44 Years Ago, Shirley Chisholm Became the First Black Woman to Run For President

Chisholm saw her campaign as a necessary “catalyst for change”

Shirley Chisholm
Jessica Burstein/Corbis

During her decades-long political career, Shirley Chisholm established a lot of firsts. A community activist and educator-turned-congresswoman from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York, Chisholm became the first black woman ever to be elected to the House of Representatives and a founding member of both the Congressional Black Caucus and later, the Congressional Women’s Caucus. But perhaps most significantly, just a few years after arriving in Congress, Chisholm became the first black woman to run as a major party candidate for president of the United States, breaking down barriers and paving a path for people like President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Chisholm was first elected to Congress in 1968 and when she stepped onto the floor of the House of Representatives, she quickly became known not for her race or gender, but for being outspoken and unafraid to fight for what she believed in, Rajini Vaidyanathan writes for the BBC.

"I have no intention of just sitting quietly and observing. I intend to speak out immediately in order to focus on the nation's problems," Chisholm said at the time, Vaidyanathan reports.

In her first floor speech on March 26, 1969, she spoke out against the Vietnam War, vowing to vote against any new military spending. She fought for immigrant rights, to improve access to education and to help create the Consumer Product Safety Commission, according to her House of Representatives biography.

"Can you imagine being a woman, and black in congress then?" California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who once worked for Chisholm, tells Vaidyanathan. "Some of the men in Congress did not respect her, she just stood out and they didn't get her. But she wouldn't back down. She didn't go along to get along, she went to change things."

In 1972, just a few years after being elected to Congress, Shirley Chisholm announced that she was seeking the Democratic nomination for the presidency, running against politicians like George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey, and George Wallace. But while Chisholm admitted that she never expected to win and her campaign was largely symbolic, she ran in order to prove that Americans would vote for a black woman.

"I stand before you today, to repudiate the ridiculous notion that the American people will not vote for qualified candidates, simply because he is not white or because she is not a male," Chisholm told supporters when she launched her campaign. "I do not believe that in 1972, the great majority of Americans will continue to harbour such narrow and petty prejudice."

Chisholm’s campaign wasn’t easy. During the road to the primaries, she survived multiple assassination attempts, sued to make sure she would appear in televised debates and fought her way onto the primary ballots in 12 states. Though she didn’t win, in the end Chisholm won 10 percent of the total vote at the Democratic National Convention, clearing a path for future candidates that weren't white or male.

"Shirley Chisholm would have been proud of our achievements," Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke, who represents part of Chisholm’s district, tells Mary C. Curtis for NBC News. But, she says, Chisholm still wouldn’t be satisfied.

"Why more than 40 years after she entered the Democratic Party primary for president of the United States, this nation has yet to elect a woman of color as president; she would go right to the heart of it because her style, her way of capturing the hearts and minds of Americans was courageous and it was forthright," Clarke tells Curtis.

Editors Note, January 29, 2016: This post's title has been amended to clarify that Shirley Chisholm ran as a major party candidate in the 1972 presidential race. Margaret Chase Smith was the first woman to run for president as a major party candidate.

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