Shirley Chisholm was a “Rough Rider” straight out of the gate. Her mother said at 3 years old, she was bossing kids 3 and 4 years older than her. To know Shirley Chisholm, is to know that she was small in stature but, she had a lot of tenacity. Due to the economic situation in the United States her parents could not afford a good education, so they sent Shirley and her sisters back to Barbados to live with their maternal grandmother, for about 7 years. Her education in the strict, British-style schools of Barbados, she credits with her ease with speaking and writing. After attending those schools, when she returned to the states, she was several years ahead of her peers.
She started her work career as a Director of a day nursery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. This experience gave her an acute awareness of her social surroundings. She saw first-hand how minorities were in substandard housing, inadequate schools, subjected to drugs and police brutality and no basic civil rights. This was when she determined that bad government had a connection to the fate of these minorities. She joined the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League and gained lots of experience and political insight. She helped her neighbors to register to vote, unemployed to get jobs, students to get scholarships and fought with the league for 10 years and gained lots of respect and connections. Feeling like she could help and having a little experience she ran and won as the first African-American Assemblywoman for New York. Shirley sought the basic civil rights for all minorities and for those rights, she waged a battle in the political arena that was seldom seen.
Shirley’s rearing In Barbados
Shirley was born during the depression and spent her first seven years in Barbados. Her Grandmother, Mrs. Emily Seale would be the one raising them. As tough as Shirley was, she didn’t know the day she laid eyes on Mrs. Emily Seale that she had met her match. Shirley learned at an early age, not even to question her grandmother’s authority. They lived on a small farm in a small village with their grandmother. The farm had plenty of animals, goats, pigs, chickens, etc. and the farm also had a well. The children’s chores included feeding the animals and making sure they never got out and there was always water for the drinking, cooking and washing. The water from the well had to be taken bucket by bucket. Truly this is where her worth ethics were born.
Her grandmother had no favorites; every one on the farm had to do work. School was just as important to her grandmother and to all the people of Barbados. Barbados had the highest literacy rate in the Caribbean, it was 94 percent. She found out that the teachers and parents were definitely in agreement when it came to a child’s education. The teachers were free to whip the children and they did not spare the rod. If you told your parents, the parents whipped you again. Shirley got her distribution of whippings and she agreed this made her a better student. Today, scientist would argue that this maybe bad for children. But in Barbados the discipline of a child was as natural as the air they breathe. Shirley realized later on in life that her success in writing and speaking stem direct from her early education in Barbados.
Retuning to Brooklyn
After the paradise of the islands, Shirley and her sisters moved back to Brooklyn with her parents when she was ten years old. Her parents had another daughter, now it was four girls to be taken care of. Her father was having trouble making end meet. His new job would only give him part-time hours. Their family could not exist off of his salary along, so Shirley’s mother went to work a domestic worker. Shirley was the oldest, so she got the latch key. They were told to stay in the house and not to open the door for no one until their mother got home. Finally her father began to work full-time and he was promoted to supervisor at his job. Shirley’s mom quit working her domestic job; but she would always be a seamstress. While leaving in Brooklyn Shirley and her family lived in the worst tenement apartments and what we now call ghettos.
One apartment they lived in was so cold, that during the winter, they just closed off one room and all the sisters slept in one bedroom. Shirley was affected by the cold for the rest of her life after that experience. They did move to another apartment in the Bedford-Stuyvesant. He father became a janitor and the apartment was free. The High School she attended was all women mostly white, but the neighborhood was predominately black. Shirley parent keep a tight rein on their girls. In fact she never had a regular date in high school or college. She had good study habits and a high IQ, which garnered a few scholarships in schools out of town, but her parents could not afford the room and board. Shirley would attend Brooklyn City College. At this point Shirley knew very well what it meant to be poor and do without this is when she felt a small inkling to change things.
Shirley gets an Intro to Politics in College
Shirley was a very good student in high school and she got several scholarships. She got offers to go to Vassar and Oberlin Colleges, but her parents could not afford room and board. Shirley ultimately attended Brooklyn College in the fall of 1942. Tuition was free as long as you had 89 percent average. The college consisted of about 60 black students during the day. Brooklyn College had a lot of activities. A lot of the clubs and activities were politically oriented. She had already decided to become a teacher. At that time, it was so expensive to go into law, medicine or even nursing. Black men were have problems being admitted to those kinds of schools, a black women did not even have a chance.
While in College she joined all black student group, called the Harriet Tubman society. This was her first time hearing people, beside her father, talk about blacks being oppressed, racism, and current society’s views on African Americans. While in college she gained a lot of confidence in herself. Many of her peers and teachers saw a lot of potential in her and they pushed her to do better. One of her professors really took an interest in her and she would have long talks with him. He saw what a good debater she was and how passionate she was, when she spoke about politics and he encouraged her to think about politics and a career. Shirley said to him “Proffy,” you forget two things. I’m black and I’m a woman.” ( Unbought and Unbossed 26) She knew at that time those were her biggest obstacles and in time she would over come them both.
Time for Shirley to Stop watching and get in the Mix
Shirley started visiting New York’s City’s clubhouses. These clubs would advise poor people on legal matters, for their backing later when it came to voting. It was an unspoken exchange, I’ll do you a favorite, and when voting season is around you do me a favor. These clubs usually were organized by state Assembly districts. The assemblyman was represented by both parties. But the majority of the clubs were Democratic. Shirley was very vocal while attending the clubs. She would ask the leaders of various department, why their voters in the black areas concerns were not being addressed. She was beginning to see that she was going to have to be the one to change things in her neighborhood. Her hairdresser introduced to Wesley McD. Holder. He was a rebel and had been fighting for black political justice since 1930’s.
He was in his seventies, but very astute in the political arena. Also he was very well known. Mac, as she called him, showed blacks that even if their neighborhood was 99 percent black, they would not get black representation. Shirley and her neighbors saw Mac hard-working politics pay off, when his group backed Clarence Wilson a Negro, who became magistrate in Brooklyn. Shirley joined the Seventeenth Assembly District Democratic Club as a cigar box decorator. Shirley canvassed with the club and they succeeded in electing the first black judge in Brooklyn history. Shirley eventually ran against Mac and lost, and that severed their relationship for 10years. Shirley moved on formed the Unity Democratic Club in 1960. This group wanted to push out the old white machine politicians and put some new fresh black representation in the Seventeenth District.
Shirley the Assemblywoman
The Unity Democratic club lost in 1961, but had gained 42 percent of the vote for the candidate they backed. In 1963 they backed Tom Jones and he won as assemblyman but he only served one term. Jones was an attorney and he wanted to be a judge, but this would leave his assemblyman’s seat open. Shirley quickly ceased the opportunity. This was during the civil rights movements and there was rebellion all over the city and the nation for that matter. Running during the civil rights movement gave her national notoriety. African-Americans were very scarce in government at that time, especially a woman.
But they were interested in their political representation in government. African-Americans as a people were beginning to vote and some were still fighting in the south for the opportunity to vote. African-Americans were finally opening up their eyes to how government representation affected their every day lives. Although in her own group there was opposition to her running because she was a woman. There were a lot of men even African-American men, who thought that a woman really had no place in politics.
This is when she decided to not let the fact that she was black and a woman deny her the office she wanted. The Civil Rights bill was signed in 1964 and Shirley won for assemblywoman that same year. When Shirley went to Albany, it was a group of eight, six black assemblymen and two state senators, the largest number by far in history. She was the only African-American woman, but not the first woman. Harlem had previously been represented by Mrs. Bessie Buchanan ten years earlier. Shirley was very happy to win as the first African assemblywoman, but it hurt her badly that her father did not live to see it. Shirley and her father were very close and they both could relate to politics he understood how important it was for African-Americans to have representation in government. As an assemblywomen, Shirley proposed a bill to provide state aide day-care centers. Shirley had worked in them and she new first had that parent could barely feed their child and they need assistance with care for their children.
Also she voted to increase funding for schools on a per pupil basis and the SEEK program designed to get more black and Puerto Rican students into the City University. She had worked in the school system and she understood how important and necessary an education was to the children her district. The reason she felt like she was successful in life was because of her early education Barbados. She supported abortion-law reform, unemployment insurance for domestic workers. Shirley mom had worked as a domestic worker, she was aware of how much they needed someone to fight for them as women and workers. She also fought for the restriction of weapons’ use by policemen. She had good record in Albany and the people in her district knew she was a fighter and stood up to the bosses in government.
One night, while she was home reading, a group of women came to her home and asked her to run for Congress. These women were on welfare and had collected $9.62 cent to donate to her campaign. She was so touched; she decided that night to run for Congress. This race was not going to be easy she had established some enemies during her term as assemblywoman. She did not drink and was not very social with the men, not even African-American men. She could not be persuaded and she refused to vote along party lines. Shirley message was “unbossed and unbought” therefore she was elected by the people and worked on their behalf. by the political and her main interest was for the people.
Shirley the Congresswoman
Shirley ran against a very strong candidate. His name was James Farmer and he was the founding director of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality). He was a freedom rider in the early 1960’s he demonstrated for equal accommodations at bus terminal in public transportation. He was also a good speaker and a rebel in his own right. Shirley had one thing going for her, she had lived and worked in Brooklyn for 20 years and Farmer was an outsider. Shirley called all her friends and connections and she asked her old friend Mac to be her campaign manger. She campaigned day and night. She went to neighboring districts. Because she had one secret weapon and that was, she knew there were thirteen thousand more women registered voters than men in her new district. Shirley would use this to her advantage. She had tea parties and functions to see what these women wanted and how she could accommodate them when she got in office.
To her surprise she found out that they wanted the same things African-Americans and most minorities wanted. The were tired of being treated like second class citizens and they wanted basic civil rights even though they were women. They wanted equal pay for equal work and they also wanted more responsibility, and not just secretarial positions. They felt they were smart enough to work in politics and also work in other professional mostly dominated by men. Shirley let them know that when she was in office she would fight for their causes. During the campaign, Shirley did get sick and had to have a serious operation. She was bedridden for three weeks. Against her doctors and her husband’s advice she went out and campaigned with a lot of enthusiasm. “It paid off. On November 5, 1968, Shirley Chisholm won more than twice as many votes as Farmer-35, 239 to his 13,615”. (Hicks 74)
Shirley fights for our basic Civil Rights
After Shirley got in congress she had another fight on her hands. They thought because she was a woman they could just put her on a committee and close her mouth. Little did they know that dynamite comes in small packages. “Shirley Chisholm said she would not be a slave to the congressional seniority system. She would speak her mind and say what she felt was best for the voters of her district and for black people in general.” (Nicks 77) I’m sure this did not go over well with the Congress. They assigned her to the Agriculture Subcommittee on Forestry and Rural Villages. When the appointment was announced Shirley said “The Speaker of the House told me to be a good soldier.’ I told him, that’s why this country is the way it is today. Everybody’s being a good soldier instead of fighting for what is right.”(Nicks 80) She did not take this very well and asked for reassignment. Shirley was assigned to the Veterans Affairs Committee.
She quickly went to work on investigations into treatment of black servicemen. She fought the system for a lot of people and this made her and enemy in the House. She hired and all woman staff and also fought for the equal rights of minorities and women. She told congress “As in the field of equal rights for blacks, Spanish-Americans, the Indians, and other groups, laws will not change such deep-seated problems overnight. But they can be used to provide protection for those who are most abused, and begin the process of evolutionary change by compelling the insensitive majority to re-examine its unconscious attitudes.” (Nicks 85). Shirley’s views in 1969 were definitely a reflection of the civil rights movement going on during that time. Martin Luther King, Jrs opinion would have been very similar to that of Shirley’s.
Shirley’s work in Congress reflected the Civil Rights Movement
Shirley came into Congress like a maverick, swinging from every direction. Truly she made a name for her self with her maiden speech. In her maiden speech “she said she planned to vote against all money bills for the military or for defense until more was done about poverty at home, and the old politicians shuddered and snickered. You’re committing political suicide, “the told her to her face. I’ve been told I’ve been committing political suicide for fifteen years,” was her answer. I’ve been told that for so long that as a result I have risen to the top. I don’t choose to play by your rules. (Hicks 79) Her first hurdle was reassignment from the Agriculture committee, she felt like she would do no good in that capacity.
Shirley then asked for assignment to another committee (which was a first) and was assigned to the Veteran’s Affairs Committee. While on the Veterans Committee she help fight for a lot of the causes of discrimination among black servicemen was young children, and there education. She spoke up for equal- rights for women because she knew firsthand the discrimination against women. “In 1969, hers was a strong voice for legislation to grant women equal rights. The Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution was finally passed in 1970”. (Hicks 83) She backed state funding for day-care facilities. She fought for unemployment insurance for domestic workers.
Shirley’s Bid for the President
She eventually ran for the President in of the United States in 1972 and got 152 electoral votes. Shirley knew she would not win, but her objective was for the politicians in Washington take a minority or a woman seriously. She wanted African-American, minorities, poor and women to see that, even though the odds are stacked against you not to give up. She believed that the civil rights movement proved the point, in which the government belonged to the people and they should take an active part in it. She did this by her actions. She said if I’m a little one hundred pound black women and I can run for President, then you have a voice in our governmental process. She understood very well how under represented African-American were in the political process, as she stated, “Black representatives, says, have as their constituency all black people, not just those of their districts (Hicks 82)
She championed the cause for civil rights and women’s rights at a time when it was not popular. Shirley set the stage for a sleuth of African-Americans, minorities and women to run for political office. Jessie Jackson, Geraldine Ferraro, Barbara Jordan and Carolyn Mosley-Braun are examples of her influence. Shirley saw how civil rights movement was waking everyone one up to the injustices of our society. She used her power in congress to open the door for many women and minorities. Shirley Chisholm was a woman ahead of her time she was an eloquent and inspiring speaker and she backed up her words with action!!! See her in action for your self. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FzM8fgRDI24
Listed Work Cited
Chisholm, Shirley, Ubought and Unbossed, Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, 1970
Hicks, Nancy, The Honorable Shirley Chisholm Congresswoman from Brooklyn, Lion Books, New York, 1971
Chisholm, Shirley, The Good Fight, Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. 1973
Duckett, Alfred, Changing of the Guard, The new breed of Black Politicians, Longsmans Canada Limited, Toronto, 1972
Le Veness, Frank P. & Sweeney, Jane P, Women Leaders in Contemporary U.S. Politics, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, CO 1987