The first black woman ever elected to Congress, Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005) was an outspoken politician who shattered barriers and stood up for the disadvantaged. Chisholm ran for President in 1972, becoming the first African American and only the second woman to seek the nomination of a major political party. She later wrote of her unsuccessful bid, “I ran because somebody had to do it first. The next time a woman runs, or a black, or a Jew or anyone from a group that the country is ‘not ready’ to elect to its highest office, I believe that he or she will be taken seriously from the start.”
Chisholm first ran for Congress in 1968, campaigning in her Brooklyn neighborhood with a sound truck that announced, “Ladies and gentlemen…this is fighting Shirley Chisholm coming through.” A maverick who was not beholden to the traditional Democratic party machinery, Chisholm’s campaign motto was “Unbought and Unbossed.” She won the election and entered Congress in 1969.
Chisholm scored another historic first in 1972 when she declared her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for President. She received more than 150 delegate votes at the Democratic National Convention before George McGovern won the party’s nomination.
Chisholm served in Congress until January 1983. She continued to speak out for the rights of women, people of color, and the poor. She was also a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women’s Political Caucus. She died on January 1, 2005, having already spoken of her legacy. “I’d like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts,” she said. “That’s how I’d like to be remembered.”
In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman ever elected to Congress. Four years later, she would run for the Democratic presidential nomination, becoming the first major-party Black candidate for President of the United States.
Although her campaign was not a huge success, she said she ran for office “in spite of hopeless odds … to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.“ She was dismissed within the Democratic party as a symbolic participant, rather than a candidate that could be taken seriously, and her Black male colleagues offered little support amidst media reports that cast Chisholm as an emasculating matriarch. She insisted that, during her campaign, sexism led to more discrimination than her race.
This did not, however, stop her from making her mark on the world. Within her 14 years serving in the US House of Representatives, Chisholm made major strides to improve conditions for inner-city residents. She was a major advocate for peace - acting as a vocal opponent of the draft, speaking out against American involvement in the Vietnam War and advocating to reduce military spending in order to focus on education, health care and other social services.
After announcing her retirement in 1982, Chisholm returned to her original passion of education, teaching classes at Mount Holyoke and Spelman College. She toured the nation speaking at over 150 college campuses, all whilst maintaining a somewhat active role in the political world.
Chisholm’s legacy was captured in Shola Lynch’s 2004 documentary film Shirley Chisholm ‘72: Unbought and Unbossed. In January 2014, the US Postal Service released the Shirley Chisholm Forever Stamp, the 37th offering in the Black Heritage series of stamps.