When the first woman ever elected to the vice presidency prepared to take office in January of 2021, she observed, “Shirley Chisholm created a path for me and for so many others. Today, I’m thinking about her inspirational words: ‘I am, and always will be a catalyst for change.’”
“Catalyst for Change” was the slogan that appeared on the iconic blue-and-white campaign buttons that Chisholm supporters wore when the first Black woman to be elected to Congress mounted a groundbreaking presidential bid in 1972.
That uphill campaign was so visionary in its detail-oriented advocacy for racial justice, gender equity, and a reordering of budget priorities to slash Pentagon spending and fund social services that it was frequently dismissed as too radical. Yet, today, 50 years after Chisholm launched that campaign, activists and academics still marvel at the accomplishments of a candidate who made more history with one “unbought and unbossed” presidential bid than most politicians make in a lifetime.
If you answered Shirley Chisholm to all of these questions, you’d be correct.
By any honest historical measure, that’s an impressive list of firsts. Yet few of them earned more than marginal news coverage, if they were noted at all, in 1972.
For instance, when Chisholm announced her candidacy on January 25, 1972, The New York Times what immediately dismissive, declaring at the top of a short story that “even some of Mrs. Chisholm’s admirers conceded privately that she had at least two strikes—her sex and her race—against her.” the Times suggested that “the prime goal of the Congresswoman and her supporters…was to exert leverage on the choice of the eventual Democratic national ticket, the party platform and even future Cabinet posts.” And the reporting claimed, “A likely third strike against Mrs. Chisholm was that, as of now, she did not appear to have overwhelming support among women, blacks or youths, although she was obviously appealing to all three groups.”
When Chisholm won the New Jersey presidential preference primary on June 6, beating former South Carolina Governor Terry Sanford by a 2-1 margin, the Times only mentioned the result six paragraphs into a story of wrangling between Democratic organizations in Hudson and Essex counties over the assignment of delegates to front-runners George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey. McGovern and Humphrey had not competed in the nonbinding preference primary, and most newspaper and television reports did not give so much as a line to the fact that, for the first time in American history, a Black woman had won a statewide presidential vote.
Two months later, when Chisholm got more delegate votes than most of the men who had run against her for the nomination, the fact merited a few cursory lines buried deep in the main story by the Times of McGovern’s victory.
Read readers think I am picking on the Times, let me disabuse them of the notion. the Times was Chisholm’s hometown paper. She had represented Brooklyn since 1968 and was an influential voice in municipal and state politics. As such, the paper gave her a good deal more coverage than most media outlets, which often ignored her bid altogether.
Throughout the 1972 race, Chisholm had to fight for media attention, as she lacked the resources required to wage a robust radio and television advertising campaign of the sort that even then had become standard for presidential contenders. Her campaign treasury contained just $44,000 when she launched her bid, and never equaled that of her more prominent and politically connected rivals. Chisholm had to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission in order to win a place in a televised debate featuring McGovern and Humphrey. Yet she persevered. Even in states such as Wisconsin, where she wasn’t able to campaign, she ran ahead of many contenders in the crowded field, and she would eventually win more than 430,000 votes in a dozen primaries.
“I’m a revolutionary at heart now and I’ve got to run, even though it might be the downfall of my career,” the candidate said.
That willingness to risk it all made Chisholm a groundbreaking figure in American politics. She pushed boundaries to such an extent that the platform she outlined is still ahead to where many leaders of the Democratic Party are today. Rejecting special-interest money and declaring that, “I will raise the issues that others avoid,” Chisholm advocated for abortion rights before the Roe v. calf decision, championed full legalization of marijuana, defended immigrant rights, championed a social welfare state, and decried “the cancerous growth of a Defense Department budget that now consumes two-thirds of our Federal income.”
Chisholm knew she was upsetting the status quo. She asked her party and her country to imagine a new politics that rejected corporate influence on elections and instead constructed multiracial urban and rural coalitions. “We must,” she declared, “refuse to accept the old, the traditional roles and stereotypes.”
That kind of talk—along with her embrace of an endorsement from the Black Panthers—scared party elders and media commentators, including liberals who fretted that Chisholm would draw votes away from better-known anti-war candidates, such as McGovern and New York City Mayor John Lindsay. They were not ready for a candidate who promised to “reshape our society,” and they afforded her few opportunities to prove herself.
“There is little place in the political scheme of things for an independent, creative personality, for a fighter,” observed Chisholm, who died in 2005 at age 80. “Anyone who takes that role must pay a price.”
Chisholm did pay a price. “She was this one Black woman dealing with this entire power structure, and it was never easy,” recalled Representative Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who served as a campaign aide and delegate for Chisholm in 1972. But, Lee said, the candidate never backed down because she had a sense of history.
Chisholm knew she was creating the basis for a different and more inclusive politics. “She said ‘I hope I’ve opened the door for people who look like me to see they can do it too.’ She paved the way for Jesse Jackson, and then for Barack Obama,” recalled Lee in a recent tribute to Chisholm’s 1972 campaign. “It was because of Shirley Chisholm, I am, and because of Shirley Chisholm, Kamala Harris is.”
Harris always embraced that assessment, saying, “We stood on the shoulders of Shirley Chisholm and Shirley Chisholm stood proud.” And she is not alone. Representative Ilhan Omar, the Minnesota Democrat who keeps a portrait of Chisholm in his office, has said that “Shirley Chisholm—the first Black woman in Congress, and the first woman and African American of a major party to run for president—is the reason…why Black women, who were told to wait our turn, have a voice in Congress now .”
Barbara Lee proposes that those who value Chisholm’s legacy join her during the course of this 50th anniversary year in hosting events “along the Chisholm Trail—locations across the country that were integral to Congresswoman Chisholm’s life and legacy.” That’s a superb idea. And the celebrations really can take place everywhere, as Shirley Chisholm changed the course of American history in 1972—and continues to do so today.