Ed speaks with Barbara Lee, a Congresswoman from California who credits her career to the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress, Shirley Chisholm.
BRIAN: Margaret Chase Smith wouldn’t be the last woman to seek a major party nomination for president. And no, we’re not talking about Hillary Clinton.
-I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States of America.
BRIAN: This is Shirley Chisholm announcing her campaign in January of 1972. She was the first black woman to run for a major party nomination. Her campaign slogan was “Unbought and Unbossed.”
Chisholm was already a seasoned politician. In 1968, she became the first black woman elected to the US Congress. Before that, she served in the New York State Assembly.
She understood that her campaign for president was a long shot. Here she is speaking to students at UCLA in May of 1972.
-And in the very beginning, I, to be frank with you, I laughed because I was cognizant of the fact that being simultaneously a black person and a woman placed me in the position of being a part of two segments in America who have never had any real roles to play in terms of the decision-making processes and policies that govern our lives.
BRIAN: Chisholm’s campaign encountered a number of roadblocks. Treated as a fringe candidate, she had to sue to be included in the televised national debates. She also survived multiple assassination attempts on the campaign trail.
Although she didn’t win the Democratic Party nomination, Chisholm’s campaign is often cited as transformative, paving the way for both Barack Obama and this year’s democratic nominee, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
ED: We spoke with one politician who credits her career to Shirley Chisholm. US Congresswoman Barbara Lee has represented a district near San Francisco since 1998. She first met Chisholm while attending Mills College in Oakland.
At the time, Lee was so disillusioned with politics she never even registered to vote. And she was about to flunk out of a political science class that required students to volunteer for the 1972 presidential election. Nevertheless, as head of the African-American Student Union, she invited Mrs. Chisholm to speak on campus.
BARBARA LEE: So I went up to her afterwards. And I told her about my class and that I was about to flunk it. But after hearing her and meeting her, maybe I would reconsider. And she shook her finger at me. And she really was very adamant and took me to task.
You know, I had my big Afro, my jeans and t-shirt. She said, little girl. And I mean, I was, you know, a grown woman then. I had two little kids. I was on public assistance. And I was working with the Black Panther Party on the community programs.
And I conscientiously said, no, I don’t want to register to vote. No, I don’t want to be part of this political system because I didn’t think it worked for me. And so she took me to task, told me I better register to vote. And if I really believed in what I was working for and talked about, then I needed to get involved politically.
So I reluctantly told her, OK. I said, well who do I contact? Because I, you know, will try to pass this class. She said, my dear, I don’t have a lot of national money. That’s up to you to figure out.
So I talked to a couple of friends. And we figured it out. And we ended up organizing Shirley Chisholm’s Northern California campaign from my class at Mills College. I got an A in the class and went on to Miami as a delegate.
ED: Well as a college professor, I’m going to take vicarious pride in the fact that that was all triggered by a farsighted college professor. So once you got into the campaign, what was it like to be a part of that?
BARBARA LEE: Ah, it was wonderful. She mentored me. She educated me. But also, I learned how to organize.
I organized fundraisers for her. I organized the office. I organized voter registration drives.
I actually went to Huey Newton and Bobby Seale and talked to them about the importance of the Black Panther Party getting involved in political work. And so ended up organizing the Shirley Chisholm fundraiser at the apartment of Huey Newton. And they endorsed Shirley Chisholm. And I was part of that whole process.
And so it was a very enlightening campaign. It was, in many ways, difficult because we did have to put together coalitions.
ED: Right, right.
BARBARA LEE: That’s how I learned how to put together coalition politics, which then led to the first election of Lionel Wilson, our first African-American mayor in Oakland. None of this would have happened, as I believe Barack Obama never would have been elected president, had it not been for Shirley Chisholm and, of course, the great Reverend Jesse Jackson, who paved the way.
ED: Now, as you were doing all this inspiring work, did it bother you that you had a pretty good idea that Shirley Chisholm would not be the President of United States?
BARBARA LEE: Well, I believed she would.
BARBARA LEE: This was my point, that I really believed she would. And I just felt like, given her leverage and what she was able to accomplish, I felt we had won anyway.
ED: You laid out the whole chain of things that you didn’t think would have happened without Shirley Chisholm’s campaign. Are you heartened by the general situation of women in politics today? People of color in politics? Or did you see a future back in those days that hasn’t really come to pass?
BARBARA LEE: No, I am heartened. I see progress– not enough. We need more African-Americans elected to public office, more people of color, and more women. But, you know, we have to really recognize this is a marathon. This requires institutional systemic change.
But one thing about Shirley Chisholm, she said, you know, when you get on the inside, you’ve got to shake things up. Don’t go along to get along. You know, you’ve got to change the rules of the game because they weren’t made for you. They weren’t written for you.
She was very clear about reform and incrementalism was not going to really bring justice and equality to people. We had to really get in there and deal with the institutions and the biases that are so endemic in all of our public policies.
ED: Well now, she famously said, I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black. Do you think she’d still say that if she were running today?
BARBARA LEE: Well that– I’ve heard that quote and read it several times. But it was– I won’t say taken out of context, but she talked about being an African-American and being a woman and what that meant–
BARBARA LEE: –you know, in different instances.
BARBARA LEE: And I mean, I watched her. Because I came on to Washington, and I saw how she had to address members of Congress. Yeah, she really had a tough time, but she just stood tall and kept going. She had a lot of courage.
ED: So you think that quote kind of pulls things apart that are really a part of the same thing? Trying to weigh discrimination for being female and discrimination for blacks is kind of a dead-end way of thinking about this?
BARBARA LEE: Yeah, absolutely, yeah, yeah, yeah. No, as black women, you know, we have both loads to carry. And these are weights that we have to lift from our shoulders. And we can only do that by fighting the system and changing things.
ED: So what would you say is her great legacy then?
BARBARA LEE: She was a catalyst for change. And she was unbought and unbossed, you know. And she was a progressive African-American woman. And I think most African-American women are progressive and can look to Shirley Chisholm as an icon and as a role model.
ED: Well I know you have further shaking up to do this morning. So I will let you go do that.
BARBARA LEE: OK, well I really appreciate the chance to talk with you. I love Shirley Chisholm. And if anyone comes to the Capitol, we were able to get a beautiful portrait of her placed in a very prominent place in the United States Capitol.
ED: Barbara Lee is a Congresswoman from California and a former volunteer on Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 campaign for president.
[MUSIC – EURYTHMICS, “SISTERS ARE DOING IT FOR THEMSELVES”]
EURYTHMICS: [SINGING] –say to you. We say, sisters are doing it for themselves.
BRIAN: That’s going to do it for today. But you can keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of this week’s show.
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PETER: BackStory is produced by Andrew Parsons, Brigid McCarthy, Nina Earnest, Kelly Jones, Emily Gadek, and Ramona Martinez. Jamal Millner is our technical director. Diana Williams is our digital editor. And Melissa Gismondi is our researcher.
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[MUSIC – EURYTHMICS, “SISTERS ARE DOING IT FOR THEMSELVES”]
EURYTHMICS: [SINGING] We got doctors, lawyers, politicians too, ooh hoo hoo hoo.
ED: BackStory is produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Major support is provided by the Shiocan Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment, and by History Channel, history made every day.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia and the Dorothy Compton professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. Peter Onuf is professor of history emeritus at UVA and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is professor of the humanities and president emeritus at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
EURYTHMICS: [SINGING] –for themselves. People pay, hear what they say.
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