A Look Back On Shirley Chisholm's Historic 1968 House Victory Fifty years ago, Shirley Chisholm became the first African-American woman elected to Congress. As part of our series on significant events from 1968, we examine Chisholm's life and work.
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A Look Back On Shirley Chisholm's Historic 1968 House Victory

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A Look Back On Shirley Chisholm's Historic 1968 House Victory

A Look Back On Shirley Chisholm's Historic 1968 House Victory

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Fifty years ago on election night, Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman ever elected to Congress. As we continue our series on the events of 1968, NPR's Walter Ray Watson takes a look at Chisholm's victory and her legacy.

WALTER RAY WATSON, BYLINE: Shirley Chisholm's election in 1968 barely registered with media at the time. Richard Nixon's narrow win of the White House dominated headlines and airwaves. And few people outside Brooklyn, N.Y., were paying attention to a black woman's campaign. It wasn't until months later that the country started taking notice. An NBC News camera crew filmed Chisholm on the steps of the U.S. Capitol fielding questions from students visiting from her district.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE IRREPRESSIBLE SHIRLEY CHISHOLM")

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: How do you feel being the first black woman, you know, in the House of Representatives?

SHIRLEY CHISHOLM: I have mixed feelings. First of all, I'm very glad to have been able to make history in this country by being the first black woman. And boys and girls, as far as I'm concerned, actually, it's overdue. So I don't get terribly excited about it.

WATSON: This is from the network's 1969 documentary, a half-hour called "The Irrepressible Shirley Chisholm." Ebony magazine also put her on their cover. But even as she got more press, she found herself fighting for her voice in Congress. Here's what she told Tavis Smiley on NPR back in 2003 when asked which was a bigger obstacle, her race or her gender.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CHISHOLM: I met far more discrimination being a woman than being black when I moved out in the political arena. There were all kinds of meetings and all kinds of groups got together in order to stop me from moving out because I was very outspoken, very articulate and I didn't take any guff from anybody.

WATSON: Chisholm left a teaching career to enter politics in 1964, winning a seat in the New York State Assembly, where she helped pass unemployment insurance for domestic workers. She then set her sights on federal office. Once in Congress, she fought for Head Start, an early education program. She also advocated for the Equal Rights Amendment and co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus as one of the original nine members.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: There are people in our country's history who don't look left or right; they just look straight ahead. And Shirley Chisholm was one of those people.

WATSON: President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Chisholm the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: When Shirley was assigned to the House Agricultural Committee despite the fact that her district was from New York City...

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: ...She said, apparently, all they know here in Washington about Brooklyn is that a tree grew there.

(LAUGHTER)

WATSON: The point is, Chisholm, from the very start, refused to be sidelined in Congress. She demanded and got moved to the Veterans Affairs Committee while the Vietnam War was still raging. In 1972, Shirley Chisholm made history again, running for the Democratic Party's nomination for president. Ayanna Pressley is one of many who cite Chisholm as inspiration today. She's poised to become the first black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AYANNA PRESSLEY: Shirley Chisholm said she simply wanted to be remembered as a black woman who dared to be herself. When more of us do that, we win.

WATSON: In Georgia, Stacey Abrams, another black woman, is trying to make history in the governor's race there. She says she's proud to be part of Shirley Chisholm's legacy. This is a record year for women running for governor and for Congress.

Walter Ray Watson, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOROTHY ASHBY'S "GAMES")

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