Girls and women of color around the country can look toward the White House today and see the nation’s first Black woman to hold the vice presidency, but Kamala Harris’ path was paved decades earlier by the Brooklyn daughter of Caribbean immigrants.
Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman elected to Congress in 1968.
“That you will never regret having worked to send your humble servant, Shirley Chisholm, to fight for you on the national level,” Chisholm said on the night she was elected. “Because I recognize how I came, and from whence I came.”
That was the night of Nov. 5, 1968. Four years later, she shook the world once more with her words.
“I stand before you as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States of America,” Chisolm said in front of a podium at Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood on Jan. 5, 1972.
Chisholm took aim straight at the Nixon White House.
“Leadership does not mean putting the ear to the ground to follow public opinion,” Chisholm intoned that night. “But to have vision of one’s necessary and the courage to make it happen.”
At the time, Chisholm’s courage attracted the ear of an 18-year-old. He was already known as the Boy Preacher in his neighborhood and in some other cities around the nation where he preached sermons. His name was Al Sharpton, and he quickly signed on as the youth coordinator for Chisholm’s campaign.
“What attracted me was it was unusual for a woman to be able to hold her own, even against misogynistic Black politicians in Brooklyn at the time,” Rev. Sharpton said from the office of his National Action Network in Harlem.
Sharpton remembers a campaign that was not well received, even by some fellow Black Americans. The discord hurt Chisholm deeply, Sharpton said.
“She would discuss it very openly saying ‘the nerve of them to talk to me like that. Women have to deal with racism and sexism, Alfred,” Sharpton recalled.
Alfred was what Chisholm called Sharpton at the time.
Some, such as filmmaker Shola Lynch, did not really become familiar with Chisholm’s legacy until college history courses.
“I had taken in the idea that as a Black person you could never be president, not in my lifetime. And as a woman, you could never be president, not in my lifetime,” Lynch said.
Lynch is now curator of the Schomburg Center’s Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division. She also won a Peabody Award for her 2005 documentary “Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed,” which chronicled Chisholm’s groundbreaking run.
“You know, when Walter Cronkite announced she was running for president, he smirked saying another bonnet was being thrown into the ring,” Lynch said. “To him it was a joke!”
Dr. Zinga Fraser is director of the Shirley Chisholm Project at Brooklyn College, Chisholm’s alma mater.
Fraser said that by understanding Chisholm, you understand what it takes to be a leader.
“Government isn’t just about those who are in leadership,” Fraser said. “But it’s really about ways in which that leadership meets the needs of the people.”
Rep. Yvette Clark now represents a portion of the Brooklyn district that sent Chisholm to Congress. She believes the fights Chisholm started on behalf of the people are still worth fighting today.
“She was working with the least of these,” Clarke said. “And her persona made them believe that she understood what they were living with and living through and that she would fight for them.”
In the last interview before her death, Chisholm said she wanted to be remembered as a woman who dared to be a catalyst for change in America.
Her favorite saying: “If they won’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
Chisholm died on New Years Day in 2005.
She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 posthumously by President Barack Obama.