when the time comes to put the heat on, in committee and on the floor, and do something, like passing an amendment or increasing an appropriation, too many of these white knights turn up missing,” she wrote in “The Good Fight.”
In running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972, Chisholm tried to forge a coalition of feminists, blacks, other minority groups and those opposed to the Vietnam War. Her campaign was poorly funded and lacked the backing of even the Congressional Black Caucus.
In keeping with her independent spirit, she raised eyebrows by paying a hospital visit to former Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace as he was recuperating from an assassination attempt.
As she later recalled, he asked her: “What are your people going to say?”
She told him that she knew full well what they would say. “But I wouldn’t want what happened to you to happen to anyone.”
Chisholm left Congress in 1982 to take care of her ailing husband. She taught politics and women’s studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and lectured widely. She also served as U.S. ambassador to Jamaica during the first Clinton administration.
Upon retirement from the House of Representatives, she said that she had faced more obstacles because of her gender than because of her race.
“I’ve always met more discrimination being a woman than being black,” she told Associated Press. “When I ran for the Congress, when I ran for president, I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black. Men are men.”
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