In 1969, Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to the US Congress. Growing up, she was always somewhat immersed in the world of politics through her father, who supported the rights of trade union members. She attended Brooklyn College, where she first stepped into the world of politics as a member of the Harriet Tubman Society, advocating for women’s inclusivity and involvement in student government. After graduating, she found work as a teacher’s assistant in Harlem.
Over time, she had joined several organizations fighting for civil rights and equity. She served as the second Black member of the New York State Assembly for three years and was elected as the first Black woman to the House of Representatives in 1969. Since then, she has remained a powerful and influential figure to many women of color in politics and has been honored as such.
As a Black woman in politics, Chisholm faced many challenges throughout her career. During her time spent in various organizations, she heavily advocated for the inclusivity of women in terms of decision making. This often led to conflict with the other organization members and staff. In 1958, she ran for the presidency of the Belford-Stuyvesant Political League (BSPL) against her political mentor, Wesley McD. Holder. Although she ended up losing, this experience gave her the motivation to run for a State Assembly seat. Despite the odds, she won the election in 1964, during which time her agenda was composed of issues often not prioritized by her fellow chairmen. She sponsored eight passing bills in support of education, disadvantaged youth, women, and the poor. She served until 1968.
After serving for four years in the New York State Assembly, Chisholm gained the confidence and experience she needed in order to run for US Congress. She ran against all-male opponents, including James Farmer, a well-funded, anti-feminist Republican. Although odds were against her, she was determined to help those in her community and set an example for women of color.
She took her campaign to the streets, riding on the back of a truck with a loudspeaker. She made frequent stops speaking to the community of New York’s 12th congressional district. She delivered emotive speeches in both English and Spanish, often beginning with her now-infamous line, “This is Fighting Shirley Chisholm.” This caused her to become known as “Fighting Shirley,” and made her a more powerful figure, despite her race. On November 5, 1968, she was elected as the first Black woman to US Congress, and it was celebrated as a historic win for women of color everywhere.
By the end of her first term she was known to be outspoken and passionate about each cause she fought for. She refused to be treated as a damsel in distress or helpless minority. In 1972, she became the first Black major-party candidate to run for president. Although this seemed risky, she said in a press interview, “I ran for the presidency, despite hopeless odds, to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo … to give a voice to the people the major candidates were ignoring.”
Despite losing the election, her career was far from over. She went on to serve as a member of US Congress for seven terms, and continued fighting for women’s rights and racial equity.
Since her historical career, Chisholm has remained highly influential and has stood as a symbol of Black excellence. In 2015 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. He stated during the ceremony, “There are people in our country’s history who don’t look left or right — they just look straight ahead. Shirley Chisholm was one of those people.”
She was also honored by the first-ever female, Black, and Asian American Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris, who chose red and yellow for her campaign colors. Harris also wore purple during her swearing-in ceremony, a color commonly worn by Chisholm during her presidential campaign.
While there is no question of the importance of learning about Black history in school, it is important to recognize that Black history is much more than just slavery. There are so many powerful figures just like Shirley Chisholm, who defied the odds in spite of discrimination and changed the course of history. She should be remembered as the beautiful example of Black excellence that she was. Whether it’s Black History Month or not, we must educate ourselves on people like Chisholm in order to obtain a better understanding of US history.