Chisholm’s career as a politician and Congresswoman at a time when Black Americans were still getting used to the Civil Rights freedoms guaranteed to them in 1964. Shirley Chisholm was the first Black women elected to Congress in 1968. In 1972, she was the first Black woman to run for President, and the first woman to run as a Democrat.
Shirley Chisholm is known as a vocal supporter of her voters in her Brooklyn, NY district. She served in the New York State Assembly before being elected to Congress, and she consistently fought for her constituents. A biography writer notes, “In arguing for women’s rights, Chisholm forced the State Assembly and Congress to contend with sexual discrimination in ways that they had hitherto not done” (Gallagher). Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm was born in Brooklyn, New York, in November 1924, to Caribbean parents. When she was only four, she went to live with her grandparents in Barbados, and did not return to Brooklyn for six years. Another author notes, “She retained her West Indian British accent for the rest of her life.” (“Shirley Anita St. Hill”). She developed a strong, moral character that followed her throughout her life. She was extremely vocal about things she felt were wrong in the government, and she believed in speaking out to try to change the system. She began her political career in college, as well. Biographer Gallagher continues, “As a member of the Harriet Tubman Society, she and the others fought for a course on ‘Negro history’ on campus and participated in campaigns demanding an end to poll taxes for voting” (Gallagher). She later sad that she “became angry” in college because of the blatant racial discrimination, another trait that would follow her throughout her career and help form her character that craved change (Gallagher).
In 1953, she joined with the publisher of a Black Brooklyn newspaper to get a black judge elected in Brooklyn, and they succeeded. Gallagher notes, “Holder and Chisholm transformed the Flagg election committee into the Bedford Stuyvesant Political League (BSPL)” (Gallagher). In her early career, she was a teacher, and she earned a masters degree in education. Her first run for State Assembly came in 1964, when she ran for a seat vacated by Tom Jones, who moved on to be a judge. She won, and her character developed into one that would fight stalwartly for her constituents and for change against racism and prejudice. Chisholm served in Congress from 1969 through 1982, when she retired. It was not easy for her to initially be elected; she had to fight hard for her seat, and faced opposition, especially from Black men, who did not want a woman to run their district.
Chisholm was always involved in her community and fought for the poor, women, and all people of color. She was dedicated to change, and she was not afraid to stand up to those who were more powerful. She felt she was “born to lead,” (Gallagher), and so, she molded herself into a leader and a powerful voice for change.
She faced similar roadblocks when she was elected to Congress. Another writer notes, “To her fury, Wilbur Mills, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, assigned Chisholm to the House Agriculture Committee despite the fact that she represented a Brooklyn district that is almost entirely paved in concrete” (“Shirley Anita St. Hill”). In 1972, she made more history in an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic Presidency nomination. After she retired from the Congress in 1982, she resumed teaching, and taught politics and women’s studies at colleges in the New York area. She campaigned for Presidential candidate Jesse Jackson when he ran in 1984 and again in 1988. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993, and she passed away in 2005.
Barbara Jordan was another influential African-American Congresswoman. She was the first African-American women elected in Congress from a former Confederate state, and she served as a member of the House Judiciary Committee in the Watergate hearings. Jordan was born in Houston, Texas in 1936 to a poor family. The family was extremely religious, and Jordan attended a local church and even sang gospel there. It was early when she discovered that she had a gift for oratory. Three writers state, “So, while still in high school, young Barbara Jordan found that her voice and sense of independence could serve her well. As a sophomore she be- came particularly involved in such organizations as the debate club and the honor society” (Hendrickson, Collins, & Cox, 2004, p. 176). She experienced prejudice early on in her life, and it helped build her belief that black people could make it in a white world, but that integration was extremely necessary. She attended Boston University Law School, and passed the bar in 1959. She returned to Houston to practice law, but turned to politics when her law practice stalled. She volunteered for the Kennedy campaign in 1960, and soon became well-known in Houston political circles.
She ran for the state legislature twice unsuccessfully, but she did not give up, and dedicated her entire life to politics and her constituents. She ran again in 1966, and “Her concerns were those of the people-industrial safety, welfare programs, insurance rates, vocational education, low wages, and voter registration” (Hendrickson, Collins, & Cox, 2004, p. 181). When she won the race, she was the first black woman to serve in the Texas legislature. Her character came out in the legislature, where she tried to fit into the system and get along with the “good old boys” in order to accomplish her goals. She tried to be flexible and approachable from the start, so the other lawmakers would accept her as one of them. Jordan later remembered: ‘”I just wanted them to be comfortable and not to keep saying: ‘Excuse me,’ ‘Pardon me.’ Final acceptance was assured when she became the first woman invited on Senator Charles Wilson’s (D-Lufkin) yearly quail hunt” (Hendrickson, Collins, & Cox, 2004, p. 182). Because she was such a good orator, she made use of those skills and spoke out in public often, so she became even more well-known, and was appointed to several important committees in the legislature. Her character supported the “little” people, the poor and underprivileged, and she fought hard for bills to support them in areas like families with dependent children, voting laws, and other areas where the government did not support the poor. She also attempted to be fair to all, and she was never radical or angry, but rather worked hard to accomplish her goals while she represented every one of her constituents. Her peers respected her and her voice, and even praised her in the legislature. “The legislative body also passed a resolution ‘praising her … conduct as a freshman senator, her speaking ability and her concern for others'” (Hendrickson, Collins, & Cox, 2004, p. 183). This indicates how she gained respect from her peers, but also shows that her character was unquestionable and of the highest regard. She also spoke her mind, and would not hesitate to criticize those she did not respect, like Texas Governor John Connelly, who she once called a “son of a bitch” (Hendrickson, Collins, & Cox, 2004, p. 183). She served in the legislature for several terms, and fought for higher wages, workmen’s compensation, and other benefits for Texas workers. To show their continued respect, lawmakers made her “Governor for a Day” in 1972, and she was the first black woman to ever hold the honor.
She respected President Johnson for his stand on race relations, and she gained his support as she continued to succeed in the Texas legislature, and then was elected to Congress in 1972 (some said she was greatly helped by the Voting Rights Act) (Clark). “In order to ‘work comfortably’ and as an equal with the men, she became the first woman to attend the Texas Democratic delegation luncheon, which traditionally met each Wednesday” (Hendrickson, Collins, & Cox, 2004, p. 187). She understood she had to work with her colleagues, and she put this to good advantage. She was a staunch supporter of the Constitution, and she once said, ‘My faith in the Constitution is whole. It is complete. It is total,’ she declared in clear, mellifluous tones. And others agreed. With this oration, hastily completed but confidently delivered, the young congresswoman earned the respect of a nation” (Hendrickson, Collins, & Cox, 2004, p. 174). She became a leading member of the House of Representatives, but never gave up her core belief in serving the people effectively. She passed away in 1996.
Clarke, M. (2005). Race, partisanship, and the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Texas Journal on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights, 10(2), 223+.
Gallagher, Julie. “Waging ‘The Good Fight’: The Political Career of Shirley Chisholm, 1953-1982.” The Journal of African-American History 92.3 (2007): 392+.
Hendrickson, K.E., Collins, M., & Cox, P. (Eds.). (2004). Profiles in power: Twentieth-Century Texans in Washington (New ed.). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
“Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm 1924-2005.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education Jan. 2005: 45+.
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