Clarence Page had a wonderful write-up on this woman, which my local paper
A rebel even among her allies
Posted January 6, 2005
WASHINGTON -- A lot of us who remember her owe a debt to the late Shirley Chisholm. She taught us how to stick to principles, even when our friends think we're a pain in the neck.
As warm praise deservedly accompanies the condolences for Mrs. Chisholm, who died Saturday in Florida at age 80, I remember a time when the first black woman to be elected to Congress and the first to wage a major presidential campaign was not greeted as warmly as today's tributes sound.
Coming from some lips, the glowing praise for her "courage," her "individualism," her "tenacity" and her "relentless activism," sounds like a nice way of saying that she could be, well, a pain in the neck.
And she prided herself on making herself a pain in the neck, even to her allies, if they tried to make her sit on the sidelines and wait her turn like a nice little lady, as many tried to do. People called her crazy, but only at first. She had a habit of getting what she wanted or, at least, making the path easier for those who would come later. As Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., who knew her well, recalled, "For her to succeed, she had to be a little strange -- and certainly extraordinary."
Indeed, Harlem's black political club bosses like Adam Clayton Powell, Basil Patterson, Percy Sutton and Rangel didn't know what to make of this former day-care center director and educational consultant who got herself elected to the New York State Assembly from Brooklyn in 1964, without much help from Brooklyn's tough political machine.
She took her slogan, Unbought and Unbossed, the title of her 1970 autobiography, so seriously that her fellow Democrats were not always sure of what to do with her. When she fooled detractors by getting elected to Congress in 1968, the white Democratic bosses in Congress didn't seem to know what to do with her, either. Incredibly, the woman from Brooklyn was assigned to the House Agriculture Committee. When she protested, House Speaker John McCormack told her to "be a good soldier," she recalled later. Instead, she waged a parliamentary battle with the leadership and was switched to the Veterans Affairs Committee. Eventually, she was reassigned to the Education and Labor Committee that she wanted.
Seizing the times in which she lived, Chisholm built a national constituency of her own as an outspoken, iconic advocate for women, minorities, the poor and the antiwar movement.
She was elected to Congress in a time of urban riots, antiwar protests and President Lyndon B. Johnson's "war on poverty." It was the same year that Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. It was a year after Gary's Richard Hatcher and Cleveland's Carl Stokes were elected the first black mayors of major cities. It was also the same year that the National Organization for Women was founded.
Buoyed up by her national fame, Chisholm in 1972 launched the first large-scale presidential campaign by a black candidate in either major party. Once again displaying her eccentric independence, she did it without consulting her fellow members of the still-young Congressional Black Caucus.
By the time I would cover Chisholm as a young reporter in Chicago, she had simultaneously galvanized a national movement for herself but failed to win the endorsement of the 3,000 delegates to that year's historic National Black Political Convention in Gary, Ind. Many leading black Democrats supported Sen. George McGovern, who would go on to a record 49-state defeat by incumbent President Richard M. Nixon.
"Many black leaders opposed her campaign as a solo flight," recalls Rep. Major Owens, who succeeded Chisholm in 1982 without her endorsement.
Indeed, while major black and feminist leaders showed solidarity with her in public, I also heard muted complaints that Chisholm was not conferring, coordinating or building an organizational base from which others could operate after her largely symbolic campaign was done.
"The next time a woman runs," she wrote in her 1973 autobiography, The Good Fight, "or a black, a Jew or anyone from a group that the country is 'not ready' to elect to its highest office, I believe he or she will be taken seriously from the start. The door is not open yet, but it is ajar."
Indeed, when other women such as Geraldine Ferraro or Elizabeth Dole or blacks such as Jesse Jackson or Colin Powell are discussed as presidential hopefuls, the name of Shirley Chisholm inevitably appears, too. She didn't make it anywhere near the White House, but she helped to prepare the way for someone who will.
Clarence Page can be reached at email@example.com.