News came over the weekend that Shirley Chisholm had died at 80. Obituaries quoted her chosen exit line, delivered as she left Washington after 14 years in Congress. “I’d like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts,” she said. “That’s how I’d like to be remembered.” And that is indeed how we remember Shirley Chisholm, as a person who had the guts to do what she believed was right, regardless of what other people thought she should be doing. She was the first African-American woman in Congress, and is still the only African-American woman—and the only woman—to seek the presidential nomination of a major party.
When she launched her campaign in the 1972 election, a group of us who had never met her, almost all women, created an organization to support her in the Michigan primary. We were by and large Democrats who had been working since the early sixties to end housing discrimination and other forms of segregation in the north, and since 1964 to convince our party that supporting the war in Vietnam was a bad idea. Most of us were in our early thirties, with children and other family obligations, and were unwilling or unable to join the cultural revolution that had younger people and those with fewer constraints taking to the streets on a regular basis. We marched in Washington in the springtime with our babies in backpacks, but the rest of the time we slogged away at the hard work of changing voters’ hearts and minds back home.
For us, Shirley Chisholm was the dream candidate, the perfect antidote to the parade of colorless (literally and figuratively) interchangeable white men that the Democratic establishment fronted in every election. After almost a decade of hearing grey and humorless party leaders explain why we needed to support the likes of Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphery, her slogan “unbossed and unbought” was music to our ears. She was a paradoxically compelling combination of what used to be called “a perfect lady” (a description that was seriously out of vogue in 1972) and a fiery orator when the spirit moved her. She had a personal dialect which mixed the Britishy idiom of the well-educated Caribbean with Brooklyn, delivered with the “now hear this” intonation of the schoolteacher which she once was. Her whole personal style was determinedly unstylish for the early 70s—no Gloria Steinem aviator glasses or leather miniskirts for Shirley Chisholm. She often referred to herself that way, as Shirley Chisholm, in the third person, almost as if she had created her role as candidate and was directing herself from off-stage. The Shirley Chisholm she invented was a one-woman crusade, determined to tell the voters, whether or not they asked, what women and black people needed and wanted.
The Michigan Shirley Chisholm for President Campaign raised money with benefit jazz concerts and garage sales, never expecting and not getting any financing from the almost invisible national organization. We spent the modest sums we raised on flyers, press releases and ads which we wrote ourselves and on balloons which our children handed out on the University of Michigan campus to promote our voter registration card tables. Shirley herself came to town once or twice during the campaign, but by and large was a distant mythic figure, devoting most of her time to more promising efforts in New York and California. Her Michigan supporters, left to their own devices, discovered that they possessed skills they didn’t know they had. With no one telling us what we should have been doing, we mounted a credible statewide campaign which united civil rights and anti-war activists with feminists. Shirley captured a big five percent of the primary vote, not that much but more than any anti-war candidate had done before. For better or worse, she paved the way for George McGovern, who probably made it possible for Nixon to pull out of Vietnam when he was president.
Those of us who worked for Shirley Chisholm, including our daughters who are now women, learned that we were capable of making our voices heard when it counted. The Democratic Party, sad to say, doesn’t seem to have learned a whole lot in the intervening thirty years. John Kerry, quickly receding into memory, has become just one more of the parade of colorless white men chosen by the Democrats who have failed to inspire voters.
There are rays of hope on the political horizon, of course. Michigan’s two outstanding Democratic elected women, Senator Debbie Stabenow and Governor Jennifer Granholm, both credit Millie Jeffrey, who died in March at 93, as the mentor for their very successful political careers. Millie, at that time a well-respected leader of the United Auto Workers and the Michigan Democratic party, was one of the mainstays of our Michigan Chisholm for President campaign in 1972, and in that role showed a lot of us how much can be accomplished even by campaigns where you can’t expect to win the election. Shirley Chisholm did that too, and we’ll miss her.