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raceAhead: Ayanna Pressley and the Spirit of Shirley Chisholm

Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (C, w. glasses) and her staff, 1970Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (C, w. glasses) and her staff, 1970
The first ever black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts will get Chisholm's old office.Bob Peterson The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

Shirley Chisholm had guts.

This is how Chisholm herself, the first black woman elected to Congress, wanted to be remembered, she told filmmaker Shola Lynch during the making of the 2004 documentary Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed. “I’d like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts,” she said.

And she did.

In 1968, the groundbreaking political figure won an unlikely contest against the better known James Farmer for New York’s 12th Congressional District.

Chisholm was black, a woman, and the daughter of immigrants, all of which made her a suspect in the eyes of establishment politics. But she lived in the district, a largely black and Puerto Rican community in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Chisholm deftly framed Farmer, who was black and ran as a Republican, as an outsider because he hailed from Manhattan and worked in national civil rights politics.

Then she went to work.

She ran a gutsy campaign by the standards of any era. The former teacher spoke Spanish at key campaign stops, a language she’d learned teaching Puerto Rican kids, and rode the streets on a truck while campaigning through a bullhorn. “This is Fighting Shirley Chisholm,” she would say by way of introduction.

And once in Congress, she delivered for seven consecutive terms. Career highlights include co-founding the Congressional Black Caucus and supporting Title IX, which ended discrimination against women in federally funded education and sports programs.

In 1972, she went on to become the first black woman to run for president with a major party.

While she didn’t win her bid, she stayed gutsy. In a controversial move, she visited one of her rivals, the Southern white supremacist candidate George Wallace in the hospital, after he was shot while campaigning during the primary. “Black people in my community crucified me,” she told The New York Times.

The two talked about the optics while he lay in bed. “[Wallace] said to me: ‘What are your people going to say?’ I said: ‘I know what they’re going to say. But I wouldn’t want what happened to you to happen to anyone.’ He cried and cried and cried.”

So in 1974, when Chisholm needed the help of Southern members of Congress to support legislation that extended the minimum wage to domestic workers, it was Wallace who helped her push it through. “I contacted George Wallace,” she said. “Many of the Southerners did not want to make the vote. They came around.”

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of her historic win, a year that has seen a long overdue wave of women becoming lawmakers, many of them first-time candidates and groundbreaking in other important ways.

Somehow, then, it feels good and right that yesterday, Ayanna Pressley, the first black woman ever elected to Congress from Massachusetts, inherited Chisholm’s old office.

Pressley has described Chisholm as a “shero” of hers.

Pressley’s victory over a ten-term Democratic incumbent was similarly surprising, and her opening remarks to her new constituents were similarly Chisholmesque. “People who feel seen and heard for the first time in their lives, a stakehold in democracy and a promise for our future,” she said. “That is the real victory.”

But the even better part of the story is this: The office had originally been claimed by Congresswoman-elect Katie Hill of California.

Hill, who ran a gutsy campaign of her own – taking no corporate money and rising to power the new-fashioned way by talking directly with voters – is a former executive director of People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), a statewide non-profit organization working to end homelessness. She was in a position to understand the poignancy of the moment.

“We just learned my Congressional Office designation will be #ShirleyChisholm‘s former office,” tweeted Pressley. “How’s that for divine intervention AND the selflessness of my colleague @KatieHill4CA who drew a better lottery# but still wanted me to have it.”

It’s an ally move that Chisholm herself would have appreciated.

“To black and white Americans, although I’m making history this evening, I love to believe that my victory tonight is a symbol of hope for many of us who never dreamt or never believed that we would have had the opportunity to move out [into politics],” Chisholm said when she won in 1968.

Fifty years later, a new class of women lawmakers are preparing to work together to bring those dreams to life.

On Point

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My friends, I have been watching your progress this week as you retrace your footsteps of 30 years ago and cannot help but reflect on those days that remain so vivid in my memory. Those were different days and we all in our own ways were different people. We have learned hard and important lessons in the 30 years that have passed between us since the days surrounding your first walk along Highway 80. Those days were filled with passionate convictions and a magnified sense of purpose that imposed a feeling on us all that events of the day were bigger than any one individual. Much has transpired since those days. A great deal has been lost and a great deal has been gained, and here we are. My message to you today is, ‘Welcome to Montgomery.’
Governor George Wallace, in a speech to a mostly black crowd gathered to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the March To Selma