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.