A Black woman's bespectacled face appeared in front of a podium. Her head was barely visible above the forest of microphones. It was 1972, and Shirley Chisholm was announcing her historic run for the White House, challenging fellow Democrats George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey, Edmund Muskie, Henry M. Jackson and George Wallace. “I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud. I am not the candidate of the woman's movement of this country, although I am a woman and I am equally proud of that.”
Before Carol Moseley Braun, before Barack Obama, before Hillary Clinton, Shirley Chisholm was both the first woman and the first African American to run for the nomination of a major party for president of the United States. Already the first Black woman to be elected to the United States Congress in 1968, Chisholm made her ambitious attempt to win the White House decades before her country was ready for her, garnering just 152 delegate votes at the Democratic National Convention.
Robert Gottlieb was first an intern in Chisholm’s congressional office and later hired as the student coordinator for her presidential campaign, which would come to rely heavily on the support of college students. “She was unafraid of anybody,” says Gottlieb. “Her slogan was 'unbought and unbossed.' She was really unbossed.”
The slogan appeared on Chisholm’s campaign posters, one of which resides in the collections of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Her posters and buttons left no doubt about who she was. One badge showed her face surrounded by the circle of an astrological Venus symbol. She didn't downplay her feminism—she flaunted it. The very idea of a Black woman in politics who made no apologies made her something of a punchline. Comedian Redd Foxx famously quipped, “I sure as hell prefer Raquel Welch to Shirley Chisholm.”
“So I’m 21 years old. I'm a senior in college. I’m raring to go,” says Gottlieb, who is now an attorney in New York City. “And my first trip was to North Carolina to go to some colleges to try to organize students. And I had to wait until we received the bumper stickers and brochures that we could hand out. Coming from the printer they were in boxes … but on the outside of the box you had one bumper sticker. On the other was one brochure, ‘Chisholm for President.’ I took a plane to Raleigh, North Carolina. And I go to pick up my bags and the brochures and bumper stickers from the luggage carousel. And scrawled all over it was ‘go home n*****.’ That's how the campaign began.”
Although dismissed at the time, Shirley Chisholm was a presidential candidate of considerable substance and experience. She’d served for years in the New York State Assembly and had a strong, loyal base of support in Brooklyn. As a member of Congress, she fought for programs like Head Start, school lunches and food stamps. She was one of only 19 representatives willing to hold hearings on the Vietnam War. And she was a founding member of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Women’s Caucus.
In spite of her impressive background, Chisholm was never able to consolidate support from what should have been her two largest constituencies—women and minorities.
“Feminists were split over her candidacy,” recalls Gottlieb. “Gloria Steinem, who you would expect to have supported her, supported McGovern instead. That was significant, and it hurt on a personal level quite a bit … you can’t look at 1972 through the same magnifying glass as 2016. Having a woman run for president was like having somebody from Mars run for president. And you then have a Black woman running for president, and everybody, all interest groups, were grappling with, ‘How do you deal with such a changed landscape?’ People were not comfortable with having a Black woman. And she often said, between being Black and being a woman, the biggest problem was being a woman.”
Black women tended to support her, but sexism was so prevalent at the time that she was discriminated against within the brand-new Congressional Black Caucus.
“They certainly were a cohesive group within Congress,” Gottlieb says. “But I recall hearing about a great deal of tension between certain male members and Mrs. Chisholm. There clearly was within the Black Caucus a significant degree of sexism that she felt.”
Black male voters did not rally around Shirley Chisholm. Her candidacy came at a time when Black political leaders were unsure about how to exercise power during the upcoming election. There was no obvious choice of a Black candidate who seemed to have a real chance of winning.
Julian Bond, then a representative in Georgia's state House of Representatives and already a prominent national figure, favored having Black voters in each state support a “favorite son” of that state. In each case, the candidate would not be expected to win the nomination, but a collection of delegates for various Black candidates from around the country could be a deciding force at the nominating convention. This could allow Black voters to make changes to the party platform.
Carl Stokes, a former congressman and the first Black mayor of Cleveland (or any other major American city), was mulling a bid but never actually entered the race. Some Black leaders thought that he had enough of a national reputation to be a serious contender. Others wanted to throw their support behind a white candidate who seemed to have a chance of winning.
In the midst of this confusion, Chisholm seized the initiative by announcing her run. “They were standing around, peeing on their shoes,” an unnamed Chisholm aide told the New York Times. “So Shirley finally said the hell with it and got a campaign going. If she hadn’t, we’d still be without a Black candidate.”
Bond did not appreciate Chisholm’s bold move. “We may have been peeing on our shoes, but if we were, she wasn’t around to get splashed.”
The Black vote was potentially a powerful force in the 1972 election, but it was fragmented among regional leaders who could not agree how to wield it together. For example, Georgia State Senator Leroy Johnson had a large organization in Atlanta, but he turned it over to Ed Muskie, who was the front-running white candidate at the time. Louis Stokes, the first Black member of Congress from Ohio, threw his support and organization behind Hubert Humphrey rather than his colleague in the Black Caucus. He may have been upset that Chisholm jumped into the race before his brother, Carl, could make up his mind. Alcee Hastings, a recently failed U.S. Senate candidate in Florida and prominent Black leader (who would later be elected to Congress, where he remains), endorsed Muskie.
Jesse Jackson, John Conyers Jr. and Julian Bond all traveled to Ohio to stump for George McGovern. The Black vote, as an organized entity, did not exist. Black leadership had Balkanized since the death of Martin Luther King Jr. only four years earlier. Black political leaders had more to gain by becoming the token Black endorser of a major white candidate than by uniting around Chisholm.
With Chisholm, their influence and prominence would be minimal as just one of hundreds of organizational supporters. But as only one of a few Black leaders endorsing a particular white candidate, each became more important.
The most dramatic point of the 1972 primary came when George Wallace, governor of Alabama and presidential candidate, was shot five times in an unsuccessful assassination attempt. Wallace, a semi-reformed segregationist who ran openly racist campaign advertisements, was left paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life.
Surprising everyone and angering her own supporters, Chisholm visited her racist rival in the hospital.
“Thinking about it then and now, that says everything you need to know about her,” says Gottlieb. “She did not agree with anything Wallace stood for. There’s no question about that. … But she understood that if you really care about the country and you want to effect change, you have to embrace everybody. She was a true human being of sensitivity, commitment. And when he was shot, he was a human being in pain. And she wasn't going to turn her back on him.”
“I couldn't stay long, because he was very ill,” Chisholm said in an interview late in her life, “and the doctors told me, ‘Congresswoman, you have to leave him.’ And he held on to my hand so tightly, he didn't want me to go.”
Chisholm had bet heavily on winning in delegate-rich Florida. “George Wallace for some strange unknown reason, he liked me,” Chisholm said. “George Wallace came down to Florida and he went all over Florida and he said to the people, ‘If you all can’t vote for me, don't vote for those oval-headed lizards. Vote for Shirley Chisholm!' And that crashed my votes, because they thought that I was in league with him to get votes. That’s what killed me in Florida.” Chisholm received only 4 percent of the Florida vote.
Wallace ended his campaign after being shot. Even with the field narrowed, Chisholm still struggled to get votes even from her supporters. One woman told the Tucson Daily Citizen, “I would like to be able to afford a vote for Shirley Chisholm, but I can’t. I want someone who will beat Nixon.” The same article in the Tucson Daily Citizen described a 50-something-year-old woman who, while wearing a Chisholm for President button, said she still hadn't decided who to vote for.
“She did not think that she was ever going to be elected president,” Gottlieb says. “She felt strongly about her issues and she thought that only she could talk about them in a way people would listen to. And she hoped to get enough delegates to go to the convention as a power broker.”
Chisholm arrived at the convention with 152 delegates—more than either Ed Muskie or Hubert Humphrey. Her plan had been to hope for a deadlocked convention in which she could use her delegates to negotiate a Black running mate, a woman to serve in the cabinet and a Native American as secretary of the interior. But McGovern had put together 1,729 delegates and had no incentive to make any deals at the convention.
Chisholm went back to Congress, where she continued to serve until 1981. She rose in leadership to become the secretary of the House Democratic Caucus (Geraldine Ferraro succeeded her and was later nominated for vice president, having at that time less experience in elected office than Chisholm had in 1972).
Gottlieb says that in modern politics, “there’s nobody even in Congress” like Shirley Chisholm, who died in 2005.
Today, the first Black president is preparing to leave office, and a woman is fighting for the Democratic nomination in a contest where her sex is at most a minor issue. Shirley Chisholm paved the way for both of them. But in an interview toward the end of her life, she downplayed her run for the White House relative to the whole of her life.
“I want history to remember me … not as the first Black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States,” Chisholm said, “but as a Black woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be herself. I want to be remembered as a catalyst for change in America.”