POLITICS ARCHIVE

Shirley Chisholm: ‘They will remember a 100-pound woman’

“After this is over, I’ve done my thing for America. This is my legacy for the folks. Somebody has to have the guts to show the others we can do it.”

by

The tiny glittering black woman stood utterly at attention. She wore a suit of stiff brocade that fitted her shoulders so snugly it gave her a faintly military air. There was, in fact, something about her that suggested the Salvation Army. Perhaps it was only her stiff shoulders, or perhaps also her frequent references to the Lord. Then, too, she had a way of drawing herself up even straighter and stiffer in her moments of intensity, looking then totally charged with inspiration, a small quivering ramrod of righteousness.

“I’m here to tell you tonight, yes, I dare to say I’m going to run for the Presidency of the United States of America!” she uttered at the climactic center of her speech. When she said the word “dare,” she fairly squinted with indignation, and, propelled along now by her own anger, she told her audience she was out to prove to the public “that other kinds of people can steer the ship of state besides the white men …”

“Regardless of the outcome,” she continued, more slowly now for emphasis, “they will have to remember that a little 100-pound woman, Shirley Chisholm, shook things up!”

The small and hyper-tense black Congresswoman from Brooklyn was speaking to some 1300 of her supporters in a ballroom of the Americana Hotel three weeks ago. The occasion was the first fund-raising dinner for her Presidential campaign, and she had drawn to it just about everyone of importance in Brooklyn and Manhattan politics, including John Lindsay. A night of glory for her, the dinner raised some $60,000 and demonstrated her considerable drawing power in this city.

But before another week was out, her still unofficial candidacy would appear to be shaking up Shirley Chisholm every bit as much as it was shaking up the male politicians she so longed to unnerve. For she went at the end of the week to a conference of black elected officials at Washington’s Sheraton-Park Hotel, where she was made to feel only barely welcome. The few female politicians in attendance did react warmly to her, but the black male congressmen, who appeared to be calling all the shots, were almost openly contemptuous of her.

Thursday evening (November 18) a cocktail party for the visiting black politicians was held in a large room in the Rayburn building on Capitol Hill. It was a gathering of black celebrities, who, like their white counterparts at such affairs, basked in the smiles of pretty girls, looked around to see who else of importance was present, and generally gave off that ineffable air of people who have made it and know it. Success seems to break down all philosophical barriers at Washington cocktail parties, and on this evening, at least, success had gathered in the same room black men as disparately oriented as the Nixon and Kennedy officials who showed up at the first Kennedy Center party.

So Robert Lee Grant, the tall, handsome black Republican who was fired last summer from his HUD job for shooting his mouth off against Agnew, stood easily in the same room with General Chaffee James, the black Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense whose job it is to tell the Pentagon’s version of the news to the press. General James was the kind of man who could sound respectably militant on the color question (“I think there are two blacks we can do without, that first one and that only one”) and the next moment sound like General Turgeson on the subject of his son’s 400-plus bombing missions in Vietnam. If you circulated around the room and listened to the talk, you could become quickly disillusioned about the salvific powers of black skin in America­ — that is, if you were white and liberal and secretly convinced that the blacks just had to be better. They had suffered too much at our hands. But there wasn’t much of the halo effect of suffering floating around that room in the Rayburn building. And there was to be a notable absence of halos among conference members during the next two days, an atmospheric condition which you had to be able to sense in order to understand what was really going on between Shirley Chisholm and what has come to be known as the black political caucus.

Omens of Mrs. Chisholm’s problems were evident at the cocktail party. When cornered and asked about her, Congressman Lewis Stokes (the brother of Carl Stokes) shrugged his shoulders, laughed, and uttered mock groans. Congressman William Clay of Missouri said, “Who’s Shirley Chisholm? You don’t represent The Village Voice, you can’t represent The Village Voice!” And he, too, laughed. Mrs. Chisholm was to be dealt with by the cruelest of all insults — she was to be ignored.

She herself soon around at the party looking as if she was having a good time. She was wearing a more functional woolen suit this time, again with the square-shoulders of a Salvation Army uniform. Women approached her in an almost endless stream, some of them just shyly shaking her hand and walking away, the bolder of them saying things like “We have admired you from afar all the time.” A vice-president of the National Council of Negro Women told me Mrs. Chisholm was extremely popular with black women. And for the next two days she did have an extraordinary way of dividing every gathering of blacks quite neatly along strict sexual lines.

Indeed if there had been a larger proportion of women among the 300-odd blacks who attended the conference that weekend. Mrs Chisholm might have gotten the the endorsement of the black political caucus. As matters stood, however, she was treated to chilly courtesies, being asked to sit on the dais at one luncheon to introduce a speaker, and being given the moderator’s seat on a panel discussion of childhood and early development.

The latter assignment royally peeved her, and she stood up in the first Friday morning session of the conference to let the assembled men know she couldn’t understand why she had been left off the important political panels when she was the only serious Presidential candidate among them.

“For over 21 years this has been a part of my life,” she said, quivering with rage. “They’re always plotting and planning for me, but Almighty God has burned me up… Shirley Chisholm is the highest elected black woman official and, for those of you who don’t know it, the Democratic National Committeewoman from the State of New York. You’d better wake up!”

Her outburst made the evening news and a New York Times headline the next day. It did little to change her status with the black male congressmen.

The conference itself produced little news, and though there were closed discussion sessions, nothing conclusive was decided beyond the vote to hold a black political convention sometime early next year. There were sessions on techniques for designing districts to preserve black Congressional seats, sessions which made the whole black caucus seem like a tardy and futile effort, for it was generally agreed that redistric­ting plans should be ready and presented to the courts by the end of the month, wherever legislatures were gerryman­dering blacks out of their seats. (But one reporter thought even court efforts would yield small gains for blacks, the courts themselves being frequently political provinces.)

Thus the interesting drama of the conference was the unspoken game of tug-of-war between Shirley Chisholm and the center of the male congressmen’s group, which appeared to be somewhere close to wherever close to wherever the Stokes brothers hung out. Ever since the black Congressional caucus had been meeting with other black politicos and civil rights leaders (a series of meetings, regional and national, which began several weeks ago), reporters had been hearing rumors that the male congressmen had wanted to run Carl Stokes as the black Presidential candidate. But Julian Bond, who had attended some of the meetings, had told people he was for running locally popular blacks in each of their various states. And by Friday night of the Washington conference, Lewis Stokes was to say the same thing.

In any case, Shirley Chisholm had definitely out-maneuvered her male colleagues, spoiling any chances for multiple black candidacies, locally based, and embarrassing them by making the rift between her camp and theirs very public. The whole point of their effort was to bring a solid bloc of united black delegates to the Democratic Convention, to bargain on plat-form issues of importance to their constituents. Perhaps as a result of their efforts, the National Democratic Committee chair­man, Larry O’Brien, had met with Congressman Charles Diggs (the leader of the black Congressional Caucus) and promised him blacks would get 20 per cent of the action in 1972 — whatever that meant. (The 20 per cent was a figure derived from the percentage of blacks who voted for Humphrey in ’68)  O’Brien later made some grand gestures to a group of female leaders (Mrs. Chisholm included), which may mean that by the time he is through dealing with factions, he’ll have promised away a good 200 per cent of “the action” before the convention. (A ‘youth caucus’ is expected to go begging to O’Brien in a few weeks.)

Throughout the conference, Mrs. Chisholm told people she had decided to run in response to the urgings of various individuals and groups. One source, an aide to a powerful New York Democrat, told me he thought she’d decided to run largely because she resented the way the male black leaders had ignored her in their initial efforts to build a national black political caucus. But she had been invited to a large meeting they held in Chicago several weeks ago, and she’d declined the invitation, sending a representative who asked the group to support her candidacy. Imamu Baraka (LeRoi Jones) is reported to have said, in response to this appeal, “Don’t women have race, too?”

When I asked her in Washington who some of the individuals and groups urging her to run were, she got quite indignant.

“I don’t have to reveal my strategy to you!” she snapped. “They’re groups of women, groups of young people, Chicanos. That’s all I want to say.” (She rattled off the same list of groups to a soft-spoken black student reporter.)

What may really have decided her is something her most trusted political adviser discovered in Brooklyn before she ran for Congress in 1968: there were approximately 3000 more registered females than registered males in the black assembly districts of her Congressional district. Her ad­viser, an old statistician and experienced pol named Wesley Holder, told me he didn’t know whether this kind of sexual demography was the same nationally in black districts — but it may be an educated guess that it is.

There is no question about her appeal to black women. At a reception she held Friday night the weekend of the conference, one man approached her with a warm offer of help for her North Carolina campaign. “My wife is so impressed with you,” he said. He was not alone.

And she can turn on young crowds with her blazing, intense oratory. At the September voter registration rally in Pittsburgh where Lindsay was less than triumphant, she was interrupted by wild cheers and got a hearty standing ovation when she’d finished her talk.

These powers failed to move her black male colleagues, however, and during a reception she held for conference participants Friday evening, she was challenged on her dealings with them. Some of the questions put to her appeared to be drawing blood. She stood, surrounded by the admiring and the curious, answering their question and ultimately taking off into an impromptu speech.

Someone asked her a question about her strained relationship with the black male Congressional leaders.

“This is very, very distressing to me,” she said. “As of this moment the black elected officials have not really come up with their strategy. Meanwhile, people are moving, and the essence is time. This is politics! … In good conscience, I can’t hold back.”

She put in a special word of praise for Ronald Dellums, the freshman congressman from California (he was to make an unsuccessful bid for a Chisholm endorsement in a closed con­ference session later that evening), then she got angry again. Her body quivering, her voice fiercely lowered, she said, “How many of them assembled here do not already have a commitment someplace and still talking about a black thing?” She apparently wanted that to sound like more than a rhetorical question, but she never named a specific conference member who might be committed to another candidate.

A man asked her whether it wasn’t true that she had been “initially asked to write the black agenda?”

“I don’t care to get involved in those details,” she answered quickly. “I was invited to the big meeting they had out in Illinois, but they knew I couldn’t go because I was in Texas and New Mexico collecting delegate votes … Because I am a woman, because I am black I’ve always had to do that work.”

“Was the caucus involved in your decision?” asked the same man.

“Not involved,” Mrs. Chisholm curtly replied. “Further question,” she said impatiently, turning her head away from the man. Then she appeared to think she ought to expand her answer. “My candidacy first developed from many, many people,” she said, asserting once again that she’d been urged to run by several groups six months ago.

After several additional questions, she warmed to the group and made her impromptu speech. She held her audience spellbound, skillfully alternating the rhythms and tones of her words, at the end looking truly possessed, with her arms drawn in, her eyes shut tight, and her voice deadly serious. She was moving and appealing; her feminism compellingly drew upon the sympathies of her almost solidly black audience, people who knew only too well the cruel pinches of discrimination. But there was a high strain about her, and a constant hint of paranoia. She sounded as if she knew she’d never capture the black caucus and as if this had been a great hope she was having trouble relinquishing.

“I can withstand the abuses, the insults,” she said passionately, “but I’m not gonna let anybody cover me up in a dirt hole.” Then, growing gentler, she said, “My brothers, if you can’t come along with me, I ain’t mad at you. But please, for God’s sake, you know my record. Don’t becloud the picture. Don’t lie!

“When people go out and say, Shirley Chisholm, she may become a captive of the women … and when you hear brothers saying you can’t talk with her, that’s because I’m a different breed of politician. I don’t wheel and deal morning, noon, and night. I am truly unbought and unbossed.”

“Unbought and Unbossed” is the title of her autobiography. It’s a phrase that does not totally fit her politics. For her trusted ad­viser, Wesley Holder, is on a small scale a very competent political boss. He was borrowed from Brooklyn in 1958 to help J. Raymond Jones and Adam Clayton Powell win a difficult Harlem race. And Holder himself says proudly that “Shirls” makes no major decision without consulting him. Holder handles her Brooklyn office, dealing with most constituent problems and maintaining a policy of non-involvement in local controversies.

There are some indications that Mrs. Chisholm is closely allied with the Lindsay camp, although one certainly couldn’t say that means she has been bought by Lindsay at this point. Lindsay was the chairman of her fund-raising affair at the Americana three weeks ago. And Mrs. Chisholm will, in turn, be a sponsor of a $25-a-head Barry Gottehrer testimonial dinner in mid-­December, which should raise money for Lindsay’s campaign. One Lindsay aide told me that the Mayor’s and Mrs. Chisholm’s organizations in Brooklyn were synonymous. (This aide also spoke highly of Holder, recalling the days during the 1969 mayoral race when Holder would get all the local Lindsay people holed up in his unventilated office, drinking straight bourbon. By the time such meetings were over, said the aide, “I’d agree to everything he said.”)

And Mrs. Chisholm is considered a pragmatist on Capitol Hill. She is reported to be quick­-witted and effective in committee meetings. Mrs. Chisholm made startling news, of course, when she first arrived at Congress and refused her appointment to the House Agriculture Committee. Since then, however, she repor­tedly made her peace with the House leadership. And though she now denies it, it is widely believed on Capitol Hill that she voted for Hale Boggs as majority leader in exchange for an appointment to the House Education and Labor Committee. That vote was done by secret ballot, so even Boggs’s people can’t prove she voted for him, but Washington reporters recall that she didn’t deny it at the time. (In Washington more recently, she angrily told me she had never voted for Boggs.)

Among reporters she is described as a politician who does not do her constituent homework. But she does so much public speaking that such criticism may just be clever speculation. She gets $1500 per speech, and her schedule during the week I followed her fortunes was so packed that her staff told me to interview her between sessions of the conference. (She was always too busy to stop for an interview with The Voice, although she found time for CBS.)

One reporter who is most critical of her — although reluctant to lash out at her in print — is Dick Oliver of the Daily News. In 1969, Oliver was assigned to look into the case of Lance Corporal Ronald V. Johnson, a black Marine who had been convicted for allegedly raping an Okinawan girl. Ultimately Oliver’s investigations got Johnson a new trial and he was acquitted, but along the way, Oliver and Johnson’s supporters found it difficult to get Shirley Chisholm interested in his case — ­though Johnson’s home was in her district.

In the fall of 1969 a Daily News political reporter approached Mrs. Chisholm at a news con­ference to ask her whether she’d seen the stories about Johnson. She told the reporter she was too busy to get involved.

In early 1970, when Johnson was scheduled to have his second trial, his attorney began to fear he would be hit with a drug charge because the military authorities were so angry with him. The at­torney called Oliver who in turn called Mrs. Chisholm’s office. She was out of town, but her staff did give Oliver permission to say she was upset about Johnson’s predicament. And as Johnson’s case looked better and better, said Oliver, Mrs. Chisholm began to champion it more strongly. “When we needed her, we didn’t have her. But later on, when we didn’t need her, she was there,” Oliver said recently.

Now Mrs. Chisholm is thought of as a staunch defender of blacks in the military. She recently sent one of her aides to Germany to in­vestigate racial problems among American GIs there.

Shirley Chisholm is a mixed bag. She can be calculating and manipulative; she can sacrifice principle to expedience; she can be courageous and moving; she can be hysterical one moment, sharply, dazzling rational the next.

She has announced that she will enter the Florida, North Carolina, and California primaries, the last of which makes no sense for a black who wants to contribute delegates to a black caucus at the convention. Whoever wins the California primary takes all the delegates to the convention; thus California blacks would do better to ride on the slate of a strong black candidate.

At this point, Mrs. Chisholm’s candidacy is obviously troublesome to her black colleagues in Congress. And though reporters find her good copy, they can’t understand why she’s running. It may be sheer ego; it may be her tenacious feminism that has motivated her. But this is the reason I overheard her telling a cluster of black women at the conference: “After this is over, I’ve done my thing for America … This is my legacy for the folks. Somebody has to have the guts to show the others we can do it.” ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 9, 2020

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