Obama is the Pres, but I voted for Shirley Chisholm*
The campaign and victory of Barack Obama were historic. In leading up the election I received a text that said,
“Rosa sat so Martin could walk, Martin walked so Obama could run, Obama ran so our children can fly!”**
This message, while inspirational, demonstrates the ways that one of the most historic and powerful presidential runs ever gets looked over, if not just downright ignored. In 1972, the campaign of Shirley Chisholm broke both the gender and race barrier in American presidential politics, but her campaign is still relatively unknown. Let me start this with an admission, I knew that Chisholm ran in 1972 but I had no idea about the discourse she pushed, assassination attempts, and what was certainly more than a symbolic run. At the close of the summer, I got to watch the documentary Chisholm 72- Unbought & Unbossed at Sundae Sermon. As I sat on a hill watching Shirley Chisholm challenge historical figures like George Wallace, George McGovern, and Hubert Humphrey, I was amazed at her vision, inspired by her bravery, and humbled by the ways we leave her out of history. That is a living example of why we need herstory, particularly within the Black community.
The film, by Shola Lynch, brilliantly transports the viewer into the political terrain and turmoil of 1972 politics. Watching primary footage of candidates eerily disturbed me as I heard the same rhetoric batted around 36 years later. In fact, while John McCain was still a P.O.W., Chisholm was the original maverick. She was the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress. Chisholm was the first serious female presidential candidate and she had a platform that explicitly spoke to the interests of Black people throughout the United States. Born to Bajan parents and raised in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn, Chisholm formed political alliances with the Black Panther Party, National Organization for Women, pushed the Democratic party to the left as they grappled with the development of splitting factions, and was founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus (though the CBC couldn’t get their act together to endorse her… gender politics as usual).
Chisholm’s campaign was absent from our discussions of Black presidential candidacies as we deferred to Jackson’s runs as the foundation for Obama’s run. In reality, had Chisholm not ran, neither Jackson nor Obama’s campaigns would have been able to achieve what they did. As we celebrate the historic election of Barack Obama, I pray that we do not wash the memory of Chisholm from our already tattered ledger. Her run, her work, and her vision laid the foundation, and her words still are relevant,
Prejudice and hatred built the nation’s slums, maintains them and profits by them …. Unless we start to fight and defeat the enemies in our country, poverty and racism, and make our talk of equality and opportunity ring true, we are exposed in the eyes of the world as hypocrites when we talk about making people free.
*The title of this post is an adaptation of a line from Biz Markie in “Nobody beats the Biz.” He said, “Reagan is the pres, but I voted for Shirley Chisholm.”
**The first variation of this I heard was at the 2008 Black State of the Union by Rep. Cleo Fields. There is a lot of internet debate about its origins, so I thought I’d link to the youtube here.