Shirley Chisholm’s most famous words–the words that framed her run as the first woman from a major party to run for President of the United States, the first elected to Congress, the first and only former presidential candidate or member of Congress of any color to have chosen Palm Coast for her retirement home–those words were the refrain of today’s dedication of the three-mile Shirley Chisholm Trail on Pine Lakes Parkway: Unbought and unbossed.
The dedication was preceded by a standing-room only celebration at Pine Lakes Golf Course restaurant of Chisholm’s legacy. The crowd of perhaps 200 was officially b-partisan. But it was just as clearly a (now) rare occasion for Flagler County’s fading Democrats to feel like a throng again and exult in how a hero’s achievements intersected with Palm Coast.
“My godmother didn’t fight for the forgotten and neglected to receive accolades,” Marie Bosley Ford, Chisholm’s 54-year-old goddaughter, told the audience. “She did it because it was her calling and the right thing to do against injustice [and] disenfranchisement, and while doing so she hoped she made a difference and touched someone’s lives for the better. At this moment, I challenge each of us or ask that we let our light shine with her spirit and let us all keep fighting for what she fought for, and that was what was right, and let’s keep fighting for justice.”
Today would have been Chisholm’s 98th birthday. She was born in Brooklyn in 1924, the same day when the world saw the first photograph–an 3.5-by-5 inch portrait of President Coolidge–wirelessly transmitted from London to New York, and when every member of Congress was white and male. Just 44 years later, Chisholm was elected to Congress. By the time she died in 2005, 23 Black women had served in Congress (The number is up to 52 today–out of 400 women who have served overall–with 26 Black women serving at the opening of the Current Congress in January 2001).
Agnes Lightfoot had just moved to Palm Coast the day of Chisholm’s funeral at First AME Church of Palm Coast, unaware why so so many cars jammed the church’s grounds. Inside, there were state supreme court justices, numerous members of Congress and many other national, state and local officials. As Lightfood learned of Chisholm’s move to Palm Coast in 1993–she spent her latter years in Ormond Beach–she decided at a meeting of the Democratic Women’s Club of Flagler County a couple of years ago that that much history could not go unmarked. Chisholm had a state park named after her in Brooklyn, but not a trace of her history in Palm Coast. “A fire was ignited,” Lightfoot said. “We said wait a minute, we can do something. We started brainstorming.”
The idea of a trail named after Chisolm fell in place naturally: “Join me on the Chisholm trail,” she had told a crowd of supporters at the Florida State Fair in February 1972, launching her campaign. The image of a trail became the stuff of headlines and framed her “tough but very well defined” campaign (as the New York Times headlined it) for the presidency. She’d end up winning 430,000 votes in the primary the year George McGovern won before falling to the re-election of Nixon, then still managing to hide his lawlessness and bigotry behind a sheen of Quakery, in one of the largest landslides in history.
But the trailblazing image stuck as profoundly as one of her greatest achievements in Congress: as a member of the House Agriculture Committee, she was key in pushing through legislation that resulted in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program known as SNAP–food stamps–and the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC).
To get a trail named after someone in Palm Coast wasn’t a simple matter. There were no such commemorative trails. The Women’s Club set up a steering committee and started the campaign, which culminated in the city’s Beautification Committee, an advisory panel, recommending the proposal last January, and the Palm Coast City Council ratifying it the following month. Before the dedication today City Council member Nick Klufas, speaking in place of Mayor David Alfin, read a proclamation recognizing Chisohlm and approved by the council earlier this month, then spoke of her dedication to child welfare, education and racial and gender equality.
“Today, thanks to the Women’s Democratic Party of Palm Coast, we can travel this Chisholm Trail, steering us to the ideals and determination that remind us of Shirley,” Klufas said from prepared remarks. “Every inch of its path is paved with grit and guts, the Shirley Chisholm Trail will cross our neighborhoods for a lifetime, much like her legacy of decency and integrity. And thank goodness for trailblazers and their trail.”
Several people who knew Chisholm directly spoke of their memories of her, including Pamela Jackson-Smith, Jeffrey Seib and of course Ford. Jackson-Smith credited Chisholm, one of whose speeches she heard in person in Atlanta, for giving her the courage to persevere after being rejected for a job at the University of Florida. She would later meet and speak with her at the church both she and Chisholm attended in Palm Coast. “I was in awe of being in conversations with an American history trailblazer right here in my local place of worship,” Jackson-Smith said.
There was a surprising speaker, too: Sheriff Rick Staly, who recalled how he’d met Chisholm, at Orlando Airport in 1972, during her campaign, because Staly’s mother, a fiercely engaged Democrat, had dragged him there. He was 15 or 16, didn’t know much about politics, even less about Chisholm. But what he remembered was “this woman coming off the plane, walking down the hallway at Orlando airport, surrounded by TV cameras, and my mother and I were there to greet her,” Staly said. “Because what you may not know is, my mother was a, a…” the sheriff paused, as if the words just couldn’t quite cross the barrier of his teeth, “a social activist, I guess would be the best way to describe it,’ he managed to some laughter in the crowd. (Staly is known as a hard-nosed law-and-order Republican, but Chisholm would have applauded many of his policies, from drug and offender rehabilitation to juvenile-offender diversion program to a long record of successful and fatality-free de-escalation in confrontations with armed individuals.)
But it was Reynolds who got the loudest applause when, after hosting the pre-dedication at the restaurant, she closed her remarks with words she’d crafted out of handwritten a storm on a legal pad.
“What I have to say is to everybody, and also a message to our fellow white women in the room,” Reynolds, who is white, said. “We have to acknowledge that the suffragette movement left Black and brown women behind. We have to acknowledge that the women’s movement left Shirley Chisholm behind, and we have to admit it, say it, and vow to do better. Now. A few ways we can do that is by calling out our friends, sisters, moms and daughters, who vote against all of our interests. We can do that by following Black and brown women to the polls who continuously show up and save our democracy. And most importantly, we can volunteer, phone-bank, text, donate, support and vote for qualified women of color candidates, and support them in leading us. Those are the women that Shirley Chisholm paved the way for. And it’s our job not only to clear the path, but to stop being the ones that block the path.”
The room erupted in cheers, then Reynolds invited everyone to cross the street and watch the unveiling of the bronze plaque embedded in a roseate stone, right next to the walking path along Pine Lakes Parkway. The plaque sums up “Fighting Shirley”‘s history and notes that she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. “There are people in our country’s history who don’t look left or right — they just look straight ahead,” President Obama said at that ceremony, awarding the medal posthumously. “Shirley Chisholm was one of those people.” He did not say she was “unbought and unbossed,” but he didn’t have to.
“If you believe in my competence, intelligence, stamina, courage and guts, you will join me,” Chisholm had said in Tampa, launching her presidential campaign. “The blacks alone in American can’t do it. The young people alone can’t do it. The women alone can’t do it. But together all these groups are rising together in yearning and frustration to get their share of the American dream and participate in the decision making process that governs all our lives.” ”