By Hazel Trice Edney
by Derek T. Dingle -blackenterprise.com
Black history month – any month of the year for that matter – cannot be complete without recognizing our business icons who opened doors for all of us. I look to those that BLACK ENTERPRISE identified as part of its 40th anniversary in 2010: The Most Powerful African Americans in Business.
I have decide to focus on the top five who made our roster: Publishing legend John Johnson; power player Robert L. Johnson; global dealmaker Reginald F. Lewis; consummate corporate leader Kenneth Chenault; and the ultimate champion of black business Earl G. Graves, Sr.
As an editor and writer for BE for more than three decades, I have had the privilege to interview four of them – and work for one. In our August 2010 issue, I wrote that these individuals – and 35 others on the list – applied professional excellence, dealmaking prowess, and unwavering advocacy to convert promise into channels of prosperity and levers of power. It’s true. Not only did they uplift and inspire generations of African Americans but they also helped shape our modern world.
I share their stories and one of their lessons — and they had many — from each titan:
One of my favorite interviews was three hours I spent with the late John H. Johnson in 1987 when BE named him our “Entrepreneur of the Decade” — and for good reason. He built his publishing and cosmetics empire into an international powerhouse, distributing name brands such as Ebony, Jet, and Fashion Fair. For 60 years, he touched the lives of millions of African Americans in every facet of life, sharing with the world their talents and potential, exposing injustice and racism, and shattering social and commercial barriers. And he still does today.
Johnson’s lesson: I believe in hands-on, hands-in, hands-wrapped-around management in which you delegate freely and check on people every day. The most important thing a manager can learn is the ability to analyze a situation and quickly think his way out of it.
My first interview with Robert L. Johnson was for my book,Titans of the BE 100s. As usual, he was between deals. It was the natural state for the serial entrepreneurs who made business history when he took BET public in 1991, the first time a black-owned company was traded on the New York Stock Exchange. In 2000, he sold the cable network to Viacom for $3.2 billion, making him the first African American billionaire. He acquired the Charlotte Bobcats in 2003, creating the first black-owned NBA franchise and launched four other BE 100s companies. Still striking deals and forming alliances, he has two thriving BE 100s companies in , respectively, the auto industry and private equity sector as well as investments in aerospace, defense, consumer goods, hospitality and media companies.
Bob Johnson’s lesson: Do not miss the chance to leverage whatever assets you have, in addition to your ability and skill. Leverage your political clout. Leverage your demand that companies address opportunities for minorities in a [given] sector. Don’t be afraid you’re going to be blackballed. If you’re good, you won’t be blackballed.
My colleague Alfred Edmond Jr. and I gained the opportunity to view history in front-row seats when BE broke the late financier Reginald F. Lewis‘ historic $985 million leveraged buyout of TLC Beatrice International Foods Cos.—the largest offshore transaction at the time. He created the first black-owned global enterprise to surpass the billion-dollar revenue mark. Throughout his business career, Lewis was responsible for scores of black businesses to gain access to financing, becoming the standard bearer for African Americans on Wall Street and inspiring generations of entrepreneurs and corporate professionals.
Lewis’ Lesson: Enlightened businessmen are always interested in trends in their communities, states and countries, as well as in neighboring areas and in other parts of the world. Now, obviously that doesn’t mean they have to have a doctorate in international affairs. The best business people are willing to find out about the factors that influence what they’re doing.
I first got a chance to interview astute, focused Kenneth I. Chenault for the March 1990 cover story on his being named president of the consumer card group of American Express. Even then, I wrote he had “the stuff of which CEOs of the 21st Century are made.” Within a decade, he was Chairman and CEO of the financial powerhouse. Today, Chenault is the face of global corporate leadership. One of the few African Americans to oversee a major publicly traded company, he’s one of the most admired executives for his cool, Socratic approach, successfully steering Amex and serving as a presidential advisor over the years during our nation’s major financial crises.
Chenault’s lesson: Today, the stakes are incredibly high. The need for leaders to stand for something and act from principle is more important than ever…If your people believe that you have the right values, they will tolerate a few mistakes. In fact, they will stay with you. They want to see that you are decisive and compassionate, because you are asking people to take risks, to take chances. But don’t confuse compassion with a reluctance to act decisively when necessary.
As 21-year-old college graduate, I had the great fortune to get the dream job of working for one of my heroes: Founder and publisher of Black Enterprise Earl G. Graves Sr. One of his first comments to me was that “everyday was Monday,” meaning that we should never waver in our professionalism, preparation and performance. This visionary entrepreneur embodied that message through the creation and advancement of a vehicle to provide information and advocacy that has enabled three generations of African Americans to build wealth through business ownership, career advancement, and money management. Through his media company, he opened the door for the best and brightest in the global business arena and, in the process, created an expansive business network that would, among other milestones, help elect the first African American president. In terms of the progress that we’ve witnessed, another one of his sayings proved how prescient he can be: “Over time even the impossible can become possible.”
Graves’ lesson: Because they live, work and play together, white businesspeople generally aren’t focused to use their ingenuity as much as we are. Most of them don’t have to storm the castle. If I want to get to the CEO of a company and I can’t do it by going in the front door, I’ll sit down and examine the individual. What corporate or charitable boards does the CEO sit on? Whom do I know that may get me in inside?
Filmmaker Spike Lee is infamous for speaking his mind, but some recent remarks he’s made on gentrification in his hometown of New York City are getting more attention than usual.
During a Q&A at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, Lee complained that NYC area residents are being pushed out of their neighborhoods due to “Christopher Columbus Syndrome.”
“You can’t discover this! We been here. You just can’t come and bogart,” the director said in an expletive-filled rant.
He went out to point out that rents are being driven up so high that long-term residents have no chance of being able to afford to stay.
“So, why did it take this great influx of white people to get the schools better? Why’s there more police protection in Bed-Stuy and Harlem now? Why’s the garbage getting picked up more regularly? We been here!” Lee said.
“I don’t see a lot of good coming from gentrification for the people living in those neighborhoods,” he added.
Click here to read more.
by Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman -Bloomberg View
Bloomberg View: When the New York City banker James Brown tallied his wealth in 1842, he had to look far below Wall Street to trace its origins. His investments in the American South exceeded $1.5 million, a quarter of which was directly bound up in the ownership of slave plantations.
Brown was among the world’s most powerful dealers in raw cotton, and his family’s firm, Brown Brothers & Co., served as one of the most important sources of capital and foreign exchange to the U.S. economy. Still, no small amount of his time was devoted to managing slaves from the study of his Leonard Street brownstone in Lower Manhattan.
Brown was hardly unusual among the capitalists of the North. Nicholas Biddle’s United States Bank of Philadelphia funded banks in Mississippi to promote the expansion of plantation lands. Biddle recognized that slave-grown cotton was the only thing made in the U.S. that had the capacity to bring gold and silver into the vaults of the nation’s banks. Likewise, the architects of New England‘s industrial revolution watched the price of cotton with rapt attention, for their textile mills would have been silent without the labor of slaves on distant plantations.
The story we tell about slavery is almost always regional, rather than national. We remember it as a cruel institution of the southern states that would later secede from the Union. Slavery, in this telling, appears limited in scope, an unfortunate detour on the nation’s march to modernity, and certainly not the engine of American economic prosperity.
Yet to understand slavery’s centrality to the rise of American capitalism, just consider the history of an antebellum Alabama dry-goods outfit called Lehman Brothers or a Rhode Island textile manufacturer that would become the antecedent firm of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
Reparations lawsuits (since dismissed) generated evidence of slave insurance policies by Aetna and put Brown University and other elite educational institutions on notice that the slave-trade enterprises of their early benefactors were potential legal liabilities. Recent state and municipal disclosure ordinances have forced firms such as JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Wachovia Corp. to confront unsettling ancestors on their corporate family trees.
Such revelations are hardly surprising in light of slavery’s role in spurring the nation’s economic development. America’s “take-off” in the 19th century wasn’t in spite of slavery; it was largely thanks to it. And recent research in economic history goes further: It highlights the role that commodified human beings played in the emergence of modern capitalism itself.
The U.S. won its independence from Britain just as it was becoming possible to imagine a liberal alternative to the mercantilist policies of the colonial era. Those best situated to take advantage of these new opportunities — those who would soon be called “capitalists” — rarely started from scratch, but instead drew on wealth generated earlier in the robust Atlantic economy of slaves, sugar and tobacco. Fathers who made their fortunes outfitting ships for distant voyages begat sons who built factories, chartered banks, incorporated canal and railroad enterprises, invested in government securities, and speculated in new financial instruments.
This recognizably modern capitalist economy was no less reliant on slavery than the mercantilist economy of the preceding century. Rather, it offered a wider range of opportunities to profit from the remote labor of slaves, especially as cotton emerged as the indispensable commodity of the age of industry.
In the North, where slavery had been abolished and cotton failed to grow, the enterprising might transform slave-grown cotton into clothing; market other manufactured goods, such as hoes and hats, to plantation owners; or invest in securities tied to next year’s crop prices in places such as Liverpool and Le Havre. This network linked Mississippi planters and Massachusetts manufacturers to the era’s great financial firms: the Barings, Browns and Rothschilds.
A major financial crisis in 1837 revealed the interdependence of cotton planters, manufacturers and investors, and their collective dependence on the labor of slaves. Leveraged cotton — pledged but not yet picked — led overseers to whip their slaves to pick more, and prodded auctioneers to liquidate slave families to cover the debts of the overextended.
The plantation didn’t just produce the commodities that fueled the broader economy, it also generated innovative business practices that would come to typify modern management. As some of the most heavily capitalized enterprises in antebellum America, plantations offered early examples of time-motion studies and regimentation through clocks and bells. Seeking ever-greater efficiencies in cotton picking, slaveholders reorganized their fields, regimented the workday, and implemented a system of vertical reporting that made overseers into managers answerable to those above for the labor of those below.
The perverse reality of a capitalized labor force led to new accounting methods that incorporated (human) property depreciation in the bottom line as slaves aged, as well as new actuarial techniques to indemnify slaveholders from loss or damage to the men and women they owned. Property rights in human beings also created a lengthy set of judicial opinions that would influence the broader sanctity of private property in U.S. law.
So important was slavery to the American economy that on the eve of the Civil War, many commentators predicted that the North would kill “its golden goose.” That prediction didn’t come to pass, and as a result, slavery’s importance to American economic development has been obscured.
But as scholars delve deeper into corporate archives and think more critically about coerced labor and capitalism — perhaps informed by the current scale of human trafficking — the importance of slavery to American economic history will become inescapable.
(Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman, historians at Harvard University and Brown University respectively, are co-editing “Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development,” to be published by University of Pennsylvania Press in 2013. The opinions expressed are their own.)
ATLANTA (AP) — A judge on Wednesday said Martin Luther King Jr.’s bible and Nobel Peace Prize should be placed in a safe deposit box controlled by the court pending the outcome of a legal dispute over who owns the items.
The civil rights icon’s estate is controlled by his two sons, Martin Luther King III and Dexter King. Lawyers for the estate on Jan. 31 filed a complaint asking a judge to order that their sister, Bernice King, turn over the two prized items.
After about two and half hours of arguments from lawyers for both sides, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney said he believes it is likely that the estate will prevail in the case. He said he would issue an order that both items be kept together in a safe deposit box in the name of the estate but that the keys would remain with the court until the ownership dispute before him is settled.
“I find that, at this point, that is a fair, equitable balance of the competing interests,” McBurney said.
Lawyers for both sides said after the hearing that they felt the judge’s temporary solution was fair.
William Hill, a lawyer for the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc., said the bible and peace prize medal belong to the state under a 1995 agreement in which King’s heirs signed over their rights to many items they inherited from him. Eric Barnum, a lawyer for Bernice, said his client doesn’t believe those items are part of the estate and doesn’t believe her father’s most cherished possessions should be sold.
The three surviving King children are all board members of the estate, and they held a special board meeting in late January to vote on a proposed sale of the bible and peace prize, Hill said in court. They voted 2-1 in favor of the sale, with Bernice being the dissenting vote, Hill said.
“We have one director who disagrees with a properly taken vote of the corporation,” Hill said, repeatedly saying that Bernice has no individual right of ownership to the items.
“You don’t sell the most prized items of the estate. That’s Bernice King’s position,” Barnum said.
Hill urged McBurney to issue an immediate order asking Bernice to turn over the items, saying the money that would come in from the sale or lease of the items was crucial to the estate’s viability. People or entities interested in buying or leasing the items for public display had come forward but the offers won’t last long, Hill said, though he didn’t say who the interested parties are or why their offers had a short shelf life.
McBurney seemed skeptical that the estate, if proven to be the owner of the items, wouldn’t be able to find a similar deal once the legal dispute is resolved.
“They are as culturally significant today as they were yesterday as they will be tomorrow,” he said, ultimately refusing Hill’s request that the items immediately be turned over.
The dispute marks the latest in a string of legal battles between the siblings.
King was assassinated in Memphis in April 1968. His wife, Coretta Scott King, died in 2006 and Yolanda King, the eldest child, died in 2007. That left the three remaining siblings as the sole shareholders and directors of their father’s estate, but their relationship has deteriorated over legal battles.
Dallas, TX (BlackNews.com) — Greyhound Package Express (GPX), Greyhound’s expedited shipping service, today announced its new partnership with United We Ship LLC, a Los Angeles-based, single- source shipping and logistics provider. Through this partnership, customers can schedule and track shipments directly from the company’s website and receive same-day
courier service in numerous locations throughout Southern California, all while saving an average of 70 percent over other major shippers.
The timing of GPX’s partnership with the Black-owned company, United We Ship, is even more meaningful as it comes during Black History Month, a time Greyhound reveres as an opportunity to honor African-Americans who have helped shape the country into what it is today. Greyhound has been America’s bus company for a century, and during that time it has been a primary influence in Black history. Most notably, the company helped transport a group of civil rights leaders, known as the “Freedom Riders,” to the Deep South to protest state-sponsored segregation in intercity bus terminals.
“We’re pleased to work with United We Ship to offer customers a convenient, hassle-free option to ship packages at affordable rates,” said Dave Phillips, vice president, GPX. “We applaud the company for providing an excellent shipping solution with overnight delivery and same day door-to-door courier service for Southern California customers.”
James Smith, president of United We Ship and former Postmaster of the U.S. Postal Service of Los Angeles County, believes this partnership is a huge milestone for the company.
“I feel honored to have this opportunity to work with Greyhound Package Express,” said Smith. “It’s a privilege to be a Black-owned, Minority Certified business serving our customers’ logistics and shipping needs, while providing excellent employment opportunities to the community.”
About Greyhound Package Express
GPX has been a leading provider of expedited shipping solutions for more than 90 years. Greyhound moves more than one million shipments per year in the United States. GPX offers a wide range of same-day, expedited and deferred ground delivery services using the Greyhound network of more than 3,800 North American destinations. GPX is the one-stop source for shipping
same day and overnight packages at very attractive rates, offering flexibility with shipment weight and size as compared to other package shipping providers. For additional information visit the GPX website at www.shipgreyhound.com.
About United We Ship
United We Ship is a single source logistics provider and contract courier for Greyhound Package Express that provides same day courier, less-than-truckload, full- truckload and intermodal domestic and international shipping services throughout the United States. To learn more, visit www.unitedweship.com or call 877-229-0577.
Article courtesy of USA TODAY via “The Rundown”
When clients come to Bill Nemeth, they have one wish: Please make it go away. “It,” in this case, is a problem with the Internal Revenue Service.
Nemeth makes his living representing people before the IRS: He’s an enrolled agent, the highest credential the IRS awards. He helps makes nasty tax things – fines, penalties, liens – go away. He’s on the phone with the IRS every day. But these days, he’s mostly on hold. “I was on hold for an hour and a half last night,” he says.
And Nemeth gets to use the practitioner priority line, which puts him ahead of regular taxpayers who just want to know what form they have to file for reporting a capital gain from a stock loss. (That would be Schedule D.) Nemeth says his wait time used to be 15 minutes or so. Now it’s often more than an hour.
For the average taxpayer, the waits are long and often futile: 39% of those who called the IRS last year simply hung up before their call was answered, according to a scathing recent report by the IRS Taxpayer Advocate, whose job is to take the taxpayer’s side at the IRS. (The IRS typically responds to the report at midyear.) And it’s only going to get worse. “Given our very limited resources, phone lines will be very busy, and there will frequently be extensive wait times,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said on the agency’s official YouTube video about the 2013 tax year.
And as much as people love to hate the IRS, the agency’s problems become taxpayer’s problems. Poor customer service means that many more people will pay someone else to do their taxes, which simply becomes another cost of dealing with the federal government. And for some people, the IRS’s woes mean that basic mistakes in filing could ultimately become big costs that involve fines, penalties, liens – and hiring people like Bill Nemeth.
IRS customer service has been struggling for the past three years, and the cause is fairly simple: Congress has consistently cut its budget. “Congress doesn’t like the IRS,” Nemeth says, and Congress is unlikely to get much blowback when it cuts the not exactly beloved agency’s budget. While the president requested $340 million in funding for the IRS because of the Affordable Care Act, none of that was funded by Congress. But the IRS has to do what the law requires it to do, Koskinen says. “If other things don’t get done, that’s what we’ll do.”
Even without the ACA funding, the cuts have been severe. In the government’s budget year 2012, the IRS allotted $172 million to training its customer service representatives, according to the IRS Taxpayer Advocate. The IRS now has $22 million to train those same people – an 87% drop.
At the same time, the IRS lost 8,000 employees between 2010 and 2012, says Edward Jenkins, tax director at CBIZ MHM, an accounting firm in Plymouth Meeting in suburban Philadelphia, Some of that is because of the aging of the IRS workforce, Jenkins says . In the government’s fiscal year 2017, 70% of IRS executives and half of non-executives will be ready to retire, he says.
And tight budgets mean that it’s hard to keep good employees, particularly when they can work for better pay at CPA firms elsewhere. “You’re seeing very few pay raises, which makes it not exactly a great place to work,” Jenkins says.
Fewer workers and less training mean the IRS is less able to help taxpayers, particularly the elderly and disabled. Ten years ago, according to the IRS, the agency prepared 476,000 tax returns for those taxpayers. It will do none in the 2013 tax filing season, the Advocate’s report says. And, says IRS
Commissioner Koskinen, “Our employees would be delighted to provide better services. We have town hall meetings where they can ask anything. The common theme is that there are not enough people to get the work done.”
Dave Jamieson & Sam Stein
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will sign an executive order on Wednesday setting a minimum wage of $10.10 per hour for workers under federal contracts, an administration official confirmed to The Huffington Post.
The signing will take place at the White House, where the president is expected to be flanked by low-wage workers who called on him to issue the order. Other details, including who exactly will be covered under the order’s language, will be made public tomorrow, the official said.
By signing the executive order, the president will make good on a policy proposal he laid out during his State of the Union address earlier this month. Neither the House nor the Senate has passed a minimum wage bill since the president first proposed raising the pay last February, so the president said he would hike the wage-floor himself for workers under federal contracts.
“I’m eager to work with all of you,” Obama told lawmakers during his address. “But America does not stand still — and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”
In addition to setting a minimum wage of $10.10 — the same rate proposed in congressional Democrats’ wider minimum wage bill — the executive order will also tie the contractors’ minimum wage to an inflation index, according to an outline released by the White House earlier this month. Labor groups and progressive members of Congress had been calling upon the president to sign such an order in the months leading up to his State of the Union address, while groups of workers employed by federal contractors took part in one-day walkouts to protest low pay.
Although janitors and concessions workers are expected to benefit from the order, it won’t be clear exactly who may see a raise until the language is made public. Since it will pertain only to future government contracts, it could be years before some current workers are covered by the order. Meanwhile, advocates for the disabled have been pressuring the administration to include workers in so-called “14(c) programs” who can then be paid a sub-minimum wage under current law.
Wednesday’s event will mark the seventh executive action signed by the president since his State of the Union address. In addition to the minimum wage hike for federal contractors, the administration has created new retirement accounts, devoted millions of dollars to broadband in schools, announced new “climate hubs,” put into place a “made in rural America” export initiative, started a review of federal job training programs and instructed federal agencies to commit to fair reviews of long-term unemployed job applicants.
The executive order on federal contractors is meant to pressure Congress into passing legislation raising the minimum wage for all workers. The current federal minimum wage stands at $7.25 per hour. It hasn’t been raised since 2009, after the last of a series of increases signed into law by then-President George W. Bush. Like the executive order, the Democrats’ bill, which was proposed by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), would tie the minimum wage to an inflation index.
One of the most vocal proponents of the executive order is Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who personally handed the president a letter urging him to issuing it. Ellison previously told HuffPost that he felt the government shouldn’t be in the business of underwriting poverty-wage jobs.
“We feel the federal government has a responsibility to set good labor conditions. We’re not talking about anything outrageous,” Ellison said. “If you look at the economics here, corporate profitability is very high now. They can afford it.”
by Carolyn M. Brown -blackenterprise.com
The newly appointed head of the Small Business Administration (SBA), Maria Contreras-Sweet would bring years of real-world banking and SBA experience to the position. The Senate has scheduled a hearing Wednesday to confirm her appointment.
Contreras-Sweet would take the reins of the SBA nearly a year after the agency’s former administrator, Karen Mills, announced her resignation. She also would become the second Hispanic in Obama’s second-term Cabinet.
Contreras-Sweet knows firsthand what it means to start a small business. In 2006, she helped organize what is now called ProAmérica Bank in Los Angeles, and she remains its chairwoman. ProAmérica is a small bank with just $123 million in deposits and a loan portfolio of $108 million, according to data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
The bank, which offers bilingual services, aims to provide capital and services to small and mid-size businesses that often lack access to larger, traditional financial institutions. The bank was formed for the purpose of serving the Latino business community, and its customers have sales ranging from $1 million to $20 million, reports the New York Times.
Before founding ProAmérica Bank, Contreras-Sweet was the president and co-founder of Fortius Holdings, a private equity and venture fund specializing in providing California’s small businesses with access to capital.
In addition to small business financing, Contreras-Sweet is also familiar with the SBA’s counseling programs. ProAmérica Bank has teamed up with the small business development center at Santa Monica College, which is partly financed by the SBA.
Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Contreras-Sweet immigrated to the United States at age 5. Her career represents a mix of corporate and government experience. She served as secretary of the California Business, Transportation and Housing Agency between 1999 and 2003, overseeing 40,000 employees and working on issues ranging from real estate and financial institutions to public transit and highway patrol. During her tenure as secretary, she created the Department of Managed Care. She also advocated for major job creation and public investment in infrastructure and housing.
“As we work to keep our economy growing, Maria will be charged with looking for more ways to support small businesses,” President Barack Obama said about his appointment of Contreras-Sweet as SBA adminstrator, “to help them get that good idea off the ground, to expand, to hire, to sell their products and ideas not only in our domestic markets, but also overseas. And I’m absolutely confident that she is going to do an outstanding job as our Small Business Administrator.”
Ron Busby, president of the U.S. Black Chambers Inc., applauded the president’s selection of Contreras-Sweet, which he states “will be key to strengthening the nation’s small businesses, but also crucial to the flourishing of the economy as a whole,” Busby said in a press statement. “The SBA made great strides under the leadership of Karen Mills. We believe Maria Contreras-Sweet, with her strong background as a minority and woman small business owner and business banker, would serve to build on that success.”
Busby also stated “Contreras-Sweet’s banking background gives her a unique understanding of increasing the access to capital for black business owners.”
This month, the United States Postal Service honored the legendary Congresswoman and leader Shirley Chisholm with a stamp as part of its Black Heritage Series.
As the New York City Public Advocate, I had the privilege of attending the ceremony, which took place in Brooklyn (a particularly sweet occasion for someone who’s looked up to Chisholm as a role model). Chisholm was a woman who never took “no” for an answer. And just as importantly, she was a principled woman who could find common ground even with people who were diametrically opposed to her.
When Shirley Chisholm — as a State legislator — decided to run for Congress in 1968, she had to face James Farmer, a well-known leader in CORE, an early civil rights organization. Farmer was supported by the then-powerful New York Liberal Party as well as the Republicans. Chisholm was warned that her candidacy was no match for the party machine and that they would attack her ruthlessly. But she ran as a Democrat, becoming the first Black woman ever elected to Congress.
When the Congressional Black Caucus, which she help found, assigned her to the Agricultural Committee — which she thought inappropriate for her Brooklyn District — she was told by the men in the Caucus that they knew what’s was best. In a courageous and savvy maneuver, Chisholm went around the men in the Caucus, and reached an agreement with the new House Majority Leader, earning a seat on the more relevant Education and Labor Committees. Chisholm combined tenacity with tactical smarts to put herself in a position to help her urban district.
In 1972, when the racist Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, was shot and wounded, Chisholm visited him in the hospital. She was asked by her civil rights allies if she was consorting with the enemy. She was scolded: “Shirley! George Wallace?!”Years later, when she was advancing her bill to include domestic workers in the Minimum Wage law, Wallace helped corral Southern Democratic votes to push her bill to victory in the House of Representatives.
Chisholm’s support during her historic presidential race came in large part from theNational Organization for Women. And later in her career, she joined with 15 other African-American officials, forming the African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom, arguably becoming one of the first high-profile Black female leaders to highlight reproductive rights for Black women.
The more they told Chisholm “Don’t go there!” the more she went there, and the more she won.
The audacity to take the tougher road wasn’t limited to Chisholm’s professional life. In 1978, she would marry for the second time, to the consternation of many who’d say that a woman who is a political leader doesn’t have time to fall in love. She married the man she loved, and a few years later, retired from Congress to care for him as he struggled with health issues.
Often, when I’m told not to move too fast or to push too hard, I find solace in the lessons that I, and so many Americans, have learned from this woman who was so far ahead of her time. The challenges we face today are too steep for leaders of conscience to be deterred by tough odds. From pay equity and income discrimination, to childcare access and family leave, to pregnancy discrimination and workplace harassment (all factors that keep women earning less than their male counterparts in the cyclical feminization of poverty); to the changing face of homelessness that is devastating communities; to the low-wage jobs that force workers to live in poverty even as they’re working full-time — the need to speak truth to power is as great today as it was when Chisholm took on the establishment.
The fact that Shirley Chisholm is recognized as a true American pioneer during this African American history month is all the more special given the road she paved for progress and the inspirational model she continues to be.
This proud pupil joins countless others in saluting Shirley Chisholm during this month of celebration and all the months to follow.
Letitia “Tish” James is the New York City Public Advocate. She is the first woman of color to be elected to city-wide office in the history of New York City.