Shirley Chisholm is NOT to be forgotten now or ever.
March 8, 2008 31 Comments
The thing that angers me about Obama and Clinton is this is NOT a historical first with regards to a black person or a woman seeking the presidency. The REAL historical first is Shirley Chisholm back in 1972.
Clinton has been using Chisholm’s legacy as a pawn with black folks and black women since one of the things she did as a junior senator is contribute to legislation honoring her. That’s it.
Obama, on the other hand, has channeled her “Unbought and Unbossed” campaign into an appeal to the people, catered to the hopes of young people with complete audacity, and has painted himself as the Every Person Candidate. That’s it.
Just as Chisholm did! Before Jesse Jackson, even!
It’s no coincidence or surprise from either politician to give her lip service about what she did. I mean, I read these words from Chisholm and it sounds like something Obama’s used in his speeches in almost the exact same words:
“You can be part of the system without being wedded to it,” I say. “You can take part in it without believing that everything it does is right. I don’t measure America by its achievement, but by its potential. There are still many things that we haven’t tried — that I haven’t tried — to change the way our present system operates. I haven’t exhausted the opportunities for action in the course I’m pursuing. If I ever do, I cannot at this point imagine what to do next. You want me to talk to you about revolution, but I can’t do that. I know what it would bring. My people are twelve percent of the population, at most fifteen percent. I am pragmatic about it: revolution would be suicide.”
Chisholm’s the one who paved the way. All these folks can spin Obama and Clinton as historical firsts and discard the importance of her run post-Civil Rights Acts era. I don’t buy the “first with a chance” theory. The fact that she ran knowing that she may not win reflects more on the superficiality of the American people than it does on the merits of her campaign and her spirit. Junior Congresswoman vying for the ticket, all of that. People have thrown lip service in her direction and a few quick glances; but if they look at her ideals you can see so much of her in this season. So much, and yet not enough.
Such leaders must be found. But they will not be found as much as they will be created, by an electorate that has become ready to demand that it control its own destiny. There must be a new coalition of all Americans — black, white, red, yellow and brown, rich and poor — who are no longer willing to allow their rights as human beings to be infringed upon by anyone else, for any reason. We must join together to insist that this nation deliver on the promise it made, nearly 200 years ago, that every man be allowed to be a man. I feel an incredible urgency that we must do it now. If time has not run out, it is surely ominously short.
And ironically, when I look back at descriptions of how Chisholm ran her campaign and garnered support, tactically Obama’s rhetoric squares with hers. (Aside: Why is this historical first’s biography out of print?)
On Young People and Change
One question bothers me a lot: Who’s listening to me? Some of the time, I feel dishearteningly small and futile. It’s as if I’m facing a seamless brick wall, as if most people are deaf to what I try to say. It seems so clear to me what’s wrong with the whole system. Why isn’t it clear to most others? The majority of Americans do not want to hear the truth about how their country is ruled and for whom. They do not want to know why their children are rejecting them. They do not dare to have to rethink their whole lives. There is a vacuum of leadership, created partly by the bullets of deranged assassins. But whatever made it, all we see now is the same tired old men who keep trucking down front to give us the same old songs and dances.
There are no new leaders coming along. Where are they? What has happened suddenly? On the national level, on the state level, who commands respect, who is believed by a wide enough cross section of the population to qualify as a leader? I don’t see myself as becoming that kind of a leader. My role, I think, is more that of a catalyst. By verbalizing what is wrong, by trying to strip off the masks that make people comfortable in the midst of chaos, perhaps I can help get things moving.
It may be that no one can have any effect on most adults on this society. It may be that the only hope is with the younger generation. If I can relate to them, give them some kind of focus, make them believe that this country can still become the America that it should have been, I could be content. The young may be slandered as “kooks” and “societal misfits” by frightened, demagogic old men, but that will not scare them. They are going to force change. For a while they may be beaten down, but time is on their side, and the spirit of this generation will not be killed. That’s why I prefer to go around to campuses and talk with the kids rather than attend political meetings. Politicians tell me I’m wasting my time and energy. “They don’t vote,” I’m told. Well, I’m not looking for votes. If I were, I would get the same kind of reception that a lot of political figures get when they encounter young people, and I would deserve it.
There are many things I don’t agree with some young zealots about. The main one, I suppose, is that I have not given up — and will not give up until I am compelled to — my belief that the basic design of this country is right. What is essential is to make it work, not to sweep it away and substitute — what? Something far worse, perhaps.
Most young people are not yet revolutionary, but politicians and police and other persons in power almost seem to be conspiring to turn them into revolutionaries. Like me, I think, most of them are no more revolutionary than the founders of this country. Their goals are the same — to insure liberty and equality of opportunity, and forever to thwart the tyrannous tendencies of government, which inevitably arise from the arrogance and isolation of men who are securely in power. All they want, if it were not too fashionable for them to say so, is for the American dream to come true, at least in its less materialistic aspects. They want to heal the gaping breach between this country’s promises and its performance, a breach that goes back to its founding on a Constitution that denied that black persons and women were full citizens. “Liberty and justice for all” were beautiful words, but the ugly act was that liberty and justice were only for white males. How incredible that it is nearly 200 years since then, and we have still to fight the same old enemies! How is it possible for a man to repeat the pledge of allegiance that contains these words, and then call his fellow citizens “social misfits” when they are simply asking for liberty and justice?
Such schizophrenia goes far back. “All forms of commerce between master and slave are tyranny,” intoned Thomas Jefferson, who is rumored to have had several children by black women on his estate. If the story is true, the great democrat was a great hypocrite. Even if it is not true, it has verisimilitude. It could be a perfect metaphor for the way our country was founded and grew, with lofty and pure words on its lips and the basest bigotry hidden in its heart.
The main thing I have in common with the kids is that we are tired of being lied to. What we want is for people to mean what they say. I think they recognize at least that I’m for real. They know most adult are selling something they can’t deliver.
I wonder if Gloria Steinem even remembers what she wrote about Shirley Chisholm as she shills for Sen. Clinton, or if any of the Obamaniacs recognize the person who tried it first.
Perhaps the best indicator of her campaign’s impact is the effect it had on individual lives. All over the country, there are people who will never be quite the same: farm women in Michigan who were inspired to work in a political campaign for the first time; Black Panthers in California who registered to vote, and encouraged other members of the black community to vote, too; children changed by the sight of a black woman saying, “I want to be President”; radical feminists who found this campaign, like that of Linda Jenness in the Socialist Workers’ Party, a possible way of changing the patriarchal system; and student or professional or “blue-collar” men who were simply impressed with a political figure who told the truth as she say it, no matter what the cost.
The Chisholm candidacy didn’t forge a solid coalition of those people working for social change; that will take a long time. But it began one. If you listen to personal testimony from very diverse sources, it seems that the Chisholm candidacy was not in vain. In fact, the truth is that the American political scene may never quite be the same again.
So perhaps it is time for the electorate to ask ourselves honestly what we want to see our President do, instead of listening to what they want to do for us.
I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency of the United States of America. (Clapping.)
I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. (Clapping.)
I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman, and I am equally proud of that. (Clapping.)
I am not the candidate of any political bosses or fat cats or special interests.” (Clapping. cheers).
I stand here now without endorsements from many big name politicians or celebrities or any other kind of prop. I do not intend to offer to you the tired and glib clichés, which for too long have been an accepted part of our political life. I am the candidate of the people of America. And my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history.
I have always earnestly believed in the great potential of America. Our constitutional democracy will soon celebrate its 200th anniversary, effective testimony, to the longevity to our cherished constitution and its unique bill of rights, which continues to give to the world an inspirational message of freedom and liberty.
We Americans are a dynamic people…
And no white feminist would dare say she neglected women’s rights.
But I understand why most people now would rather have you forget her. She is perhaps the first black woman who knew her place and dared to ask people to help her get there.
“The Chisholm candidacy… confused and unsettled the niggers — and by niggers, I don’t mean just the black niggers, but also the student niggers and the woman niggers and the poor niggers — plus a whole lot of other people who thought they were revolutionaries but discovered they couldn’t dig her wig.”
— Florynce Kennedy, lawyer, black activist, a founder of the National Organization for Women and the Feminist Party
(Above quote added for Daisy after I recognized the speaker! Hehe, gracias! ;))