With every passing decade, politics evolves from one generation to the next. In the past fifty years there has been more change than we could have ever imagined. The 2020 presidential race is no exception. There is more diversity among this year’s class of Democratic presidential candidates than at any time in history. Senator Kamala Harris is one such example.
If Harris were to win the Democratic nomination, she would become the first African- American woman to do so. But she’s not the first African-American woman to run for president. That distinction belongs to a real trailblazer by the name of Shirley Chisholm.
If the name Shirley Chisholm doesn’t sound familiar, you’re not alone. Despite seeking the Democratic nomination for president in 1972, her name has mostly been swept under the rug — and that needs to change.
The ever-growing diversity of presidential candidates we see today all link back to her trailblazing campaign, which was not only groundbreaking, but also incredibly courageous. Shirley Chisholm ran years before the country was really ready — and that’s exactly why she ran. It was her mission to be that catalyst for change, to make it a little easier for those who followed her path.
From the start, she was widely dismissed as a fringe candidate with no chance for success, but she remained adamant that her campaign was as serious as any of her competitors.
Chisholm ran on the slogan of “Unbossed and Unbought,” which today has become a cornerstone of progressive politics, but at the time was a revolutionary concept. The Democratic Party establishment was not the least bit supportive of her campaign.
Chisholm was viewed as being too extreme and too anti-establishment, even for many who admired her courage. Despite helping co-found both the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Organization for Women, neither organization endorsed her presidential run in 1972.
Press coverage was not always kind to her as well. One newspaper infamously referred to her as playing "vaginal politics."
Combatting the political forces of the time would prove to be a challenge for her.
Shirley Chisholm was initially blocked from participating in three televised Democratic primary debates, despite meeting the required “preestablished objective criteria.” Only after filing a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission was Shirley Chisholm finally allowed to join the stage with Senators George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey, becoming the first woman and first African-American to take part in a presidential debate.
Given the political forces of the time, she had tremendous difficulty getting on most state ballots, only garnering primary votes in a handful of states. As if the political discrimination she endured wasn’t enough, Chisholm was faced with several assassination attempts and had to travel with Secret Service to ensure her safety.
Chisholm finished in fourth-place in her historic battle for the Democratic nomination in 1972. However, her campaign would help pave the way for another African- American candidate twelve years later.
In 1984 Reverend Jesse Jackson followed in her footsteps and ran for president. Jackson was also initially dismissed and not considered a serious candidate. News stories at the time often described him as the second African-American major-party candidate to run for president after Shirley Chisholm.
Jesse Jackson surprised these naysayers and garnered 3.2 million votes, putting him in a third-place finish for the nomination. In 1988 Jackson again ran for president, doubling his total votes from four years earlier. This time he finished in second-place behind Democratic nominee Governor Michael Dukakis. Then twenty years later, in 2008, Barack Obama made history with his big win over Republican nominee Senator John McCain.
Sometimes it takes the right cultural moment to resurrect someone from obscurity. Nearly fifty years after Chisholm made history as the first major-party African- American to run for president, her remarkable legacy is rarely discussed, even with Harris positioned as a top tier candidate for the Democratic nomination.
However, this year has been the start of a gradual renaissance of celebrating Chisholm’s memory, in both the cross-section of politics and pop culture. A movie about her life, The Fighting Shirley Chisholm, is being produced by Oscar-winner Viola Davis, who is also is set to play her.
Harris launched her presidential run forty-seven years to the day after Chisholm launched her’s and is using the colors of red and yellow in her campaign logo that pay homage to Chisholm’s similar color scheme from her presidential pins.
Despite this lovely tribute, Chisholm’s memory remains a nearly forgotten, yet extremely important chapter of American history. She deserves her rightful place in this country’s pantheon of courageous trailblazers.
Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 campaign challenged the norms of who could be considered a serious candidate for president. The large and diverse field of Democratic candidates running for the 2020 nomination all share a strain of political DNA with her. If not for Chisholm’s daring race 46 years ago, we would likely never have a top-tier candidate in her image. The open door of inclusive politics has now made way for the first openly gay Democrat to seek the presidency, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, two African-Americans, a Latino, an Asian-American and four women. All are top contenders participating in the debates.
Chisholm famously said, "the next time a woman runs, or a Black, a Jew or anyone from a group that the country is 'not ready' to elect to its highest office, I believe that he or she will be taken seriously from the start." This past year is proving her vision to be correct.
Chisholm’s historic campaign should never be forgotten. It should be celebrated. May her memory be a gift for all who can be inspired by her courage. We will do our best to keep her memory and that of her historic campaign very much alive.
Fred Karger is a longtime political consultant, LGBTQ rights activist and in 2012 became the first openly gay major-party candidate to run for president. Follow him on Twitter @fredkarger. Peter Fox is a contributing writer for The Forward and Tablet Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @thatpeterfox.