Who Was Shirley Chisholm? The Black Woman Who Ran For President In 1972

Icons | January 24, 2021

July 13, 1972, Miami Beach, Florida. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm speaks from podium at Democratic National Convention.

First black woman elected to U.S. Congress, first woman to seek the Democratic party's nomination for President, first black American to run for President -- Shirley Chisholm was a woman of firsts. Elected to Congress in 1968, Chisholm was also one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus. As a legislator, Chisholm sought to improve the lives of the poor, to help women in their quest for equality, and to feed and educate children. The Civil Rights struggles of the early '60s had been about establishing a baseline of rights and respect for all people, and Chisholm represented the next phase -- legislating, negotiating, governing. Martin Luther King had a dream of equality for all, but he did not personally dream of being President of the United States. 

Shirley Chisholm did.

"I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud," she said when she announced her Presidential run on January 25, 1972. "I am not the candidate of the women's movement of this country, although I am a woman and equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people and my presence before you symbolizes a new era in American political history."

Chisholm Lived In Barbados As A Child

She started as a teacher. Source: (All That's Interesting)

Shirley Chisholm was born in Brooklyn on November 30, 1924. Her father, Christopher St. Hill was an immigrant from British Guyana, and her mother was an immigrant from Barbados. When she was five, she and her sisters were sent to Barbados to live with their maternal grandmother and remained in the Barbados until 1934; her time in Barbados led her to have a noticeable West Indian accent throughout her life. Chisholm initially studied sociology at Brooklyn College, and because of her debating skills, professors suggested that she pursue a career in politics, but she didn’t take that seriously because she recognized the difficulty of trying to succeed in politics as both an African American and a woman. 

 Chisholm’s career began in early childhood education, and after receiving her degree from Brooklyn College, she went on to obtain an MA in Early Childhood Education from Columbia. Chisholm’s father was an avid supporter of Marcus Garvey and union rights, providing her with an early political education of sorts. and she started to get involved in local Democratic party politics in the 1950s; she joined an effort to elect Lewis Flagg Jr. as the first Black judge in Brooklyn. The group shifted its focus to advocating for civil rights and fighting against discrimination. 

 However, in 1958, Chisholm left the group, which had been founded by Wesley Holder, because Chisholm was pushing to give women more of a voice in decision-making in the group, and the two clashed because of it. She also volunteered in mainly White political clubs in Brooklyn, and managed to recruit more people of color into local politics. She then campaigned to help Thomas Jones become Brooklyn’s second Black assemblyman.  

Chisholm Always Said She Encountered More Discrimination For Being A Woman Than For Being Black

Source: (All That's Interesting)

In 1964, she was elected to the New York State Assembly, despite the resistance she faced, not because of her color, but because of her gender. During her brief tenure there, she managed to get unemployment benefits extended to domestic workers. Four years after her election to the New York State Assembly, she ran for Congress. New York’s 12th District had been redrawn with a focus on Bedford-Stuyvesant, and the incumbent ran in a different district. This opened the possibility for Chisholm to enter the national arena, and she won the seat, becoming the first Black Congresswoman. Once she was elected, her office staff was comprised entirely of women; as she said, the faced greater discrimination because she was a woman than because of her skin color. When she first entered office, she was appointed to the Agricultural Committee; she wasn’t happy with the appointment because she was the representative from, well, Brooklyn. She was then appointed to the Veteran’s Affairs Committee, a more suitable appointment.

Chisholm Didn't Wait Around To Run For President

Source: (Gender on the Ballot).

On January 25, 1972, four short years after she became a Representative, Chisholm announced her presidential bid in a Baptist church in Brooklyn. She was, for the most part, ignored by the Democratic political establishment, as many considered her a symbolic political figure rather than a serious candidate. There were three threats made against her life, and she was essentially given Secret Service protection in 1972. When she entered the race, she became the first Black major-party candidate and the first female candidate for the Democratic Party (in 1964, Margaret Chase Smith had run for the Republican nomination). Chisholm also had another first: she was the first female candidate to appear in a national Presidential debate. 

Despite her groundbreaking status, she did not receive unequivocal support from either women or African Americans. Prior to her candidacy, in 1971, she had co-founded the National Woman’s Political Caucus with Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and fellow congresswoman Bella Abzug. They worked on the ratification of the Equal Rights Act (ERA) and made strides, but the Act was derailed by the opposition led by Phyllis Schlafly. Sadly, her cofounders endorsed McGovern to be the Presidential candidate. Chisholm also founded the Congressional Black Caucus, but not all members supported her bid, as some thought she took away their opportunity; as she said “Black male politicians are no different from white male politicians,” stating that “this ‘woman thing’ is so deep.”

Chisholm Ran A Strategic And Somewhat Successful Campaign

Source: (history.com)

She only spent $300,000 on her campaign, and did not participate in the March 7 contest in New Hampshire, instead focusing on the March 14 primary in Florida, where she figured she had a better chance because of the demographics and the strong women’s movement there. She ended up winning 3.5 % of the vote, for a 7th place finish in the state. In the end, she campaigned or received votes in 14 states; her most significant showings were in California, where she came in fourth place and received 4.4% of the votes, and in North Carolina, where she received 7.5% and came in third place. Overall, during the primaries, she won 28 delegates; she finished in 7th place and won 2.7% of the total ballots cast. She knew that her bid was a long shot and said she ran for the office "in spite of hopeless odds ... to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.”

Chisholm Came In 4th At The 1972 Democratic National Convention

Source: (ThoughtCo)

Some claim that Chisholm won a primary, and some claim that she won three states overall: New Jersey, Louisiana, and Mississippi, but none of them fit the traditional definition of winning a plurality. New Jersey’s ballot at the time was complex and had a section for delegate selection and a section that was non-binding, non-delegate producing presidential preference vote. Chisholm won the non-delegate section and during the national convention she won only 4 of the state’s 109 delegates. With the Louisiana delegation, they split their delegates, giving 18.5 votes to Chisholm and 10.25 each to McGovern and Henry Jackson, and the delegates claim that they did this because their votes were not going to make a difference. Chisholm also won delegate votes from Mississippi for political reasons; some were angry with McGovern for his failure to follow through on his promise to withdraw from Southeast Asia. Therefore, they cast 12 of their 25 votes for Chisholm in protest.

During the July 12 roll call, she received a total of 152 first-ballot votes. She came in fourth place in the tally, with 10% of the vote. Her largest support came from Ohio, where she had votes from 23 delegates, with a slight majority being white -- even though she was not on the ballot in that state two months prior.

Chisholm Served Another Decade In Congress

Source: (WHYY).

After her presidential bid, she returned to Congress, resuming her progressive fights. She advocated for programs like Head Start, and food stamps and led the fight to expand food and nutrition programs for the poor.   

Her Work Continued After Retirement

Source: (Wikimedia)

She held office until 1983, when she retired as the third-highest ranking person in Congress. After this, she began teaching at Mount Holyoke College, where she did not teach in any particular department, but was able to teach classes in a number of areas. She also spoke at 150 colleges (by her count), becoming nationally known, telling students to avoid intolerance, because "If you don't accept others who are different, it means nothing that you've learned calculus.” 

After her retirement from education in 1991, President Clinton nominated her to be the ambassador to Jamaica in 1993, but due to poor health, her nomination had to be withdrawn. That same year, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She also received several honorary doctorates. In addition to her work as a teacher and politician, she wrote two autobiographical books. The first, Unbought and Unbossed, was released in 1970, prior to her Presidential run; an expanded 40th anniversary edition was released in 2010. In 1973, she wrote The Good Fight.  

A Fitting Inscription

On January 1, 2005, she died after suffering several strokes and was buried in the Birchwood Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Brooklyn. The inscription on her vault reads “Unbought and Unbossed.” Several politicians have credited her for leading the way: both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in their primary battles to be either the first woman or the first African American, and Kamala Harris. Congresswoman Barbara Lee has also noted that Chisholm had a profound effect on her career. Since her election, more than 47 African American women have served in Congress.

Tags: Politics | Shirley Chisholm | The Civil Rights Movement

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Cyn Felthousen-Post


Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!