By Akim Hudson
“Reagan is the prez but I voted for Shirley Chisholm”-Biz Markie
For someone to accomplish all that Shirley Chisholm achieved in her lifetime, she is relatively under-appreciated historically and culturally.
The Brooklyn-born Democrat was the eldest of four daughters. Chisholm was the offspring of two immigrant parents: a Guyanese father and a Barbadian mother, to be specific. Her father, Charles, was a factory worker, and her mother, Ruby, was a seamstress. So, as you can see, Shirley Chisholm came from humble beginnings, and speaking from experience as one from humble beginnings, it builds character and ambition that could never be wavered.
Something indicative of Chisholm’s tenacity was graduating cum laude from Brooklyn College in 1946. She would garner acclaim on the college’s debate team, and many professors egged her on to pursue a career in politics, but Chisholm humbly dismissed the compliments and suggestions due to being at the major disadvantage of being both a woman and Black in the United States of America.
In 1951, Chisholm would receive her master’s degree in childhood education from Columbia University, whilst being a nursery school teacher. Come 1960, Chisholm was an advisor for the New York City of Day Care. But Chisholm stayed busy in politics simultaneously, becoming a colleague, member and advocate of a phalanx of sociopolitical coalitions, such as the League of Women Voters, NAACP (Nation Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and the Democratic Party club in Bedford-Stuyvesest, a neighborhood in Brooklyn.
In 1964, Chisholm became the second Black member of the New York State Legislature and was very active and progressive during her time in the house. Cultivating advancements in unemployment benefits by making them accessible to domestic workers, and sponsoring the SEEK program (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge) to New York State, providing an opportunity for disenfranchised students to go to college.
Though Chisholm was proactive and made her impact be known while a member of the legislature, it would only be a matter of time before she would pursue an even bigger role in politics. In 1968, Chisholm’s legend would be solidified, as she became the first Black woman elected to Congress. Almost immediately, Chisholm was effective, as she always was at every stage of her adult life. Contributing to the expansion of food stamp programs, essential in the creation of WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Woman, Infants and Children), and frankly too many to list, needless to say, Chisholm had her fingerprints all over reform, progression and advocation for marginalized peoples.
And to add on top of the legend of Chisholm, in 1972, she ran for president. She wasn’t allowed the access to participate in nationally televised primary debates, and only allowed to recite one single speech. Inevitably, she lost.
In 1982, Chisholm retired from Congress and resumed her life as an educator, being named the Purington Chair at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, an all-women’s institution. This gave her the leeway to educate in an array of departments while not being a member of one specific department. SOON, Chisholm was back contributing to and cultivating more coalitions for marginalized peoples. In 1984, Chisholm and C. Delores Tucker created the National Congress of Black Women; and in 1990, Chisholm was at the forefront of fifteen other colleagues who co-founded African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom.
At this point, you’re probably wondering, when is the limit? When will Chisholm finally have time to herself and relax? It’d be shortly after her last hoorah in the co-founding of the African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom in 1991. Unfortunately, due to withering health conditions, Chisholm would decline President Clinton’s nomination to become the United States Ambassador of Jamaica in 1993, but on a good note, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and rightfully so. There aren’t many people that I can think of that was as versatile in activism as Chisholm. Such a long career with all the credentials, acclaim, and impact to show for it.
Though she died in 2005, Chisholm’s legacy than is larger than life and is certainly a tough act to follow. To do this much and be as underrated as Shirley Chisholm is, should be a damn crime, honestly. Peace to the spirit of this queen and all of her contributions.