Shirley Chisholm addresses the National Women's Political Caucus
Shirley Chisholm (1924–2005) was the first Black woman elected to Congress and served in the US House of Representatives for the 12th District of New York from 1969 to 1983.
In 1972, Chisholm ran for president. She announced her candidacy on January 25 of that year, in Brooklyn, New York, saying, “I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud. I am not the candidate of the woman’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people and my presence before you symbolizes a new era in American political history.”
[start of track]
[Sharon Rodine introduces Chisholm]
[Shirley Chisholm speaking]
It is certainly a wonderful site to behold here this evening. But a few of us dared to have the audacity, and the nerve, and the determination, some 20 years ago, to come together and try to establish an organization in which women would take their own destinies in their own hands, because we were just plain sick and tired of waiting on the gentleman.
And we believed in that beautiful old adage, that God helps those who help themselves.
But you can imagine what happened to me. I suffered intensely, because not only am I a woman, but I was also Black. A bearer of a double jeopardy, if you will. And at times not recognizing or realizing whether you were being discriminated against because of the amount of pigmentation in your skin, or because of your gender. But nevertheless, I was determined that I wanted to be a part of this change that was just arriving on the American scene. Because there are individuals in our society who just watch what happens all the time, those who make things happen, and those who just wonder what happened.
And so I became involved. But I want to tell you a story that happened when I went to the Congress, that I've only told on two occasions publicly, and this is the third time I am going to tell this story. Because for the beautiful young women who are carrying on the legacy from those of us who emerged in the late ’60s and ’70s, you will understand when the time in which we were living, when I first entered the Congress, recognizing that it was the first time that a Black female had been elected to the United States House of Representatives, it was quite difficult. But of course, within a rather short space of time, the gentleman realized that I was not a woman to be tampered with.
But one day, about two weeks after I entered the Congress, I went downstairs to the member's dining room in order to have lunch. The members have a private dining room, and when we have a very long session. We don't have to go outside of the House itself. They have provided us with a dining room. So I went downstairs to the dining room, and there were no reserved signs on the tables there. Bella, you remember that? You'll go down and you'll sit anyplace where there was a seat. So I went downstairs, and the gentlemen were constantly looking at me and they were pulling back from me a bit, because I think in a sense my reputation had preceded me before I entered the sacrosanct halls of the United States House of Representatives.
And I had on the table, soup, main meal, dessert, what have you. And I took my Times, because I saw so many people pulling back and pulling away from me, that in order to make myself feel comfortable, I would always read my Times. And here I was reading my Times while I was eating. And I felt something hovering over me. You know, like sometimes you're deep into something, and you realize something's hovering over. And I looked up, and there was this congressman from Georgia.
And this congressman from Georgia said to me, you sitting at [unintelligible mumble] delegation table.
And I said, I don't understand what you're saying.
[cheering and applause]
He said again, you're sitting at the [unintelligible mumble] delegation table. I said, oh, I'm seated at the Georgian delegation table. Is that what you're saying? He said, yes. I said, well, I just got here a couple of weeks ago. And I don't know where the New Yorkers sit when they do come down to the dining room. But if you want to make it easy for everyone, why in heaven's name don't you put signs on the table as to where the delegations sit. He says—I couldn't believe this—he said, I want my lunch.
His problem was—to show you the era in which we were living—his problem was there was six seats at the table. But he could not bring himself to sit at a table where a black woman—a black person who had just entered the Congress was seated.
And he was determined to sit there, and I was determined not to move.
[cheering and applause]
And so, he said repeating that phrase over and over again. And then I said, you now, Shirley use your own homemade psychology on him. I looked up again, and he says, I told ya, you're at the Georgian delegation table. And I said to him, I'm telling you I know that I am at the Georgian delegation table. I'll find out where New York is seated, and I will not be here anymore. And then I've quieted down a little bit and I said, I know, you're hungry aren't you?
And just like a baby, he really began to respond [laughter] to my gentleness. And I said, well, you know, your problem is that you can't bring yourself to sit at this table with me, although there are six seats at the table. But you know what I'm going to do? You see that table over there—There's a table diagonally across from this table where I was seated, and I didn't know to whom it belonged. But I said, to him, you know what you do? You go over—and he was so nice. He'd become so meek. I said, you go over to that table, and you sit down, have your lunch, and if anybody bothers you, you tell them to see Shirley Chisholm.
[cheering and applause]
[Shirley Chisholm laughs with the audience]
[end of track]