Black Woman: Don’t You Know Who You Are? “Fighting Shirley Chisholm”

Women’s History March, 2016

One can take it for granted that the Black women featured, for Women’s History Month, on this healing blog, faced racism, discrimination, sexism, poverty and unwarranted criticism on a grand scale — on top of all the other stressors that human beings face. The women featured also exemplify our trademark “SHE” understanding, wherein “SHE” is an acronym for “Surviving, Healing and Evolving,” just as we might imagine that each of these women survived (some kind of hell), healed (to some degree, over and over) and evolved (or re-invented herself — perhaps many times). So, every time you see the word “SHE” capitalized when reading about a featured African American Sister Woman Queen of Victory, think about what it must have taken for her to survive, let alone heal and maintain the Spirit necessary to evolve (that is, to continue growing and becoming greater and greater). We, too, must elevate our survival skills, heal ourselves over and over, and evolve into our greatness!

SHE (Surviving, Healing and Evolving) is a registered trademark.

“Fighting Shirley Chisholm:”
America’s First Black Congresswoman

(c) by Dr. Rhonda Sherrod

“One of the most dismaying aspects of politics and public
life in America today is the increasingly closed nature of the
entire political process, particularly at the highest level.”
Shirley Chisholm, The Good Fight, 1973

FIRST. She was the first; and, boy, do we need a courageous, independent public servant like her today. Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress, served up the blueprint for the type of dynamic leadership the American electorate desperately needs today. She did not engage in the vile, bigoted, personal petty politics that are so common today, just as she eschewed simplemindedness and greed. Instead, SHE focused like a laser on the problems bedeviling the American people. (Are you listening Hillary and Bernie?) SHE was a woman of integrity intent on delivering solutions for the people.

Born Shirley Anita St. Hill in Brooklyn, New York in 1924 — just five years before the start of the Great Depression — Shirley Chisholm was first elected to Congress in 1968, the same year the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. In the 1920s, both of Shirley’s parents had been among the many West Indians who had sought to leave stultifying poverty behind by immigrating to New York.  They met while both were in pursuit of the “American Dream.”

The family struggled financially, but Shirley was a stellar student. On scholarship at Brooklyn College, she explored many avenues for expression, before she received her degree, with honors, in sociology. (Subsequently, her minor in Spanish would allow her to communicate with Hispanic constituents as she campaigned and governed.) Professionally, she worked as an educator, a director of daycare centers, and as an educational consultant for the city of New York. She also earned a master’s degree in early childhood education from Columbia University, the Ivy League institution that conferred Barack Obama’s undergraduate degree.

In 1964, SHE became only the second Black woman to serve in the New York state legislature. While there, the bills she sponsored reflected her activist passions — protecting the rights of black people, women and the poor, as well as promoting educational initiatives. She insured employment insurance coverage for (disproportionately Black) domestic workers, insisted that female teachers not lose their tenure while absent on maternity leave, and worked to secure financial aid for poor college students. With a solid legislative foundation to stand on, SHE ran for Congress.

“Ladies and Gentlemen … this is fighting Shirley Chisholm coming through,” she would often say as she campaigned for congress. She was also fond of saying she was “unbought and unbossed,” which was to become the title of her 1970 autobiography that every serious student of politics should read. Describing her district, Shirley wrote, “My Twelfth Congressional District of Brooklyn is mostly composed of poor neighborhoods with all the problems of poverty in an aggravated form: slum housing, high unemployment, too few medical services, high crime rate, neglected schools — the whole list. About 69% of my people are Black and Puerto Rican. The rest are Jewish, Polish, Ukranian and Italian. Speaking for them at this moment in history is a great responsibility because they have been unrepresented and ignored for so long, and their needs are so many and so urgent.” Once in office, the congresswoman would fight anyone, including members of the Democratic party leadership, if SHE perceived that person as underperforming in his or her obligation to fight for the people. She called herself “the people’s candidate,” and she was intent on “focus[ing] attention on the nation’s problems.”

Unwilling to wait her turn before asserting herself, as was expected of all newbies, Shirley’s first speech as a freshman legislator on the floor of the United States Congress, in 1969, was a powerful meditation against the war in Vietnam. In so agitating, she picked up where Dr. King, a fierce opponent of the War, had left off when he was assassinated in 1968. Further, she channeled the language of the great Sojourner Truth,* when she noted that she would refuse to vote for any defense appropriation “until the time comes when our values and priorities have been turned right-side up again” [italics added].

Unable to apprehend why she should be assigned to the Committee on Agriculture when SHE represented an urban district, Shirley objected to that appointment. Noting that there “are a lot more veterans in my district than trees,” she accepted a re-assignment to the Veteran’s Affairs Committee. In 1971, she obtained a seat on the Committee on Education and Labor, before becoming the second woman, and the first Black woman, to serve on the powerful Rules Committee (1977). She also worked on the Committee on Organization Study and Review (the Hansen Committee) which reformed the manner in which committee chairman selections were made. Always seeking ways to assert collective power, SHE was a founding member of both the Congressional Black Caucus (1971) and the Congressional Women’s Caucus (1977).

Shirley was at the forefront of the women’s movement in the 1960s and 70s. Although SHE recognized that the odds against her were “hopeless” when SHE ran for president in 1972, in her opinion her candidacy was about the “refusal to accept the status quo,” which, of course, dictated that Blacks, all women and the poor were to be subjugated. Like President Barack Obama after her, SHE had been a community activist and had a profound understanding of the need for systemic change. In her book, The Good Fight, Shirley said, “I ran for the Presidency in order to crack a little more of the ice which in recent years has congealed to nearly immobilize our political system and demoralize people.”

And run she did. Battling virulent racism, injurious sexism (in the White, Black, and Hispanic communities), and operating with very little money, Shirley Chisholm, nevertheless, appeared on 12 primary ballots and garnered 152 delegate votes (or 10% of the total) at the Democratic National Convention. As if emphasizing the point that we need statesmen and women like her today, SHE ran for president speaking out on gun control, police brutality, poverty, income inequality, and what we now call the prison industrial complex — the system that has unfairly decimated many areas of the black community. Manifesting an unshakeable belief in justice and equality, fueled by electrifying fearlessness, by the time she finished, everybody knew “Fighting Shirley Chisholm.” A 1974 American Gallop Poll found that she was tied with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India as the 6th most admired woman in the world [emphasis added].

Shirley Chisholm left congress in 1983, formed the National Political Congress of Black Women and taught in South Hadley, Massachusetts at Mt. Holyoke College, one of the prestigious Seven Sisters Colleges. She also campaigned for her political heir, Jesse Jackson, when he ran for president in 1984 and 1988. She declined President Bill Clinton’s nomination for U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica, but continued to write and lecture until, having fought the good fight, she died on January 1, 2005.

“Fighting Shirley Chisholm”

Shirley Chisholm said she wanted to be remembered not as the first Black congresswoman or the first woman to run for president, but as a woman who “dared to be myself.” She said when people remembered her she wanted them “…to say Shirley Chisholm had guts.” In 2015, as he, posthumously, awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, President Obama said, “…I’m proud to say it — Shirley Chisholm had guts.”

So, let us meditate on having the guts to be our authentic selves, for that is when we win. When we allow people to falsify our consciousness, setting us off on a chase for something that we may not even want, we lose. When we don’t have the courage to use our gifts, it causes an erosion of our spirit and it diminishes our power. So, fight “the good fight” to use your gifts and talents, even if you have to fight yourself! That’s just a part of the healing. Shirley certainly summonsed up the strength to fight and do what others said she couldn’t do, and we are all the better for it! Just ask her other political heir — the President.

“I will fight until I can’t fight anymore. I don’t mind the challenge.”

Shirley Chisholm

**In a famous speech, the great abolitionist and suffragette, Sojourner Truth is reported to have said,  “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.”

Updated:  March 3, 2016

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