Shirley Chisholm

Excerpts from the National Visionary Leadership Project - May 7, 2002

Shirley Chisholm
May 07, 2002
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These excerpts are from an interview with Shirley Chisholm conducted by Dr. Camille O. Cosby as part of the National Visionary Leadership Project. More information can be found at

Outlook on the Future

CHISHOLM: If our very basic Constitution had phrases in it had to do with slavery and if we go back to the birth of the country and the growth of this country and if we go back to laws rules and regulations of the states, I can't be optimistic. I try to be, but I can't. I can't be optimistic.

COSBY: And the fact that people have fought so hard for the amendments to the Constitution to make the Constitution what it's supposed to be—that, too, I guess....

CHISHOLM: I can't be optimistic. I've tried to find.... I've tried to look at it in a way that—I don't see a lot loopholes or what-have-you—but I find that I can't. I am not very...I'm not very optimistic about my country and I love my country.


CHISHOLM: I love my country but I can't be too optimistic about it.

COSBY: Yes. What do you think that will do if someone like you, Miss Chisholm, is not optimistic? How can we make young people more persistent—like you were persistent—to make, to create the changes to galvanize people so that they will become critical thinkers and be activists, if there's a lack of optimism? I mean, what is the component....

CHISHOLM: But you see, what I always say, I always go back—constantly—to the environment in which they are being reared. You have to go back to how they're being reared. What is being discussed with them at home? What is being said to them when they go out? It goes right back to the home.

COSBY: It does.

CHISHOLM: If you don't have a good home background, forget it.

COSBY: And then there's so many changes that need to be done in the home....

CHISHOLM: If you open that open that door and young people go off, you only pray that they come back the way you sent them out.


Advice to Young African Americans

CHISHOLM: Get a good education. Follow your mind. Follow the dictates of your conscience. Do what you think and feel has to be done in order for you to achieve. And you'll be able to succeed. I really believe that.

COSBY: Do you think that young African-Americans feel hopeful?

CHISHOLM: No. No, I don't.

COSBY: Do you think that that is self-defeating, if you are hopeless.

CHISHOLM: Yes, yes.

COSBY: So what can be done to make young people see that they can be hopeful?

CHISHOLM: Oh, you can do it. You can constantly lecture to them and constantly answer their queries and their questions about things. But so much of it has to do with the kind of environment in which they are reared.

COSBY: Yes. Then of course young people are bombarded with negative images, too.

CHISHOLM: Oh, yes, yes.

COSBY: From different forms of the media.

CHISHOLM: That's right.

COSBY: So that those repetitive messages, perhaps, are making them feel hopeless or defining them.

CHISHOLM: That's right.

COSBY: That they believe these definitions.


COSBY: What can be done, do you think? What can be done to counter these repetitive negative messages and images?

CHISHOLM: I still say that basically you only have to go back to the environment in which they're being reared. You always have to go back to that. I know of young people. I had to get a few of them straightened out a few weeks ago. "Don't give me that answer. Don't tell me that." They didn't want to get high marks in their class because it means that they are...they think that they think they're it. They just want to be mediocre individuals. And I told them, "There's too much mediocrity in this country. Too much!"


CHISHOLM: You've got to excel because excellence reaps rewards.


Greatest Achievement / Strongest Regret

CHISHOLM: My greatest achievement, believe it or not, is that I had the audacity and the nerve to make a bid for the presidency of the United States of America. I really think that's my greatest achievement.

COSBY: What is your strongest regret?

CHISHOLM: You know, to tell you the truth, I don't really regret anything that I've done. I really don't.

COSBY: Very good.

CHISHOLM: I want history to remember me not that I was the first black woman to be elected to the Congress, not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman who lived in the twentieth century and who dared to be herself. I want to be remembered as a catalyst for change in America.


Definition of Leadership

CHISHOLM: A leader has to know that he knows. And he has to be able...

COSBY: Or she.

CHISHOLM: Yes—he or she. And he has to be able to withstand the insults and the kinds of things that are thrown in your direction, and you have to really have a spirit and a mind which dictates only to you, and to know within yourself that what you are doing is the right thing to do, because that's what you feel, and you should not look to anybody at all for approval of what you are about. And a leader has to learn to stand at the head of the flock and beckon them to follow.


My Bid for the Presidency

COSBY: What made you decide to do this—to run for president of the United States?

CHISHOLM: What me decide was that I felt that time had come when a black person or a female person could and should be president of the United States of America—not only white males—and I decided that somebody had to get it started.

COSBY: Where you the first African-American?

CHISHOLM: Yes, yes.

COSBY: Not only the first African-American women but the first African-American...

CHISHOLM: That's right.

COSBY: run for president of the United States.

CHISHOLM: That's right. And what I did, I felt that just about two years before— four years before—I had gone to the Congress as the first black person to be elected to Congress and I had gone on a number of speaking engagements through the country, and there was a fantastic development for me as an individual, and people were encouraging me, you should run. You should run because you're a woman—we've never had a woman president. You're black—we've never had a black person for president. You speak Spanish. You have a lot of things.... And you have a knowledge of the issues. Run! And that's what motivated me.

COSBY: It spurred you on.

CHISHOLM: Yes, it spurred me on. But I knew I would be in trouble, because the moment that the announcement was made that I was going to make a bid for the presidency, all hell broke loose. All hell broke loose from black men, white men, Puerto Rican men. Hell broke loose.


CHISHOLM: See, and I kind of expected it. I expected it.

COSBY: During that time when you ran for the president, it must have been absolutely chaotic.

CHISHOLM: Oh, it was. It was.

COSBY: And the media? Did you think that the media treated you properly, overall?

CHISHOLM: No, they did not treat me properly at all. Particularly in the South. But the one thing in the South that was very strange was George Wallace.

COSBY: Oh yes.

CHISHOLM: George Wallace, for some strange, unknown reason—he liked me. And when we were running in the Floridian primary, John Lindsay, who was the mayor of New York, begged me to pull back because I was beating him in Florida. And I would not pull back. I said, "No, this is my time."

COSBY: Oh, that such a surprise, that you would not do that!

CHISHOLM: [laughing] [unintelligible] And George Wallace came down to Florida and he went all over Florida and he said to the people, "If y'all can't vote for me, don't vote for those oval-headed lizards. Vote for Shirley Chisholm." And that crashed my votes, because they thought I was in league with him to get votes. That's what killed me in Florida. You see, because he came out for me, if people couldn't vote for him. So they said, I guess Shirley Chisholm has some kind of agreement with George Wallace. But I didn't.

COSBY: Yes, behind the scenes.

CHISHOLM: Yes, that's right.

COSBY: And then of course when he was shot, you visited him and I understand there was....

CHISHOLM: Oh! When I visited him when he was shot, I almost lost my seat. I went to the hospital to visit him, and all of us who were running for president at that time—Jackson, Wilbur Mills, John Lindsay, because there were 13 of us who were out in the race in 1972—and I went to see him. Oh my gosh! I knew that I was going to be thrown out of office. The people in my district came down on me like anything. And I had two big public forums and I said, "This is not the way we do it." And I had to lecture to them and let them know that I wouldn't want this to happen to anybody. So I kinda brought them around. But that was one time that I almost lost my seat, even though I was still holding it, because I went to visit George Wallace. And when I went to visit George Wallace, he was in the bed. I'll never forget this—all the tubes were coming through his nostrils, his throat—and he was lying in the bed and he was propped up and I come in through the door, and he said, "Shirley Chisholm, what you doing here? You shouldn't be here!" I said, "I'm here because you are ill and you are ill for a good reason. God guides us." And he looked up. And I couldn't stay long because he was very ill and the doctors told me, "Congresswoman, you have to leave here." And he held on to my hands so tightly—he didn't want me to go.

CHISHOLM: But the platform is the things that I was talking to you earlier about.

COSBY: Education?

CHISHOLM: Education and better housing, paying attention to our health problems—always the same thing.

COSBY: Always the same issues?

CHISHOLM: Always the same. It's amazing thing how it doesn't change.

COSBY: Yes. Welfare, too, I suppose.

CHISHOLM: Yes, yes, yes.

COSBY: Wow. It is awful, isn't it.


COSBY: However, there were some black man who supported you.

CHISHOLM: Oh yes, uh huh.

COSBY: I understand that Ron Dellums...


COSBY: ...and Parren Mitchell...


COSBY: At least, you know, there were some very conscientious men in this group.

CHISHOLM: Yes, they were some very conscientious...and these conscientious men— Ron Dellums and Parren Mitchell—they were trying to talk to their brothers and say, "Give her a chance. She has to ability. She has talent. Shirley's no dummy." And they so much as told him to get lost.

COSBY: But how wonderful that they did that, despite the fact that most of their peers did not.

CHISHOLM: Yes, that's right.

COSBY: Oh, hooray to them. What went through your mind as your name went into the nomination at the 1972 Democratic National Convention? Just when you heard your name.

CHISHOLM: Well you know, I was embarrassed.... You know, I don't know what it was! But George Wallace's delegates...they jumped out of their seats and they swung things, "Go, Shirley, go!" I couldn't understand this! That Southerners, particularly from the state of Alabama, because the state of Alabama is seated right down front at the convention center and they almost went wild when I, when.... And all the people from New York and Pennsylvania—they were like, "What's going on here? Shirley support [unintelligible]?" I couldn't control it. For some reason, I'll never be able to...I would like to understand this—why the state of Alabama, led by George Wallace at that time, had good feelings, good vibes about me. It's just very, very strange.

COSBY: That is.

CHISHOLM: Yeah, very strange.

COSBY: You don't think it was a set-up in any way, do you?


COSBY: To dilute your....

CHISHOLM: No, no, I don't think so.

COSBY: ...power?

CHISHOLM: I don't think so. I don't know what it was, but they really....

COSBY: [laughing] That must have been quite a sight to see...

CHISHOLM: [laughing] Oh gosh.

COSBY: These delegates from Alabama.

CHISHOLM: And I wanted to tell them, "Sit down, sit down."


Fighting the Educational System

CHISHOLM: Well, I realized that the reason that black children were not getting along is because we didn't have access to scholarships. And I was determined that while I was in the Assembly, that I would have to work in the field of education. And so I brought this program in—SEAK— Search Education and Knowledge. It was a battle, but I won it. I won it and black youth were able to get scholarships and black youth were able to move out. And I felt very strongly in looking around me in the neighborhood and to see all of the black youth not having the same opportunities as the white youth did because of the fact that they were going to inferior schools, inferior kinds of schools. That issue is very important to me. And so while I was in the Assembly, I worked a great deal in the field of education.

COSBY: And of course that is your background anyway. You have your master's degree in education.....

CHISHOLM: Yes, my background's education. Yes, my master's.....

COSBY: That is correct.

COSBY: And then the female teachers.... I understand that what you worked on was to enable them to have tenure while they were on maternity leave.

CHISHOLM: Yes, yes, yes. Teachers were so upset. They go on maternity leave and nobody does anything. You know, you go, you come back, you don't have your job. So I fought back, and I won that.

COSBY: Thank goodness.

CHISHOLM: Yes, but oh, that was, that was a terrible, terrible battle. But I won, because I would not.... One thing about me, as you said—I'm a very tenacious person. I hold on. I really do hold on. If I really....

COSBY: No matter what.

CHISHOLM: Yes, yes—that's right. Hold on no matter what.


The First Black Congresswoman

CHISHOLM: For the first two to three months, I was miserable. The gentleman did not pay me any mind at all. When I'd go to lunch room to eat, they would not sit at the same table as I did because I'm a black woman. It was horrible. And I'll give you two little incidents that perhaps show you that I have a sense of humor about a lot of things.

There was a little dining room beneath the House—the floor of the House— and that was the place where we could go to get a bite if you were going to have a long day. And I did not know that in that dining room, the tables were designated to the different delegations. There was a table for New York, a table for Alabama, a table for.... And I went one day to go down to sit at a table, and I sat at a table because no-one was sitting there, ten chairs to the table, and I ordered my lunch—I was very hungry that day—and I got dessert and salad and a little bit of everything put on the table. And I always took the New York Times and read it while I was eating because nobody would sit by me. So this day, I felt something hovering around me. I looked up, and if looks could kill, I would have been dead, because I was seated at the Georgian delegation table and didn't know it.

COSBY: [laughing] Oh my goodness. Of all tables!

CHISHOLM: I was at the Georgian delegation table and didn't know it. And this man stood up and looked and me and said, "You sit at the wrong table." I said, "What did you say?" He said, "I says, you sit at the wrong table." I said, "What table is this?" He went, "Georgia delegation." "Oh," I said, "But you see, the tables do not have any labels. I didn't know. But tomorrow I will find out where New York sits here, and then I will go to New York." So I continued to eat. And he continued, "I says, you're seated at the Georgia delegation table." And I said, "I says..." [laughing] "...if you don't move from here, I will so and so and so." [seriously] But then I began to feel sorry for him, because he was hungry, and I decided to use a different psychological approach. And I said, "You're hungry, aren't you?" And it's the first time he gave me smile, because I was nice to him, I said you're hungry. He said, "Sure I'm hungry." I said, "I know what your problem is. Your problem is you cannot sit at this table because a black person is seated at the table. Isn't that right?" He said, "Yeah." I said, "I am going to help you. You see that table over there?"—there's a table diagonally across from the table where I was sitting, and there's nobody at it. I said, "Look. You go over and you sit at that table. You order your lunch, and if ANYBODY bothers you, you tell them to see Shirley Chisholm." I thought this would embarrass him, but it did not. [Unintelligible] funniest thing to me. It did not embarrass him. He went right over to the table [laughing] and he sat...and he sat...and he sat down.

COSBY: [laughing] It just proves how ludicrous all this is.

CHISHOLM: Oh, it is ridiculous.


CHISHOLM: Then there's this other one—and this almost brought the House down. There was a gentleman that sat on the aisle seat, on the aisle, on the House floor. My office was on the other side of the building so when I would come to the floor, he could see me coming through because my office was on that side of the building upstairs, and he could see me coming down because where I was going to sit was right behind him. And every day I would come down and come through, and he would cough so badly. So one day I said to Brock Adams, who was the representative from the state of Washington, I said, "Why don't somebody do something for that poor man? He sounds like he has TB. There's something wrong with him." He said, "Shirley, I was waiting for you. Here, I want to tell you something. You got to do something." I said, "Well...." He said, "Every time he sees you coming down and coming through, he starts coughing. And then when you come by his seat, he gets his handkerchief off, his spits in the handkerchief in your face." This was his way of greeting me in the United States House of Representatives. I said, "He does what?" I said, "I thought...." He said, "Uh uh. What are you going to do about it?" I said, "Watch me tomorrow." I had a sweater suit, and the jacket of the sweater had big pockets. And I ran out and I bought, purchased, a male handkerchief, and I put it in the pocket. And the next day when I came in, sure enough, he started to coughing. And I said, Uh huh, baby— I'm going to fix you today. So just as I came in, I was going by the seat. By then, I had synchronized as to when he would pull the handkerchief out to meet my face and then spit in the handkerchief. I said, yes sir, that day I pulled the handkerchief out just in time to spit in it in his face, and I said to him, "Beat you to it today." From that day, he never coughed anymore.

COSBY: [laughing] I bet he didn't. There is that persistence.

CHISHOLM: Oh yes. Oh yes.

COSBY: Yes—not putting up with nonsense.

CHISHOLM: Yes, that's right, that's right, sure. And the men, I'll never forget, the men upstairs in the balcony—the newspapermen—and they saw this from upstairs in the balcony as I was coming in, and they almost toppled over the top. They were roaring. And the Speaker had to pick up the..."There'll be order in this House!"

COSBY: But you know, it sounds like you also had allies....


COSBY: ...because people were roaring, for example.

CHISHOLM: Oh yes. And other thing. The House would be so boring at times that they'd do anything, you know, to make have something..."Shirley, give it to him! Give it to him!"= Give it to him," you know.

COSBY: Was it difficult to return to Congress after to your campaign for president?

CHISHOLM: No, it was not difficult. I became even more popular. I became more popular, you know.

COSBY: More popular?

CHISHOLM: [laughing] Yeah, more popular.

COSBY: Was there any noticeable change in the way your colleagues treated you in Congress?


COSBY: What happened?

CHISHOLM: They treated me.... It was strange. They didn't realize I was so smart— you know, in quotes. They...the men...they were really...some of them approached me and said, "You got a brain." I said, "I've always had a brain." You know, they belittle women so badly. [laughing]

COSBY: Yes. [laughing] Do you think that that is still a problem?

CHISHOLM: Oh no, it's gone. No, because the women that we have in Congress now—we have 43 women in Congress....


CHISHOLM: They give 'em the business.

COSBY: They do?

CHISHOLM: Oh yes. They give 'em the business. I won't be surprised if another ten years from now, we don't have a half and half.

COSBY: Yes. Let's hope so.

CHISHOLM: I will not be surprised. More and more women are getting the guts to run.

COSBY: What about for the presidency?

CHISHOLM: Oh, a woman is going to president.

COSBY: Within the next ten years, maybe?

CHISHOLM: Next 25 years.

COSBY: Twenty-five years?

CHISHOLM: Yes, yes [unintelligible]. But before....

COSBY: Do you think it will be a woman of color?

CHISHOLM: No. No, no, no. Uh uh. I believe that before a woman can become president of this country, a woman has to be a vice president first of all, so that we will get used to the idea of a woman ascending to higher office. That's what I believe, I don't know.

COSBY: I see. Fantastic. In 1982, you decided not to seek another term in Congress. Why did you make that decision?

CHISHOLM: [solemnly] Reagan.

COSBY: [laughing] Tell us about Reagan.

CHISHOLM: Many of the programs and many things that I'd been interested in—I saw how they deteriorated. I saw how many thing were pushed back on the back burner, and many of the things that I had been involved in were no longer a part of his overall domestic programs. I was just too much. I said I don't go through anymore.

COSBY: That was it?

CHISHOLM: That was it. I'd had enough, yes. That was it, um hum.


Men in My Political Career

CHISHOLM: I wasn't always interested in politics, but I remember the turning point came when I was a, I think it was a sophomore at Brooklyn College, and we had our political leader, a white gentleman, Stanley Steingut— I'll never forget him—the leader of the district came to give a lecture. And I remember so well—he said, "Black people are now moving ahead, but there's going to be one basic truth that you are going to have to accept whether you want to or not—that black people cannot get ahead unless they have white people." I remember that—that stuck with me—and I said to myself, "Uh huh—that's what you think." And it was a challenge from that time on. That really had any impact on me.

CHISHOLM: If anybody would ask me, well what was the greatest thing that stood in your way trying to really move up politically, I would have to say Men. White men, black men, Puerto Ricans—Men. That's all. They gave me a hard time, because they said one thing about Shirley Chisholm—she's too darn outspoken. And she's always raising questions. She never keeps quiet. And that's why.... And what happened in the neighborhood, you found the white male, the Puerto Rican male and the black male all had their own little caucuses to decide to get together and see what we can do about this woman that's moving out called Shirley Chisholm.

COSBY: And what is the definition of being too outspoken?

CHISHOLM: Oh god—let's not talk about that! They tried to keep me down, keep me back. They used all kinds of tactics. But the thing about it, I was never afraid of men.


CHISHOLM: Never afraid of men. And it i think is attributable to two things: I'm very friendly.


CHISHOLM: I'm very outgoing.


CHISHOLM: And I'm a person that can laugh at myself and laugh at others—very outspoken. And that's what.... Because I know the men—the black men in my community—they said, "We can't have a meeting—we don't even invite her to a meeting—and here she comes. She heard that we were having a meeting and she wanted to say hello." What? But it wasn't that. I knew that they were having a meeting and I wanted to invade their privacy, you see, and find out what was going on. And when they saw me coming, they'd almost drop dead. I really was not very nice in terms of how I had to react to them, but that was the only way I could react. That was the only way I could move out, because they wouldn't give me a chance because they were afraid of my mouth.

COSBY: And afraid of change.


COSBY: Yes, of course.

CHISHOLM: That was it, yes, that was it.

COSBY: And the influence you would have on the other women, I'm sure.

CHISHOLM: Oh, the women! I brought the whole neighborhood behind me. That was the women, that's right.

CHISHOLM: Everything was Shirley, Shirley. The limelight was on Shirley. And this was one of the reasons why my first marriage cracked up after 24 years, because it put my husband in a position of becoming extremely jealous.

COSBY: I see.

CHISHOLM: He became very, very jealous and I could understand because no attention being paid to him, and everything was Shirley, Shirley, Shirley this and Shirley that. And then it was...he is the "husband of Shirley Chisholm. And you can imagine what it does to a person's ego after a while. And so that was the thing that really lead to the break-up of my marriage, this business of his being jealous and everybody—everybody catering to his wife, Shirley.


Influential Women in My Life

CHISHOLM: My grandmother had a fantastic influence in my life. She would always check my homework, and each night she would say, "Repeat it to me." And if I didn't stand up straight, she said, "Child"—that's the way she talked—"Child, you got to stand up straight. Let the world see you coming." And I would have to stand up straight. I think that's why I'm so erect, you know.

COSBY: [laughing] Yes, yes.

CHISHOLM: And she would say, "Don't slur your words."

COSBY: [laughing] Yes.

CHISHOLM: She was...oh, she was [unintelligible]. My grandmother, I would say, that my granny had the greatest influence in my life. And then along came, when I came back to this country, to other women that influenced me a great deal. Mary McLeod Bethune—she said to me, "You're smart. You're a very smart girl. But you must stand and fight." I'll never forget her words: You might fight. You must fight. And the other woman who had a fantastic influence on me was Eleanor Roosevelt.

COSBY: Really?

CHISHOLM: Eleanor Roosevelt came to New York City, and I was in a contest there, a debating contest. And I won the debate in the whole city of New York. And she said to me, I'll never forget this—tall woman, her hair in a chignon and this little pork pie hat on, and she was ugly, she was very ugly—but Eleanor, the moment she opened her mouth, you felt a warmth. It was beautiful. And she said to me, "Shirley St. Hill"—that was my maiden name—"Shirley St. Hill, you're very smart. You're intelligent. You must fight. You must get up and don't let anybody stay in your way— even a woman can do it.


Growing up in Barbados

CHISHOLM: Oh, my childhood—I can remember it. It was exciting. We lived on a great big farm and we had to take care all the animals on the farm—the chickens, the goats, the sheep.

CHISHOLM: I grew up with my maternal grandmother and my maternal aunt and my maternal uncle.


CHISHOLM: Yes, I went there when I was the age of three and I went to the elementary schools in the islands. I did not return to the United States until nine years of age—about six years upbringing on the island of Barbados.

COSBY: Fantastic. Good for you. Are you one of several siblings?

CHISHOLM: Yes, I am. I'm the oldest of four girls, and all of us—we received our elementary school in the islands. And I don't know if this is important or not, but three of us got scholarships because we were so bright.


CHISHOLM: And we had very high IQs.


CHISHOLM: And that is attributable to my rearing in the British West Indies.

COSBY: I see—because you feel that the school system is superior.

CHISHOLM: Oh yes, the school system was fantastic.

COSBY: I see.

CHISHOLM: Really fantastic.

CHISHOLM: My life, those early years in my life on the island of Barbados gave me the spirit, gave to me the spunk that was necessary to challenge all of these age-old traditions.


CHISHOLM: I was never afraid of anything. I was never afraid anybody. And today it's the same way. I'm not afraid of anything. I'm not afraid of anybody. You're going to hear it from me. That's it.

COSBY: [laughing] With a smile on your face.

CHISHOLM: Yes, I always smile.


How I Want to Be Remembered

CHISHOLM: I want history to remember me not that I was the first black woman to be elected to the Congress, not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman who lived in the twentieth century and who dared to be herself. I want to be remembered as a catalyst for change in America.