Throughout history, innumerable African American leaders have fought to make a more inclusive and just world, and we all benefit greatly from the outcomes of their struggle. In recognition of Black History Month, we feel it is important to highlight several of these leaders and the profound ways in which their work has advanced the labor movement, promoted civil rights, and undeniably influenced our culture. We do this to draw attention to important people we didn’t learn about in school and to honor the ongoing work of African American leaders today.
We’re starting this month by spotlighting a groundbreaking, but lesser known figure – Shirley Chisholm.
Born in Brooklyn to a family that immigrated from the Caribbean (British Guiana and Barbados), Shirley Chisholm is best known for becoming the first black congresswoman in 1968, representing New York in the House of Representatives for seven terms. In 1972 she also became the first major-party African American candidate to run for president. Despite having an underfinanced campaign and being blocked from participating in televised debates, she gained a significant following, winning 10% of the delegates in eligible primaries.
From her early years as an education and child welfare consultant in New York to her work on the House Education and Labor Committees, Chisholm was a lifelong champion of education opportunities and social justice. In addition, she was heavily involved in numerous organizations, including the National Organization of Women, the League of Women Voters, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), and the National Women’s Political Caucus.
A notable maverick, she famously hired only women for her staff and was known for taking positions against the Vietnam War, for minority and women’s issues, and for challenging the congressional seniority system. She was proud, outspoken, and entirely uninterested in conforming:
“I want history to remember me not just as the first black woman to be elected to Congress, not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and dared to be herself.”
To learn more about Shirley Chisholm, check out some the sources used for this brief biography: