Today marks what would have been the Hon. Shirley Chisholm’s 98th birthday.
Shirley Chisholm was many things. She was both a daughter of Brooklyn and a product of her Caribbean heritage. She was a teacher, organizer, intellectual, dancer, poet, lawmaker and political warrior for marginalized people. She blazed a political trail through the New York State Assembly, United States Congress and the 1972 presidential campaign—almost always the first of her gender and race to challenge the status quo in those spaces.
But although her achievements were many, it is important to note how she wanted to be remembered. When asked about her legacy, Chisholm did not focus on her status as a “first” in Congress and in the presidential campaign arena. Instead, she said that she wanted to be remembered first and foremost as an agent of change and, “as a Black woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be herself.”
This year, her birthday comes in the aftermath of a midterm election, one which mainstream analysts claimed would be marked by landslide victories for the Republican Party. The fact that the projected “red wave” never materialized in most states reveals the strength of the political coalitions that Black voters and Black women organizers pulled together in the historic elections of 2018 and 2020. In turn, those historic years were made possible by the work of Shirley Chisholm fifty years ago.
So, what do Chisholm’s words suggest for us today? Chisholm reminds us that personal and political victory for marginalized people does not come from submitting to the system as it exists. Instead, political victories are won by remaining steadfast and true to who we are, thereby forcing the system to change.