After being elected into the U.S. House of Representatives in 1968, Shirley Chisholm, the outspoken congresswoman from New York's Bedford-Stuyvesant area, drew stares of disbelief when she announced in 1972 that she was running for President of the United States. Her campaign was notable not for victory—which was hardly likely in a country that had, in the most recent election, accorded segregationist George Wallace a significant chunk of its electoral votes—but for Chisolm's emergence as a national political figure.
Chisholm won 152 delegates at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, placing well behind Hubert Humphrey and the eventual nominee, George McGovern.
Her unflinching style and uncompromising remarks on integration, drug abuse, social justice, and the war in Vietnam won attention, headlines, and (perhaps most important) mainstream acceptance for a new kind of American politician—brash, honest, and unafraid to bring up issues previously considered too extreme for prime time. Later media-savvy African-American social and political figures owe this trailblazer a significant debt. Chisholm also founded the National Women's Political Caucus.
Her never-boring career in Congress, which lasted from 1969 to 1983, was marked by support for a range of women's-rights issues and enthusiastic advocacy for full-employment and education initiatives.
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Chisholm's 1970 address in support of the Equal Rights Amendment was named as one of the top 100 American speeches of the twentieth century by a group of 137 scholars polled by the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Texas A & M University. The speech is accessible on the Internet via the Women's Internet Information Network at www.undelete.org/library/library0102.html.
Chisholm put a spotlight on the special challenges facing African-American women when she observed, famously, that “Of my two `handicaps,' being female put more obstacles in my path than being black.”
As a member of the House Select Committee on Crime, Chisholm challenged easy assumptions about drug abuse with words that are as worthy of note today as they were in the late 1960s. “It is not heroin or cocaine,” she noted, “that makes one an addict; it is the need to escape from a harsh reality. There are more television addicts, more baseball and football addicts, more movie addicts, and certainly more alcohol addicts in this country than there are narcotics addicts.”
And in a deft analysis of her own career, Chisholm noted that “[t]here is little place in the political scheme of things for an independent, creative personality, for a fighter. Anyone who takes that role must pay a price.”
To Learn More About Shirley Chisholm …
Visit search.eb.com/blackhistory/micro/721/78.html for an informative overview of her life and career, courtesy of the Encyclopedia Britannica Guide to Black History.