Bloodless revolution: The legacy of Shirley Chisholm

vor 4 years

She was the first African American female candidate running for the Presidency of the United States in 1972 and the first African American woman to be a member of the United States Congress: Fräulein pays homage to Shirley Chisholm.


“Granny gave me strength, dignity, and love. I learned from an early age that I was somebody. I didn’t need the black revolution to tell me that.” With these words, the iconic politician, powerful educator and revolutionary author Shirley Chisholm looks back on her life in her autobiography Unbought and Unbossed from 1970. Shirley Anita St. Hill was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1924 to immigrant parents from the Caribbean. Until today, her stunning career and remarkable life is a huge inspiration. This April, Emmy Award-winning actress Uzo Aduba starred as Shirley Chisholm in a Hulu-miniseries called Mrs. America. Fräulein looks back on the impactful legacy and challenging life of Shirley Chisholm. Here is what you should know.

International roots and upbringing

Shirley Chisholm’s mother was a domestic worker who immigrated to the U.S. from Barbados. Her father, a factory worker, was originally from Guyana. Chisholm was born in New York but left the city in 1928 together with her sister to live in Barbados with her grandmother. Her parents stayed in New York, motivated to work their way through the Great Depression. In Barbados, she received a British education and kept the accent she picked up during those early years throughout the rest of her life. At age 9, she returned to the United States. While growing up, she was always surrounded by politics, especially as her father was a supporter of the Jamaican political activist, publisher and journalist Marcus Garvey and a supporter of the rights of the trade unions.

An impactful educator

Chisholm was a renowned and prize-winning debater in college. At Columbia University in 1952, she earned her MA in early childhood education and started teaching at a nursery school already during her studies. As a member of a.o. the Harriet Tubman Society, she stood up for inclusion and the involvement of more women in the student government. By 1953, she was the director of two day care centers and by 1959 her expertise helped her become an educational consultant for New York City’s Division of Day Care. Later on, she became an important authority on issues in early education and child welfare.

Local politics

Chisholm worked as a volunteer for white-dominated political clubs in Brooklyn. Her aim was to impact and change the structure of the organizations so she could also get more people of color involved in the 17th District Club and hence local politics. From 1965-1968 she was a Democratic member of the New York State Assembly. Already in her first year, she was honored in a „Salute to Women Doers“ affair in New York.

“This is fighting Shirley Chisholm coming through”

With this slogan, Chisholm drove through the neighborhoods of Brooklyn, after the area received a new congressional district. She defeated among three other candidates the popular civil rights activist James Farmer in the general election and hence became the first African-American woman elected to Congress. With her bold and outspoken character, she kept her promise: “Just wait, there may be some fireworks.”  With huge engagement, she stood up against the Vietnam War and clearly affirmed that she would vote against any military spending. In 1971 she moved to the Education and Labor Committee. For her team, she hired women only, half of them were African-American women. Later on, Chisholm stated that she had faced much more discrimination during her New York legislative career because she was a woman than because of her race. The same year, Shirley Chisholm also became a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women’s Political Caucus. The fight for the best legislative change and the support of the global black community became fundamental. Throughout her career, Chisholm succeeded in achieving unemployment benefits extended to domestic workers and was a sponsor of the introduction of the SEEK program (Search for Education, Elevation, Knowledge) in the United States. This program supported disadvantaged students to enter college, receiving remedial education.

Her presidential campaign was revolutionary

In 1972, in a Baptist Church, Chisholm announced her presidential candidacy, calling for a “Bloodless revolution”. Behind her nomination, there was her strong will to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.” She became both the first woman ever to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination as well as the first female black candidate for the Presidency of the United States. In her statement, Chisholm suggested a new articulation of American identity:

“I am not the candidate of 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 equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people and my presence before you symbolizes a new era in American political history.”

During the campaign, German filmmaker Peter Lilienthal shot the documentary film Shirley Chisholm for President for German Television channel ZDF. Unfortunately, Chisholm was ignored by much of the Democratic political establishment and also received little support from her black male colleagues:

“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. (…)They think I am trying to take power from them. The black man must step forward, but that doesn’t mean the black woman must step back. (…) This ‚woman thing’ is so deep. I’ve found it out in this campaign if I never knew if before.“

Another big concern was her security as, during her campaign, three confirmed threats were made against her life. Also, Chisholm had to sue networks to be included in televised debates. Overall, she won 152 delegate votes during her presidential run which was an impressive result for a campaign that was also underfunded. Her biggest support came from women and minorities. It was not only them who were shocked when Chisholm visited Geroge Wallace in the hospital after the assassination attempt had been made on him. Wallace was governor of Alabama and known for his racist and segregationist views. Chisholm’s vision however was bigger. She stated that she never wanted what happened to him to happen to anybody else and expressed her concern and sympathy.

Chisholm remained an impactful educator

Shirley Chisholm retired from Congress in 1982 but continued to be politically involved, to teach, and to travel the world. Not only did she give speeches at colleges and engaged students to avoid polarization and intolerance:

“If you don’t accept others who are different, it means nothing that you’ve learned calculus.”

She also traveled to meet different minority groups to motivate them to become a strong local force. Between 1984 and 1988 she campaigned for Jesse Jackson’s presidential elections. In 1990, she formed the reproductive rights organization, African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom, along with 15 other black women and men.

In February 2005, Shirley Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed, a documentary film, was published in the U.S public television, directed and produced by independent African-American filmmaker Shola Lynch. The film was also featured at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004. In 2014, the first adult biography of Chisholm was published, Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change, written by Brooklyn College history professor Barbara Winslow, who was also the founder and first director of the Shirley Chisholm Project. Chisholm’s speech “For the Equal Rights Amendment“ from 1970 is listed as No. 91 in American Rhetoric’s Top 100 Speeches of the 20th Century.

In 2005, Chisholm died at 80 years in Florida. The work and legacy of Shirley Chisholm are fundamental, not only for American history. Chisholm is also an example and idol for all women, no matter their skin color or roots. Even the way she wanted to be remembered is truly inspirational:

“I want history to remember me … not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be herself. I want to be remembered as a catalyst for change in America.”


Text: Sina Braetz

Images: Library of Congress: New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection



Verwandte Artikel