Remembering Shirley Chisholm: 'Unbought and Unbossed'
MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, media usage among tweens and teens is up dramatically, according to a new study. And it's up the most among Latinos and African-Americans. That's our moms' conversation in just a few minutes.
But first, in January of 1969, Richard Nixon was sworn in as the 37th president of the United States. The Soviets launched two missions to Venus, Elvis Presley started recording his comeback album and The Beatles gave their last public performance. And Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm was sworn in as the first black woman to serve in the U.S. Congress after a campaign where she promised that she was unbought and unbossed.
That distinction of being the first black woman to do something was one she found both foolish and a source of pride and motivation. And she earns that distinction again four years later when she became the first black president from a major party to run for president and the first woman to seek the Democratic nomination.
SHIRLEY ANITA ST: I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I'm not the candidate of the women's movement of this country, although I am a woman and I'm equally proud of that. I'm not the candidate of any political bosses or fat cats or special interests. I am the candidate of the people. And my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history.
MARTIN: How she got started and what made her tick is the subject of the startlingly candid autobiography that she first published in 1970. It's titled "Unbought and Unbossed" and a 40th anniversary edition of the book has just been published. With us now to tell us more about Shirley Chisholm, her years in Congress and her place in history are Shola Lynch, who produced and directed an award winning film about Chisholm's run for the presidency called, appropriate enough, "Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed."
Also with us Barbara Ransby, she's a professor of history and African- American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. And she's written extensively about black women in politics. I welcome you both, thank you for joining us.
SHOLA LYNCH: Thank you for having me.
BARBARA RANSBY: Thank you.
MARTIN: Barbara, Shirley Chisholm won her congressional seat at the time of great social and political upheaval. This was 1968. This is the year that both Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy were killed. Nixon who won the presidency, the country was in great turmoil over the Vietnam War. Can you just briefly tell us how she was able to do it? How she was able to break through the racial and political and gender barriers at the time? As she told us, she was the first.
RANSBY: She was the first and, as Shola's documentary illustrates beautifully, I mean, she was a forceful personality. And I think that was certainly a factor. But as you pointed out, you know, it was really the times. I mean, there was a confluence of energy around women's issues. The black power movement was taking off. So, she really rode the tide of those movements combined with her own determination and political savvy.
MARTIN: Shola, you wrote the afterward for this new edition of her book. And one of the things I thought was hilarious...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: ...is that you acknowledged that when you were growing up, you actually found Shirley Chisholm kind of embarrassing.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: I mean, the idea that she would run for the presidency knowing that she would lose, who would do that? And so you obviously changed your mind. What was it about her that you came to appreciate?
LYNCH: Definitely her unbought and unbossed nature. How she got elected to Congress had to deal with civil rights laws, the changes in civil rights laws. In another words, (unintelligible) that kind of helped her out. And the other thing is she was always kind of overlooked as a political strategist. She ran in that district and, well, the other candidates were worrying about male voters. She took a look and realized that most of the people that are registered to vote were women. And she did coffee klatches and she went out and got that vote, and actually won by not dealing with most of the guys and their strategy.
MARTIN: Barbara, just to get some background, Chisholm was a preschool teacher and she got involved in Democratic politics by decorating cigar boxes for the fundraiser for the Democratic Club. And her first coup was when she said to the other women involved in the project: We did all the work for these fund raisers, now what are you going to give us...
MARTIN: ...do to this? And I'm just curious - when she talks about this, I mean, how they normally, the power structure - if I can use those words - would deal with somebody like her was try to buy her off as it were by giving her, you know, committee assignments and plums and things like that, but she would feel keep doing her thing, as she would put it. And I'm just wondering if you have any sense of how it is that she was able to never get co-opted in a way that other people will do?
RANSBY: Well, she had an enormous amount of confidence. And I think any assessment of her is both a personal assessment of the forceful personality that she was, but also an assessment of her as a grassroots organizer who knocked on doors, who had confidence that ordinary people could make a difference. And the ordinary people who had been left out of the process and not taken seriously in the past, she took them seriously. She mobilized them and that was a real key to her success.
MARTIN: But she talked in her memoir about how she was treated when she went to the Hill, things that people said to her just really hard to fathom today. And people asking her, you know, what did your husband think about all this? And I have a little bit of a clip of her talking about her first days in Congress. I just want to play it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CHISHOLM '72: UNBOUGHT AND UNBOSSED")
CHISHOLM: When I went there, I was very, very unhappy, to be truthful about it. Well, you never had a black woman sat in the United States Congress before. And they all stood back, stood away from me. I felt that I was somebody coming out of the moon.
MARTIN: What about that, Shola? How did she keep her chin up as it were? She doesn't really talk about that in the book about how she kept herself going.
LYNCH: You know, what she talked about was, what Barbara mentioned, confidence. And she got a lot of that, I think, from her upbringing. She started school in Barbados and was able to be a smart little person without having kind of race or too much gender put on her.
And so by the time she came to United States - and in fact she told me a story that I couldn't include in the film - they tried to put her back when she came to public school in Brooklyn, came back with her parents, because she didn't know American history and she ended up being a problem child. She started talking all the time and she would beam people with rubber bands, she said, until one of her teachers realized she's bored to death. And they tested her and actually she needed to be put up a grade beyond her age. And I just think if that hadn't happened to her, what other pass she might have taken.
So, I think that where she got her beginnings in her parents, including her father who was a unionist and a (unintelligible). She speaks so fondly of him and overhearing his political conversations at the dinner table and afterwards with his union buddies. The other thing is that people her whole life were telling her she couldn't do things. And she honestly got irrigated with it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LYNCH: And so, she decided to do something about it. I think that's what kind of amazing is. In 1968 and 1972 when women couldn't even really get credit cards on their own names, here's this woman saying: No, you know what, I can represent my district. And then in '72 when she runs for president: You know what, I could represent the whole United States of America. She backs up her rhetoric with action that enables her to get close to her goal, if not reach it. That strategy is really a part of it.
So, it's not just talk and rallies and marches and blah, blah, blah, and this is the right thing to do. She actually looks at what power was in a particular situation. In other words, when she ran for Congress, what votes - how many votes she needed and what she needed to do. And when she was running for president, how many delegates she needed to collect and put a strategy together to be as powerful as possible.
RANSBY: Michel, can I just add one thing to what Shola is saying...
RANSBY: ...because I don't want to miss that there was a personal ambition, but there was also a larger ambition in terms of an agenda. And I think that links to this point about strategy, which is to say it wasn't just a strategy for her own carrier advancement, it was a strategy to advance the issues that she championed. And even if she was going to lose a particular election, I think positioning herself to be a voice for those issues was critically important.
MARTIN: Barbara, one of her famous first was that her first congressional staff was almost all female and half African-American. Was that a difficult choice at that time? Why did she do that?
RANSBY: I think it was a difficult choice for her and I think there are some quotes, I don't remember if it's in Shola's film or in some of the books that have been written, but she talks about women were going to be the hardest workers. She had confidence in the strength and savvy and mental and muscle power of women could do the work. And so, I think that's who she leaned on. And, of course, she got a lot of criticism and doubt and skepticism from a lot of male critics inside and outside the African-American community, by the way.
MARTIN: Yeah, tell me about that.
RANSBY: As we know, oppressed people are not immune to being insensitive to other issues of oppression. And so, even though black - a number of black men were involved in the black power movement and so forth, there was still a significant amount of sexism in the community.
And the way in which black politics were framed by a significant sector of the movement was a very male-centered frame. That is to say this is about the liberation of black men, this is about rejecting the emasculation of black men. And here you have this strong, savvy black woman putting herself forward. And some, not all, black men objected to that on political grounds through the political frame that they had put up.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the life and legacy of the late New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. Our guests are Professor Barbara Ransby of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Shola Lynch, the filmmaker behind the award-winning documentary "Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unbossed," which chronicles Chisholm's 1972 presidential run.
The other thing that she did on Capitol Hill that attracted a lot of attention, she refused the first committee assignment that was offered to her. Barbara, what - how big of a deal was that? She was I assigned to - I think it was the Subcommittee on Forestry and the Agriculture Committee, and she said this is absolutely nothing to do with my district.
RANSBY: Right, it didn't relate to Brooklyn and the urban community that she was a part of, yeah. I mean, she went there not with her hat in hand being grateful for being elected but someone who had some work to do and was going to guarantee she was positioned in the right place to do it.
MARTIN: How did her run lay the groundwork for the other African- American women who came after her?
RANSBY: Certainly since her election in 1968, there's been 27 African-American women elected to Congress, one in the Senate, several Latina woman and several Asian-American women. So yeah, she paved the way.
But I also want to always say, you know, we talk sometimes about firsts in an absolute sense. It's important to talk about what she stood for, and that progressive political tradition I think is what a number of women of color who have gone to Congress since her have built upon, you know, being a voice for domestic workers, for women in need of day care, being a voice for peace, pushing a progressive agenda that has resonated through black women's organizing efforts in communities and in Congress.
MARTIN: To that point, Shola, I'm curious about your reaction when you first encountered the memoir, because reading it today, I'm struck by just how bracing it is, and as a person who's read many political memoirs, I am struck by it because the custom now for many people is to kind of hedge around, like, why did this or why they did that or to sort of, you know, they are sort of like PR tracks, and you really get the sense from this book that she addresses a lot of the sensitive areas of life like, for example, people trying to sort of suggest that her husband was less than manly, if you will, for allowing her to run and that sort of thing.
LYNCH: That's what I found really interesting, is that we lost a lot of people because we don't see their colorfulness, their boldness through how they're described at first. That's kind of two-dimensional. It's flat. Even what Barbara was saying, when she was in Congress and didn't take her first committee assignment, she said, you know, the seniority system ought to be called the senility system. She had a way of turning a phrase that allowed you to kind of chuckle a little bit and at the same time say, okay, she knows what she's talking about and she's being quite serious.
And I think she could do that because she was way outside of whatever the political establishment was, and so she thought, if I'm going to be there, I might as well speak my mind.
MARTIN: What do you think, Shola, that people picking up this book today will draw from it? What do you think that they'll be most surprised by?
LYNCH: I think they'll be most surprised by her personality, that she's somebody you would actually would want to know, and I think that a lot of our historical figures are so packaged in a way that takes everything that's edgy and human out of them.
And she's somebody that, when I got to know her through the interview process, I could imagine in my family or, you know, like at Thanksgiving when you're a kid and you ignore that crazy aunt and the weird uncle and their outfits and their stories, and you get to that certain age, and you're like, wow, they lived through a period of time that I call history and they have fantastic things and insights and a way of personalizing this so-called boring narrative of American history or black history or women's history, and I think that's what's exciting about reading her autobiography, because it's her words.
MARTIN: And Barbara, finally, people who know nothing of Shirley Chisholm may remember this one quote because it's often repeated, at least it was certainly repeated quite a lot during the last presidential election.
And she says in the book that, quote, "of my two handicaps," and that's in quotes, being female put many more obstacles in my path than being black. And we're just a year out from a presidential campaign that saw arguably the first competitive runs by female candidates for a major party nomination and, of course, for the vice presidency.
There was Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side, Sarah Palin on the Republican side, and there was a lot of sort of discussion about the relative weight of race versus gender in our national political life, and I just wondered, Barbara, if you have some thoughts about - and I'm asking you - I'm doing something that's terribly unfair, asking you to channel someone, you know, who is not here, but...
RANSBY: Yeah, I'm not going to do that.
MARTIN: But I'm just interested in your take on that, and I'm just curious if you think she'd still feel that way.
RANSBY: Well, I think that was part of what she felt because there were also other quotes that aren't mentioned or cited as often in which she talked about the absolute pervasiveness of racism, the need to continue to fight against racism, how powerful an influence it was in our society.
So she wasn't in any way making an absolute statement. I think she was rendering a statement at a particular moment in her own career in which the forces that had - she had expected to give her support were not coming forward, and this very male-centered rhetoric in the black community at that time was really an obstacle to the political campaign that she was trying to engage.
MARTIN: Shola, what about you?
LYNCH: From having interviewed her, I'd say that Shirley Chisholm would really say that whatever your Achilles Heel is in the game of politics, somebody's going to go after it, and depending on what the issue was and what she was standing for, she was attacked both for her gender and for her race.
I will say this, though, that some of the gender stuff was really derisive. I mean, there were jokes going around about what she looked like and her husband, and they were really kind of nasty and mean- spirited but made, you know, the black press. But she had the presence of mind to not let that derail her.
So I think the point is definitely that people will attack your Achilles Heel but to be able to rise above it the way that she did and keep moving forward in the service of your issues or your end goal.
MARTIN: I'm just curious, though. You did make a point of saying that she was very mindful of the need to attend to a personal life. In fact, she was very quick to tell you, Shola, at the time: Listen, young lady, don't neglect that.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: I found that very charming. Don't neglect your personal life.
LYNCH: Yeah, no, she believed very strongly in family, and I think that came from her family life growing up and her relationship with her father, and then, you know, people like to make fun of her, but she was always a married woman. She always had a man in her life who was giving her love and support and had two very long marriages.
And so she wanted to kind of share that with me, and at the time, I thought oh, you know, well, I mumbled something like oh, well, I'm too busy, blah, blah, blah, and she really took me to task for that.
I'd like to say thank you, Shirley Chisholm, because of you, I've been able to find a wonderful feminist husband who is running for Congress and also have two beautiful kids.
MARTIN: Shola Lynch is the filmmaker behind the documentary "Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unbossed," which chronicles Shirley Chisholm's 1972 presidential campaign. She joined us from our bureau in New York. Barbara Ransby is a professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. We're talking about Shirley Chisholm's memoir, her 1970 memoir, "Unbought & Unbossed." It's recently been re-released. Ladies, thank you so much for speaking with us.
RANSBY: Thank you, Michel.
LYNCH: Thank you for having us. Martin.
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