Shirley Chisholm was a political trailblazer for Blacks

By Murphy Browne Thursday November 01 2012 in Opinion
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“I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency of the United States. I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman, and I am equally proud of that. I am not the candidate of any political bosses or special interests. I am the candidate of the people.”

Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm, January 25, 1972.


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.


Shirley Anita St. Hill was born on November 30, 1924 in Brooklyn, New York. Her parents, Charles St. Hill and Ruby Seale St. Hill, were immigrants from British Guiana (father) and Barbados (mother). The St. Hill family struggled financially even with both parents working, which eventually prompted Charles and Ruby to send their three little girls to live in the Caribbean.


In 1927, the St. Hill children were sent to Barbados to live with their maternal grandmother, Emaline Seale, and returned to live with their parents in Brooklyn seven years later. On their return to Brooklyn in 1934, the St. Hill children – now four since there was an addition to the family while the three older girls were living in Barbados – were academically ahead of their classmates as a result of the education they received in Barbados.


In her autobiography, Unbought and Unbossed, Chisholm stated:


“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.”


Graduating with excellent grades from Girls’ High School in Brooklyn, New York, she received scholarship offers to study at Vassar and Oberlin Colleges but chose to attend Brooklyn College. She earned a B.A. in Sociology from Brooklyn College in 1946 and an M.A. in elementary education from Columbia University 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.


In 1964, Chisholm 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 by defeating Republican candidate, James Farmer. In 1971, she was one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus.


Chisholm would eventually make a bid to run for the position of President of the United States of America in 1972, becoming the first African-American to do so.


During Chisholm’s campaigns to be elected to the New York State Legislature, the House of Representatives and President of the United States of America, her campaign manager and chief of staff was Guyanese-born Wesley McDonald Holder (June 24, 1897-March 17, 1993), who was fondly known in Brooklyn as the “Dean of Black Politics”.


Chisholm first met Holder during her student days in the 1950s. This was not a surprise since Chisholm’s father and Holder were both Garveyites (members of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association). Holder was born in Buxton on the East Coast of Demerara in 1897 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1920. In an interesting coincidence, like Chisholm, he had a Barbadian grandparent.


His grandfather, Samuel Holder (1827-1912), was born in Barbados and migrated to British Guiana as a young man. Holder was so much a part of the Brooklyn political scene (managing the campaigns of several politicians from the 1930s onwards) that in 1995 part of Schenectady Avenue between Lincoln Place and Park Place in Bedford-Stuyvesant was renamed “Dr. Wesley McDonald Holder Avenue”.


Chisholm and Holder were obviously an unbeatable combination of African/Barbadian/Guyanese work ethic and intelligence. Chisholm achieved several firsts and published two autobiographies, both yielding many memorable quotes.


In her autobiography, The Good Fight, she wrote:


“In this country everybody is supposed to be able to run for President, but that’s never been really true. I ran because most people think the country is not ready for a black candidate, not ready for a woman candidate. The next time a woman runs, or a black (person), 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.”


That was the case in 1972, and we marvelled and celebrated when Barack Hussein Obama was elected the first African-American President of the United States of America in 2008. The door was no longer just “ajar”, it was “wide open”, or so we thought.


Many of us mistakenly thought it was the beginning of a post-racial American society. No such luck as we have witnessed the constant White supremacist attacks on the American First Family, including the attacks by the Tea Partiers and the Birthers.


On November 6, 2012, America may re-elect its first African-American president to a second term. Shirley Chisholm pushed the door in 1972 and left it “ajar”.


Here we are, 40 years later, and it seems that the door may need a battering ram to ensure that it is finally left open and not just “ajar” for future generations of those who do not fit the description of an American presidential candidate that Chisholm gave in one of her famous quotes:


“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.”


Past Presidential candidates may have been White and wealthy but, seriously, if Americans were really using the criteria of “good-looking White males” to elect presidents, many of those who have been seeking to run as opposition to President Obama in this election would have been laughed out of the place. In addition, many who served as president would not even have been nominated.


  • sandy said:

    I grew up in New York and was priviledged to watch Ms. Chisholm and admire her. She stood up for all that is valuable to me. I was also very proud to watch our president on TV for the first speech I saw and I voted for him and will vote again for him. God bless President Obama and my country! Just so you know, I am a white, Christian woman who owns her own home and have worked since I was 12 years old.

    Monday November 05 at 8:06 am

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