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Shirley Chisholm: A True Revolutionary

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A very close friend recently loaned me a copy of the 2005 Peabody Award winning documentary Shirley Chisholm '72: Unbossed and Unbought by film maker Shola Lynch. I knew Chisholm, who passed away January 1st, 2005, was the first black woman elected to Congress but that was about it. After viewing this wonderful film about this extraordinary, history-making women, I now feel compelled to strongly urge everyone who has not yet seen this film to place it next on their Netflix que and be ready to be awed and inspired by truly radical and revolutionary action.

After getting elected to New York's 12th district in Brooklyn and then serving for seven terms, from 1968 to 1983, Shirley Chisholm decided in 1972 to run for the highest office in the country. This was much to the surprise/dismay/disbelief of those inside and outside of the Democratic Party, who did not take this feisty, intelligent, compassionate, dark complexioned black woman born of immigrant parents seriously. Even those who you might assume would back her, like the Congressional Black Caucus, did not. To see the once great, revolutionary poet and playwright Amiri Baraka try to justify why they did not support her was just plain sad. Of course the caucus was made of men who did not have the courage to grab the brass ring as Chisholm did and may have sold her out in order to protect their precious sense of manhood. This, including the abandonment of her once loyal fellow Congressperson, Ron Dellum, hurt the all too human Chisholm very deeply. Popular feminists like Gloria Steinem and Congressperson Bella Abzug never truly endorsed Chisholm either. She did, however, gain the support of the Back Panther Party and the National Organization for Women (N.O.W.) For everyone else, it was, "Why is she even running if she has a snowball's chance in hell of winning?

Chisholm herself gives the best answers to this question in the film:

"...Whether or not the black people are politically sophisticated enough to be aware of the fact that my candidacy is not to be regarded as a candidacy where I can win the presidency at this moment, but a candidacy that is paving the way for people of other ethnic groups, including blacks, to run and perhaps win the office."

Is it not a sign of progress to go from seeing Chisholm, who was marginalized and all but ignored by the mainstream media, to Sen. Barack Obama, who gets to enjoy all the attention and press (and all the delegates) that come with being a primary season front runner?

Watching how Chisholm had to sue and fight her way into a televised debate reminded me of her present day equivalent, (Of course, I'm not talking about the ever popular Sen. Obama) Democrat Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who was barred from four debates and was unsuccessful in getting the courts to help him. Like Rep. Kucinich, Chisholm represented radical change and the obliteration of the status quo. In 1972, it was the simple fact that Chisholm was a black women who dared assert her rights granted by her citizenship to run for president that made those who profited by the status quo feel threatened. In 2004 and 2008, it was the simple fact that Rep. Kucinich dared to express the desires of millions of Americans (a de-scaled military, more money for education, universal healthcare, and end to the U.S. image as Imperialists always starting wars, complete oil independence, equal rights for gay Americans, the end of corporate welfare and corporate lobbyists' dominating influence to name a few) that threatened the status quo keepers in his own party so much, they made sure to keep him out of the spotlight as much as possible, lest he upset their corporate friends either financing their campaigns or creating the type of influence that leads a seemingly more modest visionary like Sen. Obama to give polluting companies until 2050 (forty-two years!) to invest in environmentally safe infrastructure while wasting the money the government would get from pollution fines on trying to make coal cleaner when we already know wind and solar power are cleaner.

But it would be unfair of me to ask Sen. Obama to have truly revolutionary vision as opposed to the progressive, compassionate, reformist's vision I believe he may have. Sen. Obama sincerely envisions progress by means of the democratic political system. But when that system is bogged down by what Mrs. Chisholm thought of as the wealing and dealing that went on behind closed doors in politics, the compromise of national interest for personal self interest may prevent true democracy from actually taking place. So how far can placing vision within the context of the same ol', same ol' get you? I know CEO's are people too, but I feel like I get the short end of the stick when those corporations currently polluting our air, our food, our water, our land, and our bodies are not asked to sacrifice too much, namely the continued increase in profits that shareholders expect the end of every fiscal quarter, all in the holy name of expansion/growth/Manifest Destiny. Otherwise they would cry, "If you force us to do that, you'll hurt the Economy and we'd all be in peril!" which is one of the many illusions they and their political partners-in-crime spin to keep any truly revolutionary policies from ever being enacted. What really hurts the economies of millions of U.S. citizens is the continued deportation of industrial infrastructure over seas in order for corporations to save money on overhead and make more profit.

If he dared to be a revolutionary leader, as I imagine Shirley Chisholm would have been, Sen. Obama might say to them "Look guys, you've got five to ten years to invest in environmentally safe infrastructure. Yes, I know it'll be expensive, so the government will help you in giving you money specifically for that purpose... Sorry, but the health of my children and my grandchildren simply cannot wait until 2050 to have us reach merely 1990 carbon emissions levels, not with China, our biggest trade partner, soon about to surpass us in the polluting game with all their new coal plants and automobiles. We need real change now, not forty-two years from now. Rather than tell Americans we will have 25% of our electricity coming from alternative fuels by 2025, I am telling them we will have 5-10% by the end of my first term because that will be something I can point to concretely and say I did that... Why? Because it is not to your stockholders that I answer to, but to the American people."

He would no doubt anger many people by doing that. He would ultimately be messing with their money and perceived as threatening their way of life. Several years before Mrs. Chisohlm became a Congressperson, four U.S. leaders who exhibited revolutionary thinking were assassinated, those leaders being Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Pres. John F. Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and Malcolm X. In the 1972 primaries, Gov. Geroge Wallace was shot on a campaign stop meet and greet. Outspoken leaders in many countries who have revolutionary ideas that threaten the status quo have been and continue to be assassinated. If Sen. Obama were to adopt the stance I have envisioned above, he would surely then have to consider that there are very powerful people invested in the status quo who would stop at nothing to maintain it. So no, I do not expect Sen. Obama to be a revolutionary and consequently, put his life on the line even more so then I would imagine it would be now, despite the fact that in some ways times have changed, while in others, it has not. It was both chilling to listen to Mrs. Chisholm talk about the three attempts on her life during her campaign, like the one potential assassin who had a twelve inch blade he planned to sink into her back, and ultimately touching to see her trying to not let the memory get an emotional hold of her.

In any case, I think of Shirley Chisholm now and I am grateful to her for all that she represented and stood up for. At the end of the film, she tells us she "wants to be remembered as a woman who fought for change." She created that change when she carried out the revolutionary act of simply running for president, perhaps inspiring millions of non-white boys and girls to realize that they too had the right to run for president someday. She was a true revolutionary even when other black politicians preferred to stay loyal to the party ('cause it's all about wining power and beating the other side, right?) at the cost of their own interests as non-white, non-wealthy Americans. In this present day, when those who, like myself, "throw away their vote" on a candidate whose ideas they believe in are chastised and ridiculed because they do not jump on the band wagon and automatically support the "lesser of two evils" or the more popular candidate with the highest chance of winning, I take great comfort in Shirley Chisholm's words:

The fact of the matter is we cannot continue to take things as they are.

Thank you, Shirley Chisholm. You are a true revolutionary and an American hero.