As It Happens

Shirley Chisholm, first black congresswoman in U.S., gets statue in Brooklyn

Washington assistant professor Niambi Carter speaks about Shirley Chisholm's legacy, following the announcement that New York City will put up a statue of the pioneering politician.

'She was just persistent,' says Howard University prof

Democrat congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, of New York, takes her oath of office in Washington, D.C in 1969. The pioneering lawmaker will be honoured with a statue in the New York City borough she served as the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress. (Associated Press)


New York City is putting up a statue to commemorate Shirley Chisholm — the first black congresswoman in the U.S.

The plan is to have it installed in 2020 outside Prospect Park in Brooklyn, which is where Chisholm is from.

It is part of a wider project to commission more monuments of women, in a city that is dominated by statues of men. 

Chisholm, who famously said, "If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair," is also the first black person and the first woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. 

She died in 2005. 

Niambi Carter, an assistant professor of political science at Howard University, has written about Chisholm. Here's part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

What kind of an effect did [Shirley Chisholm] have on people when she spoke?

She was a very petite woman. But from everything I've been able to hear, is everyone called her Ms. Chisholm — and that she was erect, that she was direct, and that she was just persistent.

She made this bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. She wanted to run for the president's office ... this is, I guess, 1972. What was she up against?

For one, her own party didn't want her to run. They thought she would take votes away from more viable candidates, like [presidential nominee George] McGovern.

But she also had to fight within the Congressional Black Caucus who felt like if there was going to be a black leadership, then the first black person to run for president should be a man.

She just did not subscribe to that patriarchal kind of politics.

Shirley Chisholm is surrounded by campaign workers in New York as she flashes the victory sign shortly after winning election to Congress in 1968. (Associated Press)

Women and white feminists ... opposed her. Why is that?

I think this has been a problem with feminist organizing circles for a long time, which is: women of colour can help you, they can organize with you, but you don't want them to be the leadership of those organizations.

I think this is something that we've been talking about a lot in this country with the election of Donald Trump, where white women seem to defect from the coalition of women voters that were going to throw their support behind Hillary Clinton 

Now that's not exactly true when we look at how white woman vote. They typically vote Republican in this country in half. 

But I will say, I think for the organizing circles at the time — whether it be Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug and those folks — I think they were making a calculated decision and that decision was, "Who is more likely to win the nomination and who is more likely to take the vote all the way?"

What was the campaign like for Shirley Chisholm? I guess she even had some assassination attempts.

I think that the trail by all accounts was brutal.

She had very little party support, so her infrastructure was really kind of ramshackle when you think about it.

I mean, these are people who are really just invigorated volunteers who believe in Shirley Chisholm, who are taking their own time and running around and they talked about how they would have their campaign materials mysteriously lost when they would arrive somewhere.

The fact that you had all these forces kind of militating against a real challenge I think was probably hurtful because Ms. Chisholm until the very end really believed in the transformative power of democracy.

She was fine losing. But she didn't want the deck stacked against her.

Rep. Shirley Chisholm, D-N.Y., poses on the steps of the Capitol in Washington with material she plans to use in a speech before the House of Representatives. (Charles Gorry/Associated Press)

The announcement that there will be a statue ...  to Shirley Chisholm comes at an interesting time in politics in your country, isn't it? The midterm elections saw historic gains by women in Congress, by minorities who are there now. What can they all learn, what can everyone in Congress learn, from Shirley Chisholm?

I think her unwavering belief in the institutions of democracy.

I think she knew very clearly that the rules of the game could be rigged, but I think she believed fundamentally in these institutions as a place of correction.

If we honour and take seriously what the lawmaking body is supposed to be and that we discharge that duty without reference to our particular politics … then we can actually remedy a lot of the issues that ail them most of us.

Written by Sarah Jackson. Produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.