27 Oct 2020
#BHM Bold and Black: The Dawn of a New Radical Woman
In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman from a major party (the Democrats) to be elected into congress. By 1972, she was making history again as the first black candidate to be nominated by a major party to run for US presidency, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Born in New York, on 30th November 1930, to immigrant parents from Barbados, Chisholm ended up growing up to become one of the most inspiring individuals in US politics.
In 1972, George Wallace, an Alabama governor from the same party as Chisholm, presented as the woman’s direct opponent in the bid for country leadership. Best remembered for his staunch segregationist and populist views, Wallace had built his power in promising a white voting majority in Alabama, to continue the historical oppression of the state’s disfranchised and largely impoverished black citizens.
Breaking down barriers was not met without hostility.
In a traditionally white and male space, Chisholm knew from the start of her campaign she wouldn’t win.
But the tactic she ran with was that once she reached the convention, she could use her coalition of delegates to negotiate with the winning candidate in favour of rights for women, Black Americans and Native people.
1972 campaign poster for Shirley Chisholm, reading: “Bring U.S. Together. Vote Chisolm 1972, Unbought and Unbossed.” (N.G. Slater Corporation/US Library of Congress)
With a strategy aiming to influence the eventual nominee at the convention, her slogan, ‘unbought and unbossed’, reflected her radical political position; fearless, incorruptible and ambitious. Nothing personified this more than when Chisholm chose to visit Wallace in hospital, after an assassination attempt on the man’s life in that same year, which left him permanently paralysed from the waist down. On her association with George Wallace, Robert Gottlieb, an intern who later joined her Presidential Campaign in 1972, said: “[Chisholm] did not agree with anything Wallace stood for. There’s no question about that. …but she understood that if you really care about the country and you want to affect change you have to embrace everybody.”
Fast-forward to 2020 and Chisholm and the campaign of ’72 bounce back once again, this time reconceived through the series Mrs America. The project comes to our screens at a time when the US elections in America hinge on a woman of colour, Kamala Harris, to run against Donald Trump.
Image courtesy of: Pari Dukovic/FX; Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Image
Nigerian-American actress, Uzo Aduba, plays Shirley Chisholm in a performance that pays homage to the political legacy she left. The series devotes special attention to her involvement in the lobbying for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) throughout her political career. The ERA proposed an amendment to the United States Constitution, calling for equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex. The journey to getting this ratified is seen and told through the eyes of prominent figures of the era, including Shirley Chisholm, but also Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Phyllis Schlafly.
For Aduba, who is best known for playing Suzanne’ Crazy Eyes’ Warren in Orange Is the New Black, Mrs America has been the first significant TV role for her since then. Her thoughtful portrayal of the legendary Chisholm earned her an Emmy award in 2020. The TV series was nominated for a total of ten Emmy awards in September of this year, including best writing, outstanding period costumes and outstanding lead actress.
Though this project did well in paying homage to a black female political pioneer, the true origins of the revolutionary framework in which Chisholm operated proved to be an oversight. Indeed, a contemporary African-American socialist, feminist and labour civil rights activist, named Charlene Mitchell, the person who set the ground-work for Chisholm to later propel the demands of the ERA Act.
Preceding Chisholm’s push for presidency in 1972, Mitchell became the first Black woman to run for President in 1968, contending as a Presidential Candidate for the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). Her leadership campaign was rooted in anti-colonial, feminist and pan-Africanist rhetoric, which proved controversial among the wider general American electorate. Both Chisholm and Mitchell made history as charismatic and dynamic innovators from whom young black women sought inspiration. Unfortunately, records of their feats go undisclosed to the vast majority of the public.
Photo of Charlene Mitchell – courtesy of: NEW YORK DAILY NEWS ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES
By the age of just 13, Mitchell had already begun organising anti-segregation actions and activist among her peers. By 16 she’d become a member of the Communist Party, progressing onto of the group’s most influential leaders from the 1950s to the 1980s. Her political influence was cemented in July of 1968 when Mitchell received a party nomination to be a presidential candidate. Later she led the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, which led to Angela Davis’s freedom when she was a political prisoner.
In the age of the internet, where knowledge on any and every topic is but a second away, gone are the days where the first, and typically only, thing that springs to mind is a hazy recounting of Civil Rights campaigner Rosa Parks when reflecting on black women activists. Rosa Parks’ work was important, but so was that of so many other black female political figures, in the fight for social justice – so many more than mainstream narratives suggest. As black women, it’s our duty to highlight their impact, through the intellectual resources we now enjoy.
Likewise, it’s also our duty to honour the work of our current black female politicians, as they continue to build upon the change imparted by the women who came before them. In the UK, the combination of race and gender-based discrimination has reached an intersection that tethers the work of our black female MPs. As white nationalist and far-right ideas dominate the political arena, our modern black female MPs such as Dawn Butler, Abena Oppong-Asare and Diane Abbott struggle to continue any form of radicalism.
Charlene Mitchell was a political outsider, an independent third-party candidate representing policies outside of mainstream American society. Shirley Chisholm presented a more traditional contender, yet she still found herself operating outside of the margins due to her commitment to pushing policies which defended her very existence as a black woman.
Written By: Abigail Cleo Yartey is a writer, activist and currently works for the British Film Institute. Follower her on Instagram and Twitter @ValleydelaDolls
Header Image: Shirley Chisholm campaigning for president,1972