As a Losing Presidential Candidate, Shirley Chisholm is Still Triumphant
She is “elated” by the response she’s received throughout her run — from women, from blacks, from Chicanos, from native Americans, from young people and old people.
WASHINGTON, August 1, 1972: On the night of Sen. George McGovern’s nomination, Rep, Shirley Chisholm, D-NY, one of the few Presidential candidates to go all the way, stood on the podium at the National Democratic Convention feeling triumphant and elated.
What she witnessed that night was sweet vindication of her Don Quixote crusade: She was the first black woman with the temerity and guts to run for the Presidency. “As long as I live, I will never forget it,” Mrs. Chisholm says. “I looked down on a sea of faces — a real cross-section of the country. I saw Indian faces, brown faces, Chicanos, a large number of black faces, women.
“It was America.” And it was what Shirley Chisholm’s candidacy was all about. The slight, resilient Congresswoman from New York has “no regrets.” On the personal side, she “showed ‘em” — the doubters, the detractors, the amused.
“Everybody wondered when Shirley Chisholm would drop out,” she says, “Because from the beginning they didn’t believe Shirley Chisholm was a serious candidate. Well, those who had big name endorsers dropped out. Those who had lots of money dropped out.
“So now they know as the result of the bid I made, if nothing else, whenever a woman or a black person decides to make a bid for the Presidency of this country, they’d better sit up and take notice. “Because I have opened the door.” Mrs. Chisholm’s own political future also is brighter than it would appear. Although she only had 151 delegates, she considers them significant, especially since “they came primarily from the South.”
Her reelection to Congress in the fall should be a shoo-in — “I have no competitors. There are a lot of black people, black and white” who want her to run for the Senate and “people say they’d like me to run for the vice-presidency in in 1976.” She won’t make “any decisions” for the next couple of years, until 1974, when the Senate seat now held by Republican Jacob Javits will be up, but she claims she is unconcerned. “I don’t have any hangups about being a politician for the rest of my life. If the people don’t want me anymore, I’ll be finished.”
What she’ll do, in that unlikely event, is open a political institute in Washington for young people and black people. “It’s not enough for them to have the desire to move into positions of power in this country. They have to know how. You can’t get it out of political science textbooks. You have to get it from people who have been in the business, who can tell it like it is,” says Mrs. Chisholm, who considers herself “a living example.”
She won’t run for the Presidency again “unless I have $700,000. I had so little money.” She raised $84,000 and still owes $50,000, she said. What she did have — the support and sympathy of minority groups, young people and women — was, almost, better than money. She remembers the day she came into the Jacksonville, FL airport where “100 cars were there to meet me.” And among the people, “a little white Southern man. He couldn’t have been more than 5 feet tall. He had a hat on a little too large for him. I can close my eyes and see him now. Around his hat, which kept slipping down on his eyes, was a homemade sign: ‘Chizum for President.’”
Then there was the elderly man at the convention — “He was about 82, a very distinguished gentleman, one of those special kind of officials. A little delegate ran by him barefooted. ‘Oh, my god,’ he said, ‘I never thought I would live to see hell on earth. This is it.’ “ Mrs. Chisholm chuckled, remembering. “The way he said it. It was the passing of an era. The handwriting was on the wall at that convention. The torch was being passed on to new generations and different kinds of people who never had any influence before.”
During the campaign, she had eavesdropped on members of a Tiger Bay Club, a man’s social club in Florida, going in to hear one of her speeches. “One of them said, ‘Oh, she’s so young-looking.’ “Another said, ‘She isn’t bad looking.’ “While another said, ‘She’s probably going to talk to us about daycare centers.’ Mrs. Chisholm took the lectern. “Gentlemen,” she said, “I couldn’t help overhearing your remarks about me. I’m glad some of you think I’m attractive. I’m glad some of you think I look young. And I know some of you think I know nothing but daycare. I’m here today to address you on foreign policy.”
The hardest part of her campaign wasn’t physical — “I’ve always worked hard” — but the “mental anguish” of making peace among her followers. “Nobody has to go through the rivalries and jealousies and infighting and internecine warfare that goes around a candidacy like mine. You are suddenly all things to all people.” As the candidate “for those who have been left out,” Mrs. Chisholm understands why the minority groups fought among themselves. “They still don’t want to be left out, even as followers of their own candidate.
“At the end of the day, you find yourself spending time pacifying all of them.” She sighed. But she has a lot of faith in these people. “They are plain human beings who have talent and intelligence,” says Mrs. Chisholm, who believes there will soon be “blacks in power, women in power, Indians in power. America is multi-faceted. It isn’t only for white males.”
“People think you are a kook. People think you are crazy, people think you don’t know what you are doing,” says the pretty, perfectly-groomed Congresswoman who always seems to be all-business. She is sorry that people don’t know “the other side of Shirley Chisholm.” She grins, “People don’t know what a good dancer I am. And what an accomplished pianist.’
Mrs. Chisholm says she’s terrific at the frug and the Watusi, which she dances with friends — her husband, Conrad. And what’s more, “I’m a good roller skater and ice skater, too.” Well, Mrs. Chisholm didn’t make it as the first black, woman, dancing, roller skating, piano-playing president. But nobody thinks she’s a kook anymore.
[This article originally appeared in The Evening Star and Daily News, August 1, 1972 as Shirley’s Opened the Door? #108 in a collection of more than 100 newspaper articles by Judy Flander from the second wave of the Women’s Movement reflecting the fervor and ingenuity of the women who rode the wave.]