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Shirley Chisholm: A Political Pioneer and an Inspiration

On my wall, there hangs a picture of Shirley Chisholm, proud and bold, representing a story that is unsung and unfinished. Born in New York, she was a young African-American woman who dared to become the first Black woman in Congress. 

Shirley Chisholm was elected to the House of Representatives in 1968, according to the National Women’s History Museum. While that feat might not seem that impossible now, Shirley knew early on that despite her prize-winning contributions to her college’s debate team and graduating cum laude from Brooklyn College, she faced a double challenge as someone who was both Black and a woman. Many Black women still face this double obstacle today.

Her election to Congress is even more remarkable considering the major struggle for civil rights going on in the 1960s. It’s important to recall in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated for speaking out against the economic and social inequalities of Black people living in America. Shirley bravely fought on that same battlefield, putting her life on the line to give voice and justice to those people facing the same inequalities.

Related link: Black History Month: Celebrating the Contributions

What Did Shirley Chisholm Do in Congress?

While she was in Congress, Shirley Chisholm created over 50 pieces of legislation that sought to address the conditions of poor people among inner-city populations, as well as racial and gender inequalities. She also co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971.

In 1972, Shirley Chisholm became the first woman and African-American to campaign for the Democrat Party’s nomination for United States president, according to the African American Intellectual History Society. Sadly, Chisholm faced discrimination and chauvinism on every front.

For instance, she was not allowed to participate in the televised primary debates with the other candidates. After she took legal action, Shirley Chisholm was allowed to make just one televised speech. 

Furthermore, she faced contention from her so-called allies in the male Congressional Black caucus. Despite the controversy, Chisholm inspired students, women, and minorities across the nation with her dedication to progress and unwavering commitment to fighting injustice. In fact, she was affectionately known as “Fighting Shirley.”

Although she did not win the presidency, Chisholm went on to become the first Black woman and the second woman ever to serve on the House Committee on Rule in 1977.

From humble beginnings to breaking records, Shirley Chisholm’s legacy reminds me of the importance of Black History Month. This event not only honors those people who made history but the lessons they taught us and continue to teach us. Her work on behalf of all people also teaches us that Black history is inextricably tied to and a part of the history of everyone in this nation. 

Related link: Celebrating Diversity in Student Organizations Like AALIGN

Chisholm Paved the Way for Other African-American Women in Government

Shirley Chisholm paved the way Powell
Shirley Chisholm paved the way for other Black women to work in government.

Shirley Chisholm’s accomplishments paved the way for other Black women to work in government, including:

  • Stacey Abrams – an African-American politician, lawyer, and activist who is credited with boosting voter turnout in her home state of Georgia through her organization Fair Fight Action
  • Kamala Harris – the first African-American and woman to be elected to the Vice Presidency of the United States
  • Condoleezza Rice – the first African American woman to serve as U.S Secretary of State

Shirley Chisholm remains an inspiration to others who continue to fight for justice. Those people stand on the shoulders of little-known figures like Shirley Chisholm and Martha Hughes Cannon, who stood in the face of racism and sexism so that we may stand here today. 

Black History Month isn’t just about recognizing the contributions that have been made by Black people in this country. It is a time to reflect on where we are today as a nation, how far we have come and the changes that are still needed.

As we celebrate Black History Month, let’s embrace the deeper meaning of our collective history: the fight, the pain, the struggles that people like Shirley Chisholm endured, and the triumphs that occurred in the pursuit of equality, liberty, and justice for all. Let’s also recognize that many people of color are still fighting for these ideals which were promised to all who reside in our great nation and help wherever we can.

Dr. Jameelah Powell is a part-time nursing instructor in the School of Health Sciences and a registered nurse. She holds a B.S. in nursing from the University of Southern California, as well as a M.S in nursing and a master’s degree in public health from California State University, Long Beach. Dr. Powell also has a Ph.D. in nursing from the University of Arizona. She resides in Southern California with her husband, daughter and two dogs. Dr. Powell continues to contribute efforts in promoting public health and reducing health disparities among disenfranchised communities.

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