Shirley Chisholm was the first black woman elected to Congress. She was also the first woman to seek nomination for the U.S. presidency. When she died Jan. 1 at the age of 80, she was well known for her trademark independent and unpredictable character.
Ms. Chisholm was elected to the New York State Assembly, becoming the first black woman from Brooklyn to be elected to the legislature. In a speech to the assembly, she spoke out against her county leader Stanley Steingut who was fighting for speakership of the assembly. Not only did she establish her independent character against one of the most powerful machines (Steingut’s Brooklyn organization) in the country, but she made enemies.
She gained her major support from the people in her district. First, she represented the 12th Congressional District, which took in the predominant black and Puerto Rican population area of Bedford-Stuyvesant. She spoke Spanish which helped her to communicate with the sizable Puerto Rican population in her area. Second, she was there for her constituents. She attended meetings, parades, social gatherings, churches, and other affairs held in her district.
She was recognized throughout the district and met with friendly “Hello, Congresswoman Chisholm,” and “I know you, you’re Shirley Chisholm” when she walked the neighborhoods. She said back in 1964 when she took office, “I have lived here nearly all my life.” Some of the voters knew me when I was a child. That’s why they trust me. I know their problems.”
Her record in the assembly was good. She passed a state bill for qualified black and Puerto Rican students to enter city colleges without a high school diploma. Also she helped introduce and pass legislation which was supported by the government to aid daycare centers. And she started unemployment insurance for domestic workers.
Though she was unpredictable, no one would have guessed that she would run for Congress. And she didn’t either. But a woman asked her to run, who lived in the projects, where Shirley had strong support. The woman gave Shirley $9.62 in change and promised that she and her friends would have fundraisers every weekend to finance her campaign. Fellow Democrats were astonished when Shirley Chisholm defeated former CORE National Chairman James Farmer by a 3-1 margin?”without the help of the Brooklyn Democratic machine.
A year before she went to Congress, the nation’s black communities were stressing black pride, black dignity, and self-determination. Shirley Chisholm had all these qualities. She took them with her to Congress in 1969 where she gave a good fight. When she was assigned the House Agriculture Committee, she protested. She desired the Education and Labor committees because she was a former educator and felt that she would bring a lot of experience to the assignment. She later won assignment to the Education and Labor committees because she voted for a white man, Hale Hoggs, over John Conyers, who is black, for majority leader.
Her last political run was for president of the U.S. She didn’t win the nomination, but she made it easier for those who would follow.