Long before the historic candidacies of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, there was the presidential candidacy of Shirley Chisholm. Forty years ago, Chisholm became the first woman to run for the White House. That legacy and much more were celebrated recently at her alma mater, Brooklyn College, in a day-long conference full of discussions and big thinkers all analyzing the impact of the Bed Stuy native’s accomplishments.
The legacy of Shirley Chisholm was placed in the context of other important figures at the time like Ella Baker and Rosa Parks but also compared to modern political figures like President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. Brooklyn’s Women’s Activism, the organization behind the conference, has brought together women’s grassroots social activists in Brooklyn since 1945. Their goal now is to sustain Chisholm’s legacy as a path breaking community and political agitator through “The Shirley Chisholm Project”.
The importance of remembering the influence of Shirley Chisholm cannot be understated. As Professor Barbara Ransby of the University of Illinois Chicago said at the conference, “There is a way for people to disappear from our collective memory.” With Chisholm’s campaign for Congress, role in the founding of the Congressional Black Caucus, and then her historic run for president, we must not let the lessons of her firsts simply become symbols of the past. We have a dangerous habit of turning those types of figures into symbols only instead of looking at their good qualities and flaws for what they really were. Her achievements as well as missteps should be held up to scrutiny thus they can become cautionary tales for those who come after.
One of the unique qualities Chisholm had that many modern political figures are lacking is a true passion for intersectional issues. Chisholm not only worked on issues related to race, but also gender and sexism, poverty, and domestic workers rights. Chisholm was a trailblazer not only for being the first but in many ways for carving out a path that is considered unique even to this day. For all of her individual achievements and victories, Chisholm never put up her hands and acted satisfied. There were always new frontiers and new fights to embark on.
The celebration of Chisholm’s legacy was capped by discussion lead by MSNBC host and Tulane University professor Melissa Harris Perry, who analyzed Chisholm’s legacy in the context of images of Black women in the modern media landscape. How does a legacy like Chisholm’s match up to First Lady Michelle Obama or even rapper Nicki Minaj in how these images impact Black women’s perceptions of themselves? This was a long and dense discussion left somewhat unfinished. But that’s the beauty of Chisholm’s legacy; She started us all on a path and we have a responsibility to keep travelling–unbossed and unbought.
When asked about her legacy, Chisholm said in 1971, “When I die, I want to be remembered as a woman who lived in the twentieth century and who dared to be a catalyst for change. I don’t want to be remembered as the first black woman who went to Congress, and I don’t even want to be remembered as the first woman who happened to be black to make a bid for the presidency. I want to be remembered as a woman who fought for change in the twentieth century. That’s what I want.” Chisholm’s legacy demands that the fight and struggle for justice and equality continues.