Before Barack Obama, before Alan Keyes or Jesse Jackson, there was “unbought and unbossed” Shirley Chisholm, the first-ever Black woman elected in 1968 to Congress who in 1972 became the first Black woman to run for president. She called her shoestring campaign that barely eked out victory in a single state the Chisholm Trail.
Chisholm, a maverick Democrat with an acid tongue, cutting humour and unconventional politics and opinions that could anger all sides, especially her own liberal base, retired to Palm Coast in 1991. She lived there until she bought a house in Ormond Beach’s Halifax Plantation in 2001. She was 80 years old when she died in 2005. Her funeral was held in Palm Coast. She remains the most illustrious and historically significant resident to have lived in a city that, until last week, had but for passing proclamations largely ignored her.
On Jan. 27, the Palm Coast Beautification and Advisory Committee, an advisory panel to the Palm Coast City Council, voted unanimously to name the Pine Lakes Trail along Pine Lakes Parkway the Shirley Chisholm Trail. The recommendation will have to be approved by the all-Republican City Council.
“I knew representative Chisholm, I met her in the late 90s When she was living here and involved in the local community politics,” Beautification Committee Chairman Jeffrey Seib said, his voice breaking at times. “And we became my wife and I became friends with Representative Chisholm, we visited her at her home in the Pine Lakes area several times, and she had helped me through understanding quite a bit of things about politics. Her views were right in tune, I think, at the time: she was the right person at the right time to help bring us forward. And I think she certainly meets the criteria for a dedication.”
The naming would follow existing guidelines that have applied to te naming of such city landmarks as Ralph Carter Park in the R-Section, named after the late City Council member, or Celico Way, named after the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office’s Sgt. Frank Celico, who died in 2011. But the naming of landmarks after individuals has been rare.
Jill Reynolds, president of the Democratic Women’s Club of Flagler County, presented the nomination to a cheering audience at a meeting of the beautification committee, with support from the Flagler branch of the NAACP and the African American Cultural Center and Museum of Palm Coast.
“Who was the first person to walk on the moon, who was our first U.S. president?” Reynolds said, addressing the committee. “Every American knows these famous firsts. But ask yourself, Who was the first African American woman to be elected to Congress, or who was the first woman and the first African American to seek nomination for president of the United States from a major political party? The answer to both of these questions is Shirley Chisholm.” (Actually, Victoria Woodhull in 1872 was the first woman to run even though women were still barred from voting and Woodhull was not yet 35, the constitutionally required minimum age to be president. Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to serve in the House and Senate, was the first official candidate for president, in 1964, running as a Republican.)
“The Democratic Women’s Club of Flagler County would like to sponsor a more permanent commemoration of the late Shirley Chisholm’s contribution to our nation’s history right here in Palm Coast.” Reynolds said. “We want to keep her memory alive so that the change that she courageously brought will continuing to to inspire all those young and old who believe in equality and freedom as an essential part to our participatory democracy.” Since Chisholm was a trailblazer, Reynolds said, naming a trail after Chisholm would fit. The coquina-embedded plaques naming the trail would be privately funded. Reynolds said the proposal is non-partisan.
Sonia White spoke on behalf of NAACP President Shelley Ragsdale in support of the proposal, as did Stephanie Matthews of AACS. Chisholm had been a member of AACS. Linda Sharpe Matthews, representing the Volusia Flagler Black Nurses Association, lent her organization’s support as well, as did the local chapters of two sororities, and the University Women of Flagler.
Chisholm, Agnes Lightfoot told the panel, was not an inactive resident in Palm Coast. “She drove around this community. She walked in the blocks and lanes of this community. She was put to rest here at the first AME Church on Old Kings Kings Road. So she has been a very important part of Palm Coast,” Lightfoot said.
(Chisholm in Palm Coast was a domestic-violence summit of one, back when the subject was mostly taboo: “Domestic violence strikes at the very root of family togetherness; it minimizes the ego and self-esteem of individuals; it usurps the mental and physical well-being of men and women; it exposes the children to an uncertain frightening world! Yes, indeed, it is the root of human destruction in our society,” she told Harborside Inn audience of 200 at a lunch for what was then known as the SafeHouse Women’s Center, the county’s shelter.)
“50 years ago after her presidential campaign, we are still facing some of the challenges she fought to defeat, from voting rights to eradicating poverty and dismantling gender [stereotypes],” Lightfoot continued. “We must keep her information and her philosophy of being unbought and unbossed with us as we fight for justice, and Palm Coast is the perfect place.” Ralph Lightfoot, Agnes’s husband and a former chairman of the local Democratic Club, stressed that support for the proposal “is not just a female thing.”
Her father was from Guyana, her mother from Barbados. She was born in Brooklyn but grew up a Quaker (like Nixon) in Barbados. She was elected to the New York Legislature in 1964, representing the Bedford-Stuyvesant district in Brooklyn that she would then represent in Congress, a political career sandwiched between her career as an educator and college professor. Fellow-quaker Nixon included her on his infamous “Enemies List,” alongside Ted Kennedy, Dan Rather, Jane Fonda and the ACLU.
“My thought was, why would we honor Shirley Chisholm when we’re in Palm Coast?” committee member Glenn Partelow said to Reynolds and others who spoke last week. “But you very nicely explained everything about about her, and I know as I was growing up thousands of years ago, I watched her on TV and always remarked how much courage she had.”
Courage, and often controversy, but always an outspokenness that, for its time, was the exception rather than the overweening rule its become.
“They’ve said I like whitey, that I’m too close to Hispanics, that I’m not Black enough,” she was quoted as saying in her farewell from Congress in 1982. “I resent people evaluating me on the superficial manifestations of my behavior. Why don’t they ask me to explain?” She recalled how her constituents “crucified me” after she visited the racist segregationist George Wallace at his bedside in 1972 after he’d been shot by a would-be assassin. “But why shouldn’t I go to visit him? Every other presidential candidate was going to see him. He said to me: ‘What are your people going to say?’ I said: ‘I know what they’re going to say. But I wouldn’t want what happened to you to happen to anyone.’ He cried and cried and cried.” The visit paid off well enough that two years later, it was through Wallace’s intercession that she won over a few Southern congressional votes in her drive to extend the minimum wage to domestic workers, The New York Times reported.
In New York, she had also endorsed Ed Koch over Mario Cuomo for mayor in the bitter 1977 Democratic primary, and more startlingly, Daniel Patrick Moynihan over Bella Abzug for Senate, even though Moynihan had been excoriated by liberals for a 1965 Labor Department report that blamed Black poverty not on racism, but on Blacks’ failed family structures–an approach that would become Republican dogma, though Moynihan was a Democrat. Chisholm had herself at times taken on Black communities over social issues, and openly spoke of Black racism, not just white. She called herself a pragmatist–a voice that would be lost in today’s polarized politics: “We still have to engage in compromise, the highest of all arts,” she told an interviewer. “Blacks can’t do things on their own, nor can whites. When you have Black racists and white racists it is very difficult to build bridges between communities. People say: ‘Get whitey!’ Oh, it’s so frightening.”
She decided to run in part, she said at her January 25, 1972 announcement for president at a parochial school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, “to repudiate the ridiculous notion that the American people will not vote for a qualified candidate simply because he is not white or because she is not male.” That, anyway, was the way she put it publicly.
Privately, she was even more outspoken. Her friend New York Mayor John Lindsay had invited her for a drink the Christmas before her announcement to convince her not to run, because he was interested in the nomination. “Shirley, it takes thousands,” Stephan Lesher, reporting the conversation in The New York Times Magazine, quoted the mayor as saying.
“It takes millions, I know that,” Chisholm replied. “You’re my friend, but I’m so goddamn fed up with with all this s[hit] you men keep putting down. You’ve got the media. You’ve got the money. I go out and maybe get five, six people to a meeting, and the press reports it… But you got the money to go out and bring people in by the busloads so it looks like you got good crowds all the time.”
“Shirley, you’ll cut into my vote,” the mayor told her.
“That’s the same thing McGovern told me,” she replied. “But goddamn it, this is the American Dream–the chance for a Black woman to run for the highest office. If you’re so worried about cutting into the progressive vote, why don’t you and McGovern get together–and one of you decide to back out?”
That was Fighting Shirley Chisholm, as she called herself.
She became the ninth candidate when she announced, and had no visible support even among Blacks and women. She had raised $44,000 by then, aiming for $300,000, less than a third the amount other Democrats were planning to spend on their primaries. Out of the five candidates who survived, she came in fifth, behind George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey, who had just under 26 percent of the vote each, Wallace (23.5 percent), and Edmund Muskie (11.5 percent). She polled 2.7 percent, or 430,703, winning just one state: New Jersey.