“We Just Changed, Got a Brand-New Funky President”¹: Teacher Shirley Chisholm Takes the Nation to School in 1972

Shirley Chisholm in a photo from 1972. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

 

 

 

1. In the Shed

 

 

I taught a class in the fall of 2020 entitled “Barack Obama and the Idea of the African American Presidency.” This AFAS course was created for two reasons: First, it was thought a good idea for AFAS to have a course about Obama and a course with his name in the title; after all, he was the first African American president. How can a Black Studies Department not have at least one explicit course about him? Second, 2020 was a presidential election year and that made the course timely.

The course covered, albeit briefly, every Black person who ever ran for the presidency or vice presidency, regardless of party, from Frederick Douglass (who received one vote for the presidential nomination at the 1888 Republican National Convention but did not actually run) to James Ford (vice-presidential candidate for the Communist Party in 1932, 1936, and 1940), from jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (independent write-in presidential candidate 1964) to Angela Davis (vice-presidential candidate for the Communist Party 1980 and 1984). But we closely examined only a few and among these were New York Congresswoman and former schoolteacher Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 run for the Democratic presidential nomination, about which she wrote a book entitled The Good Fight (Harper&Row, 1973). Chisholm was born on November 30, 1924, in Brooklyn, the daughter of immigrants. The students found her more interesting than any of the others we looked at in-depth except for Obama. Reading her book was something of a revelation for them, not only getting an insider’s view of Black political thinking and organizing in the early 1970s but also a look at how a major institution like the Democratic Party operates and how difficult it is to mount what was in Chisholm’s case a true insurgent candidacy.

As she writes in The Good Fight, “I ran because someone had to do it first. In this country everybody is supposed to be able to run for President, but that’s never been really true. I ran because most people think the country is not ready for a black candidate, not ready for a woman candidate.” (3, italics Chisholm) The challenge facing her was considerable: She had to be taken seriously as a candidate while, of course, having no chance of actually winning the nomination. But only those who have a chance of winning are taken seriously by their party, by the media, by voters. She had to parlay the idea of being the first Black and the first woman to seek a major party’s nomination as in and of itself worthy of being taken seriously, although no one was willing to finance it as such. (She needed $250,000 to run the bare minimum of a credible campaign; she raised only $95,000. The campaign cost her $300,000. She found herself on the college lecture circuit paying off the debt. [45])

Yet she did manage to garner respect from the other candidates seeking the nomination because she was a woman and a Black and no Democrat, in 1972, wanted to alienate either group by not taking someone seriously who symbolized both groups. The Civil Rights wars of the 1960s and the burgeoning women’s movement of the 1970s were having that much of an effect. Chisholm was also attractive to a lot of college students and as the 26th Amendment to the Constitution (ratified in July 1971) gave the 18-year-old the right to vote, no Democrat wanted to alienate the “youth” vote. What emerged from this was a party establishment that was fine with Chisholm’s candidacy as long as she was merely a symbol, a yearning, a way to focus the Democratic Party brand with certain groups, as long as she was not a threat. She made intelligible the idea of “our day will come,” for the groups she served as an emblem; that was fine as long as the day was coming and not yet here.

 

 

 

2. “Our Dreams Have Magic . . . ”²

 

 

“Presidential politics is a big-time, high-stakes game, and it is played by tough, sophisticated politicians with plenty of money and plenty of skill. My own participation in it in 1971 and 1972 was a unique, one-shot phenomenon, an effort by an amateur supported by a crowd of idealists. We were out to make a mark, but we could not hope to win; we didn’t have what it takes, and we knew it from the start. I would not recommend that any woman, or any black or Hispano-American, ever do again exactly what I did. The next campaign by a woman or a black must be well-prepared and well financed; it must be planned long in advance, and it must aim at the building of a new national coalition.”

—Shirley Chisholm (140)

 

 

One of Chisholm’s biggest obstacles was overcoming the opposition of the Black political establishment, completely dominated by men, many of whom found Black women to be matriarchal, emasculating, and generally overbearing shrews. Remember Walter Lee Younger’s complaint about how Black women do not support the aspirations of their men in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun or that “Respect,” written and originally recorded by Otis Redding, was about how Black women do not give Black men any respect. And the Nation of Islam, as Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X told us, gave us the sexes as they ought to be, granting the utmost respect to Black women, the motherhood of the race, as we Black men served as the protectors of our “queens.” My mother, race cynic that she was, thought that Muslim stuff was a lot of hogwash. Ah, the Black sex wars of my youth!

Plenty of Black people righteously condemned Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report on the Black family but more Black men secretly took it to heart than one might suspect. As Chisholm writes, “. . . if anyone thinks white men are sexists, let them check out black men sometime.” (31) The Black political establishment, for the most part, opposed her candidacy, even, in some quarters hated it. For those who thought that a Black candidate should run (many opposed the idea as marginalizing the Black vote), it was thought that a man, such as Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes, should run, as he was better known, had a more visible executive job as a mayor, and would have a certain cache with Black voters and some liberal Whites. And he was a man. Chisholm was accused of being on an ego trip, as if someone running for the Presidency, seriously or otherwise, was supposed to be a paragon of humility or as if anyone who ever did run was. It was a lame criticism.

(It is interesting to note that Chisholm, despite some misgivings, thought poet/playwright/essayist Amiri Baraka, who was at the height of his influence at the time in Black Power/Black Arts/Pan Africanist circles, should run for public office “because he could be a compelling candidate. The influence he wields at black political gatherings is almost entirely due to his personal qualities, his intelligence and his quiet but moving, persuasive speech, which many black elected officials cannot match.” [36-37] She saw his potential and was not put off by the fact that he was, in essence, an intellectual, which many Black political operatives and insiders were. That says something about her acuity and, remarkably, her lack of ego.)

Her campaign floundered because she had no money and had to rely on volunteers instead of paid professional organizers. The in-fighting between the Blacks and the feminists was fierce and she was unable to staunch the bloodletting. Segments of her supporters wound up hating each other almost as much as they hated Republicans and conservatives. Taming the beasts in politics is no easy task especially without the money necessary to keep them focused on the goal rather than the petty resentments they hold against one another. She earned 150 delegates in the end, an insignificant number, yet it was the first time a Black earned any such number of delegates at all during a major party’s nomination process.

The most striking chapter for me in her book is when she recounts visiting the stricken, critically wounded George Wallace, who was also running for the Democratic Presidential nomination after his considerable success in 1968 as the populist candidate for the White disaffected, anti-liberal vote. He was the object of an assassination attempt on May 15, 1972, at a shopping center. He was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Her description of her encounter with Wallace at a hospital in Maryland was heartbreaking. The once energetic and boisterous, now pathetic, racist Alabama governor who was shot by a White man, was, as Chisholm describes it, “sincerely touched. He cried for a moment, and so did I. ‘Is it really you, Shirley?’ he asked. ‘Have you come to see me?’” (97) Chisholm described them both as “the children of American democracy,” an apt, compelling description, the good daughter and the bad son.

She mentions in the chapter how some of the opposition to home rule for the District of Columbia and school busing was “so loaded with vitriolic and sickening hatred” that she left the House floor almost physically ill. “The decline of civility and the mounting crudeness of language in our public life could also be another reason for the disgust of people with politicians and government officials and the contempt manifested toward them.” (96) Long before Barack Obama assumed the presidency and the object of it, and before Donald Trump ran for the presidency and became the symbol of it, incivility has characterized American politics. This is why the political passions generated in a democracy are not for the faint of heart. For me, Chisholm sounds a bit like the schoolmarm here, although I understand her sentiments and why, particularly as a Black person, she would be so rattled and upset by some aspects of partisan politics. I always pay attention to the Black schoolmarm. It was all those tough, no-nonsense Black women teachers of my youth who got me where I am today. And they always were emphatic that we Black children behave as if we had some “home training,” as it were. Should racist White politicians be held to a lesser standard?

 

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¹ Lyric from James Brown’s 1974 R&B hit, “Funky President (People “It’s Bad)”

² Lyric from “Our Day Will Come,” a 1963 R&B hit for Ruby and the Romantics, written by Mort Garson and Bob Hilliard

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