In a history-making election, plenty of new and unexpected faces — many of them black and brown, many of them female — will now be taking their first steps into their congressional futures.
For inspiration and example, the list of winners that includes Ayanna Pressley, Lucy McBath, Jahana Hayes, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and others might want to learn from the lessons of Shirley Chisholm, the Brooklyn, New York, native who made history 50 years ago as the first African-American woman elected to Congress.
It was the start of a national political career in which Chisholm, who died in 2005, fearlessly and relentlessly stood up and spoke out for such causes as civil and women’s rights and that included a run for president just four years after her first federal win.
“We should be inspired by the fact that she always went up against the status quo,” said Rep. Yvette Clarke, whose Brooklyn district now includes a portion of the area that Chisholm was elected to represent and who introduced a bill earlier this year calling for a statue of Chisholm to be placed at the U.S. Capitol. “She was able to assert a moral political direction that galvanized people across this nation.”
In the days before the November 1968 general election, there was a lot of conventional wisdom spouted about the issues Chisholm faced in her first congressional campaign.
Her opponent, civil rights activist James Farmer, had a national reputation, while she was local. He had the endorsement of powerful politicians while she organized on the ground in her Brooklyn community. And he was a man.
A newspaper headline about the race in the days before the election simply referred to her as “woman.” But Chisholm won the race by a 2-1 margin.
She didn’t let the institutional power her campaign faced rattle her, said Zinga Fraser, professor and director of the Shirley Chisholm Project on women and activism at Brooklyn College. Instead, Chisholm went with a campaign theme of “unbought and unbossed” and reached out to build a coalition of black women and others who had been excluded from the power structure for their electoral support. It was the same approach she took in 1972, when she ran for president as a Democrat and became the first black major-party presidential candidate, competing in 12 state primaries and winning 28 delegates.
Chisholm “called herself the people’s candidate because she wanted to bring on a new way to think about democracy, and who was privileged and who had the audacity to run,” Fraser said.
“We all just take so much strength and inspiration from her, to walk in her footsteps,” said Kimberly Peeler-Allen, co-founder of Higher Heights, an organization that promotes the political power of black women as voters and candidates. “How she led, how she had no fear of speaking truth to power.”
Hayes, a Democratic teacher and first-time candidate who becomes the first black woman that Connecticut has sent to Congress, even referenced Chisholm in her victory remarks Tuesday night, acknowledging the 50th anniversary of Chisholm’s Nov. 5, 1968, election.
Chisholm, born in Brooklyn to West Indian immigrant parents, was already the first black woman in the New York state Legislature when she decided to run for the seat representing the newly drawn 12th Congressional District, which included central Brooklyn neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights and had been created in a way that made it more likely Brooklyn would have its first black member of Congress.
After winning the Democratic primary, she faced Farmer, nationally known co-founder of the Congress of Racial Equality and leader of the 1961 Freedom Ride, who was endorsed by then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and other powerful politicians.
Letitia James, the New York City public advocate who made history Tuesday as the first African-American woman elected to hold statewide New York office as the state attorney general, said Chisholm’s example matters all these years later because “we’re fighting for the same people who don’t have a voice at the table.”
On Nov. 5, the 50th anniversary of Chisholm’s congressional victory, Rep. Clarke and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who also represents some of what was Chisholm’s district, announced legislation that if it passes would recognize Chisholm with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress.
Lessons learned from Chisholm were clearly resonant for black women running for office this year, incumbents and challengers alike, those who won and those who didn’t.
Vanessa Enoch, 48, who ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for the Ohio congressional seat once held by John Boehner that hasn’t been out of Republican hands in decades, said she identified with Chisholm’s determination to run, in spite of how obvious it was that the power structure had lined up behind her opponent.
“I admire her courage, I admire her stamina to stick with the things that she believed in as she went into those places that were not welcoming to her, her wherewithal to continue to stand her ground and make sure her voice was not ignored,” Enoch said.
Chisholm left a legacy, she said, “that we don’t allow the status quo to continue to be comfortable ignoring our voices and ignoring those things that concern us.”