Unbought, unbossed, unforgotten

FEBRUARY IS Black History Month, and in this election year, we should remember the tough black woman who made a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972.

Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm was born in 1924 to working-class parents who immigrated to United States from the West Indies. She attended school in Barbados for several years before joining her parents in New York, where she graduated from high school, attended Brooklyn College and then later Columbia University.


After working several years as a teacher in Harlem and a grass-roots organizer in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, Ms. Chisholm won a seat on the New York General Assembly in 1964. Four years later, she became the first black woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Ms. Chisholm championed the causes of women, the poor and those affected by racism. One of the founders of the National Organization for Women, she hired an all-female staff after her election to Congress and fought for women's issues throughout her career. She also pushed for unemployment insurance for domestic workers and day care providers, as well as college funds for low-income students.


She was a staunch opponent of the war in Vietnam and a vocal critic of President Richard Nixon. In one of her first speeches after her election to Congress, she vowed to defeat any bill that gave more funds to the Defense Department.

When Ms. Chisholm launched her historic bid for the presidency, she declared herself a "candidate of the people" who was "unbought and unbossed."

Even though she mobilized many feminists, peace activists and other progressives to support her, Ms. Chisholm never got the serious media attention, funds or endorsements she needed to win. Some male politicians -- black and white -- mocked her, and others simply ignored her.

But Ms. Chisholm's voice was not to be silenced. She continued to serve in Congress until 1982, and at age 80, she is still active in public life to this day.

She sees herself as a pioneer whose message to young women is that they should "feel themselves as capable of running for high political office as any wealthy, good-looking white male."

Ms. Chisholm is one of the many black women who have been denied their rightful place in the history books.

Fortunately, a young filmmaker named Shola Lynch recently completed a documentary on Ms. Chisholm that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival a few weeks ago. The film, Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed, features interviews with writer Amiri Baraka, feminist Susan Brownmiller and former Black Panther leader Bobby Seale. Ms. Chisholm herself is interviewed, and the archival footage from the 1970s brings her campaign to life.

In reflecting on her defeat in 1972, Ms. Chisholm remarks in the film: "There is little place in the political scheme of things for an independent, creative personality, for a fighter. Anyone who takes that role must pay a price."


Obscurity is too high a price for Ms. Chisholm to have to pay.

Barbara Ransby is an associate professor of black studies and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune