Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir wasn’t the only one who missed any acknowledgment of the 40th anniversary of Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s historic 1972 run for the president of the United States of America as a Democrat, making her both the first African-American and woman to do so, at this year’s Democratic National Convention. It is not at all a stretch to say that President Obama owes a debt to Chisholm’s historic campaign. Although Chisholm came nowhere near winning her party’s nomination, her run helped change the ways Democrats select their candidates, including how delegates were divvied up, which directly aided Obama in his historic victory over Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008.
Before Chisholm, California had a winner-takes-all policy for awarding its delegates after a primary win. So under the old rules, Clinton, who won the 2008 California primary, would have received all of those delegates instead of a portion of them, thus making it even harder for Obama to ultimately win the Democratic nomination for president.
On top of that, had it not been for Chisholm paving the way as the first black person and first woman to run for the nomination, it is conceivable that neither Clinton nor Obama would have been taken seriously anyway.
Yet it’s become disturbingly common to omit Chisholm from political history. On August 26, 2012, CBS Sunday Morning, in its commemoration of the passage of the 19th Amendment permitting women, well, largely white women, to vote in this country 92 years ago on that date, didn’t even mention Chisholm, even though it singled out Geraldine Ferraro, Sarah Palin and Clinton.
In its entire package, no woman of color was even highlighted or referenced. Never mind that Chisholm’s decision to run for president was national news that Walter Cronkite himself reported. Therefore her achievement, which includes being the first black woman elected to the House of Representatives and a co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, is nobody’s forgotten footnote. She was even included in a nationally televised presidential debate.
Filmmaker Shola Lynch won a Peabody for her excellent 2005 documentary Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed. Part of the title was borrowed from Chisholm’s 1970 book Unbought and Unbossed about her previous history-altering achievement of becoming this nation’s first elected black congresswoman. Her trajectory in itself speaks to what this year’s Democratic National Convention was all about. In compelling speeches from first lady Michelle Obama, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, Missouri Congressman Emanuel Cleaver and many others, echoes of Shirley Chisholm could clearly be heard.
Born Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm on November 30, 1924 in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn to a mother who was a seamstress/domestic worker and a father who was a factory worker, Chisholm was raised in Barbados by her grandmother until 1934, so she was familiar both with humble beginnings and the immigrant experience. Prior to seeking office, she was a nursery school teacher who became an expert in early childhood education and child welfare. She won her first elected position to the New York State Legislature in 1964 and, four years later, became the first black woman elected to Congress, defeating Civil Rights leader James Farmer in the process.
“Most black politicians are no different from white ones,” she wrote in Unbought and Unbossed. “They’re not their own bosses either. If they don’t function within the framework, they’re punished and, if possible, eliminated.”