Shirley Chisholm

A Coalition of Conscience - Oct. 3, 1983

Shirley Chisholm
October 03, 1983— Greenfield, Massachusetts
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Chisholm gave this speech at Greenfield High School.

Thank you very much. I am very glad to be here this evening. I think it is important that as we look around ourselves in the world today, there are so many complex, complicated problems, and the time has come that somehow we must be able to utilize our creative energies in a positive manner and work together for the amelioration of the human condition. It matters not whether you are white or black, whether you are male or female, but that if you have special talents and aptitudes and abilities, that these collective talents and abilities should be utilized by all of us in order to try and help make this world a better place in which to live. I am here tonight to speak specifically about women and blacks: a coalition.

I want to begin by reading to you the words of another famous woman of Massachusetts: Abigail Adams, the wife of the second president of the United States of America. In a letter to her husband at the Continental Congress back in the 18th century, she counseled the future president of the United States, and this is what she said thusly. She said:

"Remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of husbands. Remember that all men would be tyrants if they could."

Remember this is not a modern-day feminist talking, ladies and gentleman. This is dear old Abigail from the 18th century.

"If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and we will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation."

More than 200 years after her quill pen scratched those words on the paper, this land, this society, and this economy are still dominated by husbands and by some tyrants who are determined to rule consistently and persistently.

And not only are women still struggling under the weight of some of this tyranny, but blacks and other minorities in this nation also still know that true equality only as an ideal and a concept, not as an everyday reality. We women, we blacks have rebelled. We have struggled and we have made progress towards realizing the egalitarian promises proclaimed in our country's founding documents, and even earlier than the Civil Rights movement and even before the feminist movement, blacks and women in this country had been marching and boycotting and lobbying and pamphleting for the basic rights of citizenship.

We must remember that when the Constitution was written, that women were regarded as property and that blacks were only regarded as 3/5 of a person. So one could understand how it is that blacks and women are still struggling to gain equitability of opportunity across the board in jobs, in education, and in training. There is no particular test as yet that indicates that men has a superiority of gray cranial matter over women. There are stupid men and there are stupid women. There are brilliant men and there are brilliant women. And our country needs the collective talents of the genus Homo sapiens who have talent, of whom some are men and some are women, in order to be able to better the conditions for all of us.

We blacks and we women, we did, over time, bring some important concessions from the males in power. Through the years we have risen from the horizontal closer to the vertical, but we women and we blacks did it separately. We did it as blacks or we did it as women. We each fought our own battles because we did not see or we could not see or we would not see that it was all the same battle for freedom and equality of opportunities. We have been marching down different sides of the same street that are not to recognize it, but maybe finally we are coming together and we are marching down, hopefully, the middle of the street.

On Saturday August 27, we walked together down an important street. That street was Constitution Avenue in Washington D.C. We marched together as a new coalition of conscience not only to remember the historic gatherings of 20 years ago but also, and more importantly, to unite behind the causes key to our future as a nation and our future as a planet peopled in peace by a diversity of human beings.

The United States of America is a multifaceted, variegated nation. People, your ancestors, came to these shores from other countries across the Atlantic years ago fleeing from economic, political, and/or religious persecution because they heard of a place called America, the land of the free and the home of the brave. So they came because the words at the foot of the Statue of Liberty beckoned to them and gave them the feeling and idea that you have come to a haven.

But black people also came, but black people came for predestined roles in America. The words at the foot of the Statue of Liberty did not have the same meanings for black people because they came to perform certain backbreaking slave labor on the cotton fields, on the tobacco fields of Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Arkansas in order to help develop this country in such a way that their labor, their sweat, their blood helped to make this country the great mercantile and financial center that it is today.

So the blood and the sweat and the tears of black citizens also lie rooted deeply in the stream of America, but because of our high visibility, the amount of melanin in our skin, even though we are all alike beneath. You remove that outer covering, my friends, and do you know that we really have the same kind of blood coursing through our veins? The same pair of lungs. The same circulatory system. That if I could help you to live, my blood or something that belongs to me might help you to live, it would not be a question of race.

It is important for us to recognize in this country that we must move away from the phrase of, "What do you people want now?" Black people, my friends, want no more nor no less than every other group that has come to the shores of America hardly able to speak the English language but came in order to hopefully realize the fruition and the aspirations that they dreamt about as they were persecuted in Europe. The blood, sweat, and the tears of black Americans also lie rooted deeply in the soil of America.

And this past August 27, when we were in Washington and we saw, when we saw America marching together, when we recognized that, indeed, at that point in time America was not anybody's melting pot. America is a side bowl: different pieces, different persons making up this multifaceted nation. We better understand that although many of us may have come to this country or our ancestors may have come to this country in different ships, we better understand that we are all in the same boat right now.

Yes, my friends, this is called a coalition of conscience, but what it really is and what it really needs to be is a coalition of confrontation but we are not speaking about confrontation in the streets. Our confrontation is against the policies and the philosophies and the personalities of the Reagan Administration.

Persons in this audience might very well say, "What do you expect from Shirley Chisholm? She's a Democrat, so what do you expect?" I challenge you in terms of saying to you, I repeat the words of Al Smith regardless of your political persuasion: "Let the record speak for itself."

Not since 50 years ago in the United States of America have we found a situation in America in which so many segments simultaneously are suffering from the most deleterious impact on their quality of life. Senior citizens wondering whether or not the Social Security system is going to hold up, and yet, during their productive years they were told that if they paid into a system called the Social Security system then in the twilight of their lives they would not have to worry. They could be assured of food, shelter, and clothing. Look at what we did to so many elderly people in this country when we had begun to move in the direction of eliminating the $122 a month minimum Social Security of which 81% collecting that minimum were females in America. The only reason that did not come about was because of the outcry in this nation. Even during that time doctors told me that the circulatory ailments and the heart conditions of so many senior citizens escalated because of the disquietude, the anxiety, the insecurity. These people who had been productive for years and had been on the tax rolls of America and had paid into a system and deserved this in return now wondering what was going to happen to them.

Then the dutiful young people of this country, the young people who must get a technological, business, or academic education in order to have the requisite step necessary to compete in a very highly automated and technological society. Now they don't know for sure whether or not they will be able to complete their college educations.

I just came back from Dallas, Texas, and Kansas meeting and seeing hundreds of farmers who have lost their family farms—farms that have been in their families for generations—because they do not have the money to make the loans. They can't get the money to pay off some of the mortgages so they are in a certain kind of predicament.

The women and the blacks of this country—the women as the results of the women's rights movement and the blacks as a result of the civil rights movement—were the recent two segments in America who adhered to the adage that God helps those who help themselves. These groups went out for about 15 years dramatically bringing their problems to the attention of America as a whole and progress has been made, but during the past two to two and a half years the actions not the rhetoric is not consistent in terms of the gains that we have made. As Al Smith said, "The record speaks for itself." Farmers, women, blacks, youth—everybody is suffering in some way from something that is called Reaganomics.

Our confrontation must be against an all-time vision of America. Our confrontation must be against blacks in the cotton and tobacco fields. Our confrontation must be against women in the kitchen. Our confrontation must be against blacks at the back door and women at the bedroom door. Those bad, old days are dead.

But, my friends, the conservatives desire to pry the lid off the coffin and so our confrontation then must be against the grave robbers. Our coalition has got to keep the lid nailed down tight and the wheels of progress turning and rolling once again. Our coalition still has miles to go. The bad, old days may be dead, my friends, but there are still plenty of ghosts roaming around.

As I have said to you, true equality is still not an everyday reality for the blacks and for the women of America. To this slippery, uphill climb to equality many of us right now have lost our grip, and we are sliding back down. It is poor women, it is poor backs who fill the tenements of this nation and the housing projects of urban poverty. It is poor women and poor blacks trying to get by in the old houses and the shacks and the trailers of rural poverty right across the Appalachian hinterlands. If you go to Appalachia, you wouldn't believe that you are in a place called the United States of America, the richest country on the face of this earth.

It is poor women and poor blacks and their families that are now reeling from two and a half years of President Reagan's regulatory and fiscal karate chops. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office—so that you understand this isn't Shirley Chisholm because she's a Democrat—the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has just completed a study of the impact of domestic spending cuts enacted since our president took office. In a close examination, this nonpartisan body looked at 26 human resource categories and they calculated that there will be a reduction of $110 billion for the people's programs in the next year and a half. Of that alarming total, $26 billion is in retirement programs. I hope many of you recognize that someday you are going to get old and where are you going to be? $18.5 billion is in the health programs of this nation, and $25 billion is in the employment and training programs.

Nobody is saying that we must continue to spend ad infinitum. You hear about inflation. You've got to do something to bring inflation down. You thought the Democrats were the big spenders. All of these shibboleths and all of these things you hear, there is no question about that the president of the United States has a responsibility to make sure that we don't constantly spend, spend, spend, spend so that our children's children's children will be bequeathed the legacy of having to pay off this fantastic debt. We recognize this, but we do not seem to realize that it doesn't make sense that in the period of nine weeks our beloved president can come across the television and say to us that we will have to spend approximately $1 trillion by the end of 1985 for the military and the defense of this nation in a peacetime economy. God help us if we go to war next week or next month and we may be very well be going into war in Central America. Maybe in a sense the American people will begin to wake up because in this century Americans have not been able to know what it really means. The wars have been fought thousands of miles away from our shores.

The President said he is acting thusly because he has a mandate. What kind of mandate does one speak of when only 27% of the 52% of American people who went to polls in November of 1980 voted for our president?

I don't blame our president at all. I really don't. The reason I don't blame our president is because America has gone to sleep. We are a bunch of Rip Van Winkles, quiescent. Everybody is quiet, only wringing their hands and wondering what is going to happen to us in the future. Where is our energy? Where is our spirit? In the 60s and the 70s in this country, the people rallied, the people moved. This country is the only country on the face of the planet called Earth where people can redress their grievances without any real fear of repercussions. We have instrumentalities and mechanisms for us to act thusly. And when the people in Washington D.C. didn't seem to be able to put an end to the Vietnam War where we had already lost 55,000 of the cream of the crop of this nation. You marched. The people in this country came to Washington D.C. by the thousands. They said to us in Washington, enough is enough. Within a few weeks, we heard you. That war was brought to a close.

And the civil rights movement. If we did not have the marches and the sit-ins and the meetings, and people, just American people, moving together and marching, do you think we would have gotten the legislation pertaining to the Voting Rights Act and all of the civil rights legislation that has helped to give blacks the feeling and the idea that perhaps they, too, will be a part of this American Dream that everybody talks about trippingly off the tongue?

People, we have it within our grasp. We have it within our grip. We have it. We can turn things around in this country, but we've got to get out of our quiescence. We've got to become reenergized, revitalized, rejuvenated. We've got to once again move in the direction of saying that this, indeed, is a government of the people, all of us in this room, and a government by the people, and a government for the people, but it is certainly not going to be a government of and by and for the people in reality unless we the citizens of this realm become angry enough to rise up enough in righteous indignation and say we have to move in another kind of direction. The millions of dollars that I have witnessed since I was in the Congress for 14 years spent on weaponry systems that were obsolescent before they came off the belt. Money that could be used for education of our children in this country. Money that can be used to give those poor white kids in the hinterlands at least two glasses of milk a day.

What madness are we on? Why are we so quiet? That is the rhetorical question that I leave with thee. Congressional Budget nonpartisan group also found that 3 million school children were dropped from the school lunch program. 700,000 fewer students obtained guaranteed student loans. Let the record speak for itself.

But also at a time when conservative forces oppress us, with their outdated and their repressive views, women and blacks are becoming a political annex capable in 1984, if we desire to do so, of blasting the conservative minority back where they belong to the fringes of our political system. Women already outnumber men going to the polls by as many as 6 million voters. Blacks riding a crest of inspiring political muscle-flexing are registering to vote in record numbers, and they can begin to control the political balance of power in many states, cities, and within the Democratic Party.

We blacks and we women, we have the makings and even have the takings of a coalition of confrontation and a coalition of conscience. It makes no difference whether if you love me or I love you. That is not the issue at all because every one of us in this room, I dare say, have people that love us. You're not in this for love. We are in this in order to make sure that this society does not consider continuing to give us a lot of rhetoric that is meaningless. That this society recognizes that we as women have much to offer. There is no other society in this world that has as many college-educated or college-trained women as in the United States of America. When I go to the United Nations and see my beautiful sisters from Asia and Europe in high-level positions running things and they say, "Shirley, we don't understand. America women are ahead of us. Your country is more advanced and yet what do you all do? You all just—you don't do anything." That is the challenge.

Women have got to understand also that regardless of whether you are a Republican, a Democrat, or an Independent or whatever, that we as the natural instructors of the young have a legacy to bequeath to these beautiful children in this audience this evening.

Traveling through this country and going to the black deltas of Mississippi and Georgia and seeing little black children with distended stomachs hardly able to stand up, dying from malnutrition. Then going through the hinterlands of West Virginia and Kentucky, white folk living in shacks and trailers, dirt floors, outhouses for bathroom. No modern plumbing facilities. If you see these tiny little white children running towards you hardly able to stand up on knobby knees, pale, sallow beyond their years. They don't even look as though they are human beings living on this planet called Earth, and they are talking about care packages? America look at our own children. Look and see what is happening. You could never be the same person you are if you travel this country with me and come back here and sit in this auditorium in Greenfield tonight and not feel a stirring of some kind in your soul.

These children are our future. It is important for women to move out in the political area of this country, on the city level, the statewide level, and on the national level not because we hate men, as people sometimes want to say. It's not a question of hating men at all. It is a question of recognizing them in a turn of human events in the course of circumstances in this nation. That unless the natural instructors of the young have the opportunity to sit in these legislative bodies and speak of the child care centers, speak of the importance of a child having three glasses of milk a day, speak about the fact that it is necessary for children in Appalachia in the south to get that hot lunch because it is perhaps the only meal that they can get. Speak of the fact that there is a need for daycare centers not because of some socialistic concept as some of these Neanderthal gentleman talk about when they stand in the well of the House of Representatives. The fact that 60% of American women today are working, women who have children between the ages of 5 and 15, and they are not working in order to acquire some kind of luxuries. They are working because many of them are the sole parent in the household. They are working because in so many instances the husbands and the fathers are not earning enough money in order to take care of the basic necessities of life: food, shelter, and clothing. In order to do this, they need to have places where the children can be cared for intellectually, psychologically, physically, and educationally. That is what child care centers are about.

The gentlemen are fine, but you see advocates for children, advocates for the daycare centers, flexi-time. Thank God, we finally got that in: flexi-time. Now we can really get to the point where a woman can work for five hours a day if her husband has an evening job. The woman can go out in the morning and she can work for four hours because hubby will be there to take care of the kids, and by the time she gets back he can go to work and they can have more income and yet the kids can be cared for. You should have heard the debate on the floor when we talked about flexi-time. Some of these gentlemen—really, they are worse than Attila the Hun. It's amazing where they are coming from.

I believe that we are going to be able to get some basic changes in America. After 25 years in the political arena, I never thought I would say this but I am now convinced, nobody can change me, I'm convinced that we're not going to have some of the changes that are necessary in America, the changes that have to do with the conservation and preservation of the most important resources a nation ever has, and that is its children, that we are not going to be able to have that until women are in positions of decision-making and administering power in the political counsels of this great nation. I truly believe that. I don't want the gentlemen who are here this evening to feel uncomfortable. I think if you are broadminded enough you will understand where I'm coming from.

Finally, my friends, I do want to say to you: look—together, together we can march down the center of America's avenue. We don't have to have the blacks on that side and the women way on that side. We are walking down the different sides of the avenue, eyeing each other, suspicious, mistrustful, distrustful because there are some commonalities in spite of the fact that there are reasons why both groups distrust each other. There are some commonalities pertaining to these two segments as contrasted to white males. We have been the underdogs in a sense. We have never really gotten the full ability in terms of carrying out the espousal of equalitarian principles in this life. If we are mature enough, and I'm not talking about chronological age at all, but if we are mature enough psychologically and socially, we can form the most formidable coalition in this country, blacks and women. Believe me, we can. We will change things, believe me. I know it.

But because of the inherent racism in the bloodstream in America, that gets in the way so we will both have to continue to suffer. Blacks can't do it alone in this country. And women, believe it or not, can't do it alone in this country. The power structure knows it, but the power structure also knows that blacks and women probably will not get together for historical reasons, prejudicial reasons or what have you and so we are out there each doing our own little thing never realizing that the power structure is afraid of the day might come in America when these two segments get together. Once these segments ever get together in America, halleluiah, a kind of freedom will be emanating in this country in a way that you wouldn't recognize it.

But that is the challenge to you, not to me. All I'm going to say in conclusion is this. Too late now for us to go back to the cotton fields and back to the kitchens. We've come too far. I remember when I got started about some 21 years ago in the women's movement, a lot of women in this country, black and white, thought I was crazy. Particularly a lot of black and minority women couldn't understand Shirley Chisholm linking up with white women for the women's movement. Change doesn't come about by masses. Change comes about by capitalists who dare. Change comes about by those who put their necks on the chopping block and hopefully are able to withstand the insults, the giggles, the snickers, the laughter.

I know I have met so many women, very conservative white women who do not understand me nor do I expect them to understand me, who can't understand, what are you bellyaching about in a sense. I've had to tell them in no uncertain terms, let me tell you something, you don't have to be a part of the women's movement or any movement. You're now making $35,000 a year as a vice president of a corporation. I've seen some very conservative women executives in this country that I addressed recently. More of them in that room were making $30,000 to $80,000 a year, smug as they could be and just didn't understand what women are, you know, are fighting, what have you. I said to them, "You may not understand what some of us have been fighting about, but I want to tell you here and now, you would not be making that $35,000 to $80,000 a year if it wasn't for women like myself and others who dared to challenge the traditional system that kept you back and now you're enjoying the fruits of what we did."

My sisters, black and white, I want to say this in conclusion. We have really come too far to, again, be danced backwards into what others consider to be our place. Our place here and now is in America's mainstream, and the upper swifter currents of the mainstream where we can assume greater responsibilities and collect the greater rewards that we are due. Don't let anybody tell you that you're out on a limb. The time has come in America when all of us can no longer be the passive, complacent armchair recipients of whatever the morals or the politics of our nation may bequeath for us. But if we have the courage of our convictions, we will stand up and be counted. Nobody talks about you if you are not doing anything so don't worry about anyone talking about you. Forget conventionalisms. Forget what the world will say, whether you're in your place or out of your place. You do your thing looking only to God, whoever your God is, and to your conscience for approval. Together we will march. And you know something? If we are able to do that together we will overcome.

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