Remembering Shirley Chisholm

By Gloria Verdieu, Workers World, 20 January 2005

In 1968 Shirley Anita Chisholm, fighter for minority rights, was the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress. Born Shirley Anita St. Hill, she was the only Black woman to seek a major party's presidential nomination, winning 152 delegates in 1972.

She died on Jan. 1 at age 80 in Ormond Beach, Fla.

Her parents, Charles St. Hill and Ruby St. Hill, were Caribbean immigrants. Her father was from British Guyana; her mother was from Barbados. Shirley St. Hill was born Nov. 30, 1924, in Brooklyn, N.Y. At age 3 she was sent to Barbados to live with her grandmother. She went to elementary school in that British school system. She returned to New York seven years later, attended public schools in Brooklyn, graduated from Girls High School, enrolled in Brooklyn College, majored in sociology and earned a B.A. in 1946.

After many rejections, Chisholm got a job at a daycare center in Harlem. While teaching nursery school, she studied elementary education at Columbia University and earned an M.A. in 1953. In 1953 she was director of a childcare center, in 1959 an educational consultant, and New York State Assemblywoman representing a Brooklyn District in 1964.

Chisholm and her husband were active in many community and local political organizations that included the NAACP. In 1960, she started the Democratic Unity Club, which was instrumental in mobilizing the Black and Latino vote. She also helped to form the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League.

While in the New York State Assembly she proposed a bill to provide state aid to daycare centers and voted to increase funding for schools on a per-pupil basis.

In her first term in Congress, Chisholm hired an all-female staff and spoke out for civil rights, women's rights, and rights for the poor and under-privileged. She fought and won support needed to extend the minimum wage to domes tic workers. She opposed wea pons development and the war in Vietnam.

She was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and the founder of the National Women's Political Caucus. She supported the Equal Rights Amendment and legal abortion throughout her congressional career.

Chisholm often criticized the Congress as being too clubby and unresponsive. In her book Unbought and Unbossed, she wrote: Our representative democracy is not working because the Congress that is supposed to represent the voters does not respond to their needs. I believe the chief reason for this is that it is ruled by a small group of old men.

On Jan. 25, 1972, when Chisholm announced her candidacy for president, she stood before the cameras and said: I am not a candidate of any political bosses or special interests. I am the candidate of the people.

Chisholm served as an advisor for the Rev. Jessie Jackson's 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns, which picked up where she left off. Jackson called Chisholm a woman of great courage.

Chisholm once announced: Women in this country must become revolutionaries. We must refuse to accept the old, the traditional roles and stereotypes.

She scared the Demo cratic Party establishment, including the most prominent liberals, by accepting the endorsement of the Black Panther Party. She had to file a complaint with the Federal Com mu ni ca tions Commission in order to participate in a televised debate with white male presidential candidates George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey.

Chisholm was given few opportunities to prove herself in a campaign where all the other contenders were white men. She knew that the Democratic Party was not ready for a candidate who promised to reshape society based on real equality and justice.

She observed: There is little place in the political scheme of things for an independent, creative personality, for a fighter. Anyone who takes that role must pay a price.

Chisholm was an inspiration. Rep. Barbara Lee, the only member of the House to openly oppose the Bush push for a blank check for a military response after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, campaigned for Shirley Chisholm in 1972. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones said, If there were no Shirley Chisholm there would be no Stephanie Tubbs Jones.

The Democratic Party was not ready then and it is certainly not ready now. When asked how she would like to be remembered, Chisholm commented, I'd like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts.