By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
Shirley Anita St. Hill was born in Brooklyn, New York on November 30, 1924 to immigrant parents – a Guyanese father and Barbadian mother. She spent her formative years from three to 10 living in Barbados with her maternal grandmother while her parents worked in New York City without having to worry about childcare. She would eventually become an Early Childhood Educator before entering politics where she would become known as Shirley Chisholm.
In her autobiography “Unbought and Unbossed” published in 1970 she wrote: “Years later I would know what an important gift my parents had given me by seeing to it that I had my early education in the strict, traditional, British-style schools of Barbados. If I speak and write easily now, that early education is the main reason.”
She attended Vauxhall Primary School in Christ Church, Barbados while she lived with her grandmother. In New York City she attended Girls’ High School and later Brooklyn College where she earned her BA in 1946. She continued her education at Columbia University where she earned her MA in elementary education in 1952. She was director of the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center in New York City from 1953 to 1959 and educational consultant for the Division of Day Care from 1959 to 1964.
While she was pursuing higher education she was involved in politics as a young adult. She worked for the Assembly District Democratic Club and the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League during the 1940s and 50s. In 1964 she began her political career when she was elected to the New York State Legislature. In 1968, she ran as the Democratic candidate for New York’s 12th District congressional seat and was elected to the House of Representatives defeating Republican candidate James Farmer.
On November 5, 1968 Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm became the first African-American woman elected to the United States House of Representatives. She served seven terms (re-elected six times) until 1982 when she retired. In 1971 she was one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
As the first African-American woman elected to the United States House of Representatives Chisholm experienced sexism and racism. During a speech at the Conference on Women’s Employment Hearings before the Special Subcommittee on Education of the Committee of Education and Labour, House of Representatives, 91st Congress, 2nd session Chisholm is recorded as saying: “I am, as it is obvious, both Black and a woman. And that is a good vantage point from which to view at least two elements of what is becoming a social revolution: the American Black revolution and the women’s liberation movement. But it is also a horrible disadvantage. It is a disadvantage because America as a nation is both racist and anti-feminist. Racism and anti-feminism are two of the prime traditions of this country. For any individual, breaking with social tradition is a giant step – a giant step because there are no social traditions which do not have corresponding social sanctions — the sole purpose of which are to protect the sanctity of those traditions.”
Her speech can be read in “The Columbia Documentary History of American Women Since 1941” published 2007, edited by Harriet Sigerman.
Shirley Chisholm opened the door for the eventual election of America’s first African-American President when she made a bid to run for the position of President of the United States in 1972, (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DjIzxFL98Hg) becoming the first African-American to do so. At the time Chisholm said: “The United States was said not to be ready to elect a Catholic to the Presidency when Al Smith ran in the 1920s. But Smith’s nomination may have helped pave the way for the successful campaign John F. Kennedy waged in 1960. Who can tell? What I hope most is that now there will be others who will feel themselves as capable of running for high political office as any wealthy, good-looking White male.” And several African-American men followed her example including Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Barack Obama who in 2008 walked through that door Chisholm had opened in 1972
Even with the election of the first African-American President the racism to which Chisholm referred in her speech more than 40 years ago is still rampant in the U.S. The murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin where his killer was set free is so similar to the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955; it is as if time has stood still.
The recent expose by the American news program “Democracy Now” about the overwhelming number of African-Americans serving life sentences without parole for non-violent crime is reminiscent of the 1930s and the infamous Scottsboro Boys case. (http://www.democracynow.org/2013/11/15/jailed_for_life_for_stealing_a ) On November 15, the Democracy Now program included this description: “A shocking new study by the American Civil Liberties Union has found that more than 3,200 people nationwide are serving life terms without parole for nonviolent offenses. Of those prisoners, 80 per cent are behind bars for drug-related convictions. Sixty-five per cent are African-American, 18 per cent are White, and 16 per cent are Latino — evidence of what the ACLU calls ‘extreme racial disparities’. The crimes that led to life sentences include stealing gas from a truck, shoplifting, possessing a crack pipe, facilitating a $10 sale of marijuana, and attempting to cash a stolen (cheque).”
The Scottsboro Boys were wrongfully accused of rape in 1931 but were eventually exonerated. (http://sharenews.com/archives/opinion20111202sometimes-all-it-takes-one-person-act/)
Meanwhile, here in Toronto, the recent shenanigans of the Mayor of Toronto show that White skin privilege is alive and well in the Great White North. If any African Canadian male was seen doing even some of the things the police have alleged that Rob Ford was seen doing over the past year that African Canadian male would be arrested, charged, dragged through the courts and jailed. The Black Action Defence Committee (BADC) has recently filed a class action law suit against the Toronto Police for racial profiling of African Canadians after decades of this mistreatment. The racial profiling of African Canadians is well known and well documented. It is about time that those who engage in that vile practice were held accountable.