Since its first publication in 1951, Jet magazine had been on the forefront covering news and issues important to its African-American readership. Widely popular for its commentary on politics, culture, and the lives of everyday people, Jet posed a question in June 1971 that would soon prove prophetic: “Should a Black Politician Run for President?”
Jet’s article came three years after Republican Richard M. Nixon’s landslide victory over Democrat Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election. As the turbulent 1960s closed and a new decade opened, national Democrats had hoped for a unifying candidate, but none had emerged. Eighteen months before the general election in 1972, the Democratic nomination was wide open.
Jet spoke with activists and elected officials from across the nation who described the upcoming election—the second since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which bolstered the power of Black voters in the South—as a significant opportunity for an African-American candidate to pursue the presidency. Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes—the brother of Representative Louis Stokes of Ohio—was confident that a Black man could win with the backing of “Black, brown, Chicano, poor white and marginal persons involved in the politics of coalition.” Jet cited the results of an unscientific survey conducted by a Chicago radio station, which compiled a list of potential African-American candidates that included Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, Representative John Conyers of Michigan, Georgia state representative Julian Bond, and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Only one woman received votes in this informal poll: the first Black woman elected to Congress, Representative Shirley Chisholm of New York.
A former teacher and New York state legislator, “Fighting” Shirley Chisholm had been in the spotlight since she arrived on Capitol Hill in January 1969. In her first term in Congress, Chisholm boldly rejected her assignment to the Agriculture Committee and forced Democratic leaders to appoint her to the Veterans’ Affairs Committee where she could better serve her Brooklyn constituents. Now in her second term, Chisholm had joined her colleagues in the recently formed Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) to boycott Nixon’s State of the Union Address in January 1971 after the President refused to meet with the group. With a new seat on the influential House Education and Labor Committee, Chisholm was a formidable national politician by the summer of 1971.
On July 31, at the annual conference of the National Welfare Rights Organization, Chisholm indicated that she was exploring a run for the presidency. Wearing a yellow suit and a button bearing the slogan “Welfare Not Warfare”—a protest against America’s military intervention in Vietnam—Chisholm embraced the idea that a diverse coalition of everyday people could create a popular movement that transcended the country’s political status quo. African Americans, women, Latinos, antiwar activists, labor unions, students, poor people, and others sought someone to represent their interests, she noted. “We must have this coalition,” Chisholm said. “This nation must be turned around.” Amid thunderous applause, Chisholm remained on stage holding her clenched right fist high above her head.
Chisholm formally announced her candidacy for president in January 1972 and worked to forge what she called a “union of the disenfranchised.” With limited funding and a small staff, she used her platform to advocate for progressive causes and developed a strategy to win delegates in key presidential primaries; if need be, she was ready to continue her quest for the nomination into the July 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami, Florida. But almost immediately, Chisholm faced opposition from other Democratic presidential hopefuls, prominent Black politicians, members of the CBC, and political rivals back home in her Brooklyn congressional district. Throughout the campaign, she dismissed criticism that her candidacy was self-serving or merely symbolic. “I am for real, and I am very serious about what I am doing.”
In May 1971, Black activists and politicians met to formulate a strategy for the upcoming Democratic presidential nominating process. The long list of potential nominees included liberal stalwarts like Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, the 1968 Democratic nominee and former Vice President, and Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine. Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, having built a prominent grassroots campaign, was in the mix, as was former Alabama Governor George Wallace who represented the old guard of Southern segregationist Democrats. New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay and Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts also contended.
Alongside the absence of a clear frontrunner, the activists believed the new nominating rules could also enable a Black candidate to secure the nomination. After the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the Democratic Party restructured its delegate selection process to increase the convention’s diversity and better represent the interests of younger voters, women, and people of color. Many believed that under the new procedures a coordinated effort could maximize the role of Black voters and enable a candidate to accumulate enough delegates to tip the scales at a divided convention. They also considered mobilizing uncommitted convention delegates, creating a power bloc to extract concessions from the eventual nominee. Even if a Black candidate did not secure the nomination options existed to ensure that Black interests were part of both the party’s platform and the next Democratic administration.
The CBC saw the 1972 election as an opportune moment. “We’ve got to aim for the top spot if we are going to marshal a united black front at the convention,” Representative Conyers said. “If we just support white liberal candidates, it consigns us to a second-rate role.” Representative Ralph Metcalfe of Illinois urged a more procedural approach, pushing individual candidates to victory state by state. Similarly, Julian Bond, although he did not serve in Congress, called for Black voters to coordinate their support for so-called “favorite sons” who could win their home state primaries and thereby exert more control during the nominating process in Miami.
What set Chisholm apart from the others, however, was her emphasis on the importance of women at the forefront of any coalition. In July 1971, Chisholm, alongside Representatives Bella Abzug of New York and Patsy T. Mink of Hawaii, as well as Betty Friedan, Fannie Lou Hamer, Gloria Steinem, and other activists, attended the organizational meeting of the National Women’s Political Caucus to discuss their electoral strategy for 1972. The organization called for the passage of an equal rights amendment to the Constitution, the election of more women to Congress—there were only 14 at the time—and a guarantee that women would comprise half of all delegates to both the Democratic and Republican conventions in 1972. If “women and minorities ever got together on issues and on their own tragic underrepresentation in the places of power . . . this country would never be the same,” Chisholm told the group. She reminded the caucus that “no one gives away political power. It must be taken,” she said, “and we will take it.”
Other Democrats, however, worked to retain their power. On December 24, Mayor Lindsay invited Chisholm to his official residence on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Lindsay urged her to stand aside to avoid siphoning votes away from his own presidential campaign. Chisholm replied that McGovern had made a similar request, adding, “goddam it, this is the American Dream—the chance for a black woman to run for the highest office.” Chisholm told Lindsay she had a different idea. “Why don’t you and McGovern get together—and one of you decide to back out?”
Chisholm formally announced her candidacy for president on January 24, 1972, at a Bedford-Stuyvesant school auditorium in her Brooklyn congressional district. Speaking to an enthusiastic crowd of about 500, she described her progressive campaign in broad terms and spoke about shattering the barriers of race and gender in presidential politics.
Chisholm knew she faced an uphill battle. Others in the Democratic primary had more than $1 million in their campaign accounts, but Chisholm had managed to raise only about $44,000. She also faced resistance from Black Members of Congress who criticized her for launching her campaign without the CBC’s blessing. After Chisholm’s announcement, however, Ron Dellums of California and Parren Mitchell of Maryland, both members of the CBC, endorsed her.
Chisholm’s campaign had two prominent themes: representation and power. For too long, she said, the two-party system had neglected the needs of what she called “the have-nots”—people of color, women, and others living in poverty. Chisholm promised to be their voice, and together, she said, they could turn the Democratic Party into the “party of the masses and the poor.”
Chisholm’s strategy focused on winning several key primary states in the spring of 1972. She sought to amass “enough delegates to have clout” as a powerbroker at the convention in July. Chisholm also planned to demand certain concessions from the winning Democratic candidate: naming a Black vice-presidential candidate to the ticket and securing diverse Cabinet and agency appointments. In particular, she wanted a woman to lead the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) and a Native American as Secretary of the Interior.
Chisholm guaranteed many changes if she won the presidency. Once in office, she promised to hire African Americans at “all levels of government” to overhaul the way the administrative state worked. “If our federal programs are to do anything toward helping Blacks or any other minority,” she said, “then those who develop and run them will need the insight and perspective and trust of minority people.” Chisholm wanted to make the federal workforce more representative of and responsive to the people it served. “I run so that people who look like you and me can never again be taken for granted,” she said.
Chisholm’s candidacy began in earnest in Florida in 1972. Speaking to a Tampa audience in February, Chisholm called for unity among African Americans, women, and young people. “Join me on the Chisholm trail,” she said, noting that together a unified front would better empower them to “participate in the decision-making process that governs all of our lives.”
With a shoestring budget, a team of volunteers, and a 21-year-old Cornell University student who earned both a salary and academic credit as her Florida campaign manager, Chisholm crisscrossed the state. She walked the picket line with striking sugarcane workers in Miami, speaking to them in fluent Spanish; she criticized George Wallace; and she challenged Black state leaders to back her. On Election Day, Chisholm finished seventh with 4 percent of the vote.
Chisholm’s policy positions highlighted the scope of her agenda. She called for the federal government to bolster its antipoverty efforts, opposed the Vietnam War, backed abortion rights and national health insurance, welcomed the support of gay activists, and called for the legalization of marijuana.
Chisholm’s Brooklyn district made urban affairs an important part of her campaign. She sought federal disaster relief for struggling cities and open housing policies to desegregate America. Chisholm also called for quality, universal public education and supported busing as “a legitimate temporary means to aid the integration of our public schools,” noting the long history of Black children being bused and barred from white-only schools.
Even as Black political leaders criticized her campaign, Chisholm often remarked that it was more difficult for her to attract support as a woman in politics than as an African American. “What makes you think black male politicians are any different from white male politicians?” she asked. Even allies in the women’s movement hesitated to publicly support her outsider campaign. Bella Abzug, for instance, appeared at Chisholm’s events but never officially endorsed her. Chisholm did receive the official backing of the Black Panther Party, which proclaimed that “every black, poor, and progressive” person should vote for Chisholm.
Back home, Chisholm’s Democratic competitors also criticized her presidential campaign. Thomas R. Fortune, a former Chisholm campaign staffer turned Democratic rival, suggested that Chisholm’s national ambitions caused her to neglect the needs of her congressional district. “She was spending so much time with women’s lib and gay lib that she was forgetting about black lib right here in Bedford-Stuyvesant,” Fortune said.
Throughout the spring primaries, Chisholm drew only a small percentage of the vote, but she frequently contended with accusations that she drew support from other candidates deemed more electable. Black leaders in North Carolina, for instance, warned that “a vote for Shirley Chisholm was a vote for George Wallace” that would undermine other white Democratic candidates sympathetic to African-American interests.
After losing California and New York, Chisholm returned home to campaign. She confessed to a Harlem audience that victory was unlikely but promised to be a “catalyst for change” at the convention. Chisholm remained confident that she could still be an “instrument of power” on the convention floor by convincing uncommitted delegates to support her.
Ultimately, however, Chisholm’s strategy disintegrated as the Democratic National Convention approached. In late June, CBC members Walter Fauntroy of the District of Columbia, William Clay of Missouri, and Louis Stokes promised to deliver a bloc of Black delegates to put McGovern over the top and secure the nomination. When Chisholm arrived in Miami, she accused Black political leaders of having “sold out” Black voters. Chisholm refused to back down and tried to use her small number of delegates —and persuasive skills—to block McGovern’s path to the nomination. Despite a last-minute maneuver by Humphrey and Chisholm it quickly became clear that McGovern had secured the nomination.
That November, McGovern lost to Nixon in a landslide. Chisholm, meanwhile, retained her seat in the House, garnering nearly 88 percent of the vote in New York’s Twelfth Congressional District.
Back in the House—where change was often a slow, grinding process—Chisholm remained determined to influence the policies and priorities of her party: seeking funding for job training programs, increasing pay for domestic workers, and broadly expanding antipoverty efforts. Like others in the CBC, she joined efforts to put economic pressure on South Africa’s apartheid government.
Five years after running for president, Chisholm set her sights on winning the Democratic Caucus chair, the fourth-ranking elected office in party leadership at the time—and a position no woman had ever held. Again, Chisholm faced an uphill climb. “I don’t think she ever actually asked anybody’s permission to do anything,” recalled Muriel Morisey, Chisholm’s senior legislative assistant. “She was politically astute enough that she knew what was worth a fight.” Running under the slogan, “Give Your Chair to a Lady,” Chisholm had the support of the New York delegation, but ended up losing to the Agriculture Committee chair—and future Speaker of the House—Thomas S. Foley of Washington.
Despite the setback, Chisholm garnered two important positions in January 1977. She was elected secretary of the Democratic Caucus, where she helped set the party’s agenda, and served in the position until 1981. She also became the first Black woman and only the second woman ever to sit on the powerful Rules Committee, which sets the terms of debate for every bill that reaches the House Floor but which required that she leave the Education and Labor Committee. Nevertheless, Chisholm explained that Rules gave her “much more clout,” and enabled her to better support legislation “having to do with people who’ve been rather voiceless and powerless.”
Although her presidential run came up short, Chisholm succeeded as a “catalyst for change” in American politics. Whether running for the White House or pursuing a seat on the influential House Rules Committee, Chisholm sought new and more powerful means to make the government both accountable to and representative of the American people.
Sources: “Muriel Morisey Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (19 April 2017); Atlanta Constitution, 28 April 1972; Baltimore Sun, 11 July 1971, 13 July 1971, 12 March 1972, 3 May 1972, 9 June 1972; Boston Globe, 11 March 1976; Chicago Tribune, 23 January 1972, 16 March 1972, 10 July 1972; Columbia Journalism Review, 1 August 2019; Jet, 3 June 1971; Los Angeles Times, 10 December 1971, 24 January 1972, 21 May 1972; National Public Radio, Code Switch, 7 May 2014; New York Times, 13 April 1969, 9 June 1971, 13 July 1971, 1 August 1971, 26 January 1972, 14 February 1972, 28 February 1972, 27 March 1972, 24 May 1972, 3 June 1972, 14 June 1972, 19 June 1972, 24 June 1972, 25 June 1972, 11 July 1972, 21 June 1973, 10 June 1976, 19 January 1977; Wall Street Journal, 26 October 1971, 14 February 1972; Washington Post, 20 November 1971, 15 February 1972, 28 February 1972, 26 April 1972, 13 July 1972; “From the Candidates,” Negro History Bulletin 35: 5 (May 1972): 111–114; Julie Gallagher, “Waging ‘The Good Fight’: The Political Career of Shirley Chisholm, 1953–1982,” Journal of African American History 92:3 (Summer 2007): 392–416; “95th Congress Elected New Leaders,” CQ Almanac 1977.Follow @USHouseHistory