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Comparing Shirley Chisholm and W.E.B. Du Bois: Changing America


In this essay, we will analyze the politics of W.E.B. Du Bois, and how they influenced that of Shirley Chisholm. Du Bois was an American writer and sociologist who was indispensable to the civil rights movement, co-founding both the NAACP and the Niagara Movement. Chisholm, who first took office 5 years after Du Bois’s death, was the first black woman elected to Congress, as well as both the first black person and first woman to become the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate. The two were both incredibly influential to 20th century American politics. 

Chisholm and Du Bois were very similar in their politics and opinions. The two were both staunchly anti-war, with Du Bois arguing against the US entering World War II and for nuclear disarmament, and later Chisholm opposing the draft and the Vietnam War. The two also advocated for women’s rights. Du Bois, during his time as editor of The Crisis, published many articles encouraging his readers to vote yes on women’s suffrage. Chisholm notably only hired women for her office, citing the misogyny holding women in politics from rising the ranks. She also once remarked that “Tremendous amounts of talent are lost to our society just because that talent happens to wear a skirt”. Most importantly, they were both viewed as threats to the American institution by the FBI. Chisholm had a racist smear campaign ran against her by Nixon’s FBI painting her as angry and sexually deviant. Du Bois was spied upon heavily throughout most of his career, with the declassified files in the FBI archives totaling around 500 pages worth of information. 

Du Bois never held political office, with most of his fame coming from his writing and citizen organizations. However, he deposited argued that having black representation in

politics was an indispensable part of integration. Chisholm was a politician, a congresswoman for seven terms before retiring. What most notably sets them apart, however, is their views on capitalism. Chisholm believed that the system could be fixed through social reform, advocating for a higher minimum wage, more funds allocated to childcare, and free meal programs for low income families. Du Bois argued that capitalism is a primary cause of racism, and was decidedly socialist for most of his life, later radicalizing and joining the Communist Party. This would lead to a McCarthyist trial that he would refuse to participate in, choosing to spend the rest of his life in Ghana instead. In summary, Du Bois was significantly more vocal about the failures of this country, once saying that “A system cannot fail those who it was never meant to protect”. It is worth noting, however, that he never had to worry about it affecting his chances at reelection or support within the Democratic Party. Chisholm was more moderate left in comparison, with her views similar to that of Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

In conclusion, the two shared many common interests, and were both indispensable to the movement for black representation in politics. What I believe is important to remember is that while Du Bois was significantly further left than Chisholm, the two’s very existences were both deemed to be a threat to the status quo, and were harassed by both citizens and government their entire careers. This shows how any change to the white-dominated establishment, no matter how gradual or long overdue, will be met with animosity.