Lessons of a Black Pioneer

Shirley Chisholm blazed a trail in U.S. politics. We need her courage to face today's divisions.

Large numbers of Americans appear to hate one another. One 2019 survey of Democrats and Republicans found that more than 40% viewed their opposition as “evil.” Nearly one in five agreed that the country would be better off if the other side “just died.” Contempt may be exhilarating, but it can also induce violence and threaten democracy. Few understood this better than Shirley Chisholm.

Chisholm (1924–2005) is in the news these days because she forged “the Chisholm Trail,” a path to high office for future generations of black and brown Americans. She was the first black woman to serve in the United States Congress and the first from a major political party to run for president. “I stand, as so many of us do, on her shoulders,” said the vice president-elect, Kamala Harris, who borrowed themes from Chisholm’s 1972 campaign in her own bid for the presidency.

But there is a second good reason to remember Miss C., as she was affectionately called by supporters—the Chisholm Trail is also a path away from the politics of contempt.

On June 8, 1972, Shirley Chisholm shocked her supporters by visiting George Wallace in his hospital room in Silver Spring, Maryland. Chisholm was a political progressive; Wallace, then governor of Alabama, a notorious segregationist. They were rivals in the Democratic presidential primary, and Wallace had just been shot five times at point-blank range by an assassin.

“Shirley Chisholm! What are you doing here?” asked the governor, who would remain paralyzed and pain-ridden for life. Wallace knew he was her nemesis, and that her supporters would be angered by the visit. Her answer brought him to tears.

“I don’t want what happened to you to happen to anyone,” she said.

They chatted and prayed together until his doctors said he needed to rest. When she left, Wallace did not want to let go of her hand. His daughter Peggy Wallace Kennedy has described Chisholm’s visit as altering her father’s life. “Shirley Chisholm had the courage to believe that even George Wallace could change,” she said. “Chisholm planted a seed of new beginnings in my father’s heart.” 

Wallace became an ally to Chisholm. In 1974, he persuaded a group of southern congressmen to support her efforts to pass a bill extending the minimum wage to domestic workers. Later, he publicly renounced racism and sought forgiveness from black parishioners and civil rights leaders. In 1979, Wallace arrived in his wheelchair at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. He confessed to all the harm and misery he had caused. His own pain, he said, helped him understand the suffering of others. He begged forgiveness. As he left the sanctuary, the congregation rose and sang “Amazing Grace.”

Some skeptics insist that Wallace’s “apology tour” was a ploy to advance his political career. Witnesses say otherwise, including the civil rights leader John Lewis. “I could tell that he was a changed man,” Lewis wrote. “He acknowledged his bigotry and assumed responsibility for the harm he had caused. He wanted to be forgiven.” And Lewis forgave him. So did black voters in Alabama: Wallace carried more than 90% of the black vote in his final gubernatorial campaign in 1982.

Chisholm, the child of poor West Indian immigrants was a small, wiry woman who wore big glasses and spoke with a slight lisp. Her black male allies patronized her; her white colleagues demeaned her. But her astute intelligence and wit, bolstered by her Quakerism and rigorous early education in a British colonial school, made her a formidable presence.

In her first race for Congress in 1968, the little known New York State assemblywoman stunned the political community by defeating first the Brooklyn-machine candidate in the Democratic primary, and then civil rights pioneer James Farmer in the November general election. Once in Congress, she broke tradition by publicly objecting to her first assignment. Her district was in New York City, yet she was placed on the House Agriculture Committee. She found it absurd, and said so: “Apparently all they know here in Washington about Brooklyn is that a tree grew there.” She was soon quietly reassigned to a more relevant committee.

It is not easy to classify Chisholm politically. Her motto (and later the title of her memoir) was “Unbought and Unbossed.” She was a passionate activist who called herself a revolutionary. But in elective politics, she considered compromise “the highest of all arts.”

Her supporters included Black Panthers as well as Hasidic Jews—and her talent for forging unlikely alliances was legendary. Senator Trent Lott, a Republican from Mississippi, who served with Chisholm in the House, once said, in a tone of wonderment, “I vote with Chisholm more than any other Democrat.” When Chisholm had to choose between endorsing feminist progressive Bella Abzug and the more conservative Daniel Patrick Moynihan for the Senate, she went with Moynihan, whom she called a “fighter with a brilliant mind.” That is an apt description of Chisholm herself.

She knew all about systemic racism and intersectional oppression. But experience taught her that bigotry and chauvinism were not the province of any race or gender—they were human vices. She loathed and feared white racism, but black racism frightened her too. As she said in her 1982 farewell speech from Congress, “When you have black racists and white racists, it is very difficult to build bridges between communities.” Her answer to racism wasn’t more racism. It was humanism.

Chisholm was incapable of judging another human as worthless, once remarking, “I believe there is good in everybody; maybe that’s a weakness I have.” She wasn’t a saint. She could be vain. She held grudges. But she couldn’t help seeing herself in others, even a dangerous adversary like Wallace. As she wrote in her autobiography, “Take away an accident of pigmentation of a thin layer of our outer skin and there is no difference between me and anyone else.”

Most of all, Chisolm understood the dangers of political contempt. She warned against “impugning the motives” and “maligning the character” of your adversaries. To do otherwise, she said, fostered “the same sickness in public life that leads to assassinations.”

The California congresswoman Barbara Lee, who worked on Chisholm’s presidential campaign as a student, was shocked and disappointed by the goodwill gesture to Wallace in that hospital room; she considered leaving the campaign. “How could you do that?” she asked Chisholm. The answer stays with Lee to this day.

“We’re all human beings,” Chisholm replied. “You always have to be optimistic that people can change, and that you can change, and that one act of kindness may make all the difference in the world.”

It made a difference to George Wallace. Maybe it can work for us.

Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of The War Against Boys and host of “The Factual Feminist” on YouTube. She tweets at @CHSommers