Unbought and Unbossed: The Story of Shirley Chisholm.

“The Constitution they wrote was designed to protect the rights of white, male citizens. As there were no Black Founding Fathers, there were no founding mothers — a great pity, on both counts. It is not too late to complete the work they left undone. Today, here, we should start to do so”. These words were spoken by Rep. Shirley Chisholm, who was the first African American woman in Congress and the first woman and African American to seek the nomination for President of the United States from one of the two major political parties. Shirley Chisholm was undeterred, fearless, and spoke truth to power paving the way for Black women in politics. “The work they left undone is not too late to complete” rings true in this year’s elections, as Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris will become the first Black and Indian-American woman to be Vice President of the United States of America.

Shirley Chisholm was born in Brooklyn, New York on November 30, 1924. Her father Charles Hill was a factory worker from Guyana, and her mother Ruby Hill was a seamstress from Barbados. Chisholm attended Brooklyn Girls High and went on to graduate Cum Laude from Brooklyn College in 1946. While she was in college, Chisholm won several prizes during her time on the debate team. It is said that professors would advise Chisholm on possibly pursuing a career in politics. At that time, however, Chisholm did not see politics as a possible career and is quoted as saying she faced a “double handicap” for being both Black and a woman.

Chisholm started her career as an educator working as a nursery school teacher. In 1949, Chisholm got married to Conrad Chisholm. She then earned her master’s degree in early child education from Columbia University in 1951. Chisholm was active in the fight against gender and racial inequality and was part of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter, the league of women voters, and the democratic party in Brooklyn. In 1964, Chisholm became the second African American in the New York State legislature, and in 1968 became the first African American in Congress.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

During her time in Congress, Chisholm found that her experience and ideas were constantly questioned. Chisholm was famously quoted as saying, “[i]f they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair”. Upon being elected, Chisholm was assigned to the Agriculture Committee to which she objected, requesting to be put on the Educational Committee. Despite the obstacles facing her, Chisholm was outspoken and passionately advocated for guaranteed minimum annual income for families, an extension of hours at day-care facilities, and national school lunches. Chisholm was also a strong opponent of the Vietnam war.

Chisholm then made her historic bid for the Democratic nomination for Presidency on January 25, 1972. In her speech, she said “I am not the candidate for Black America, although I am Black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and I’m 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 other kind of prop. I do not intend to offer you the tired and glib clichés that have long been an accepted part of our political life. I am the candidate of the people of America.”

Chisholm’s campaign stood out for her brilliant speeches that were unabashed, and advocated for racial and gender equality. Her campaign faced a lot of obstacles, she was blocked from taking part in televised debates, and only after legal action was she allowed to make one speech. Chisholm lost her bid, but her campaign remains legendary. “I’m not running to win, but I’m paving the way so Blacks can run and perhaps can win the office someday,” she historically said.

Chisholm retired from Congress in 1983 and went on to co-found the National Political Congress of Black women. In 1991, Chisholm moved to Florida. President Bill Clinton nominated Chisholm to be the ambassador to Jamaica in 1993, but Chisholm withdrew citing ill health.

Chisholm passed away on January 1, 2005, leaving behind a blazing legacy. “I want to be remembered as a catalyst of change in America”


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