In 1972, Barbara Lee, then a student at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., stood on the brink of failure.
The California Democrat was in a class where students were required to organize for a presidential candidate. Lee, the president of the Black Student Union, refused to work for contenders who didn’t inspire her, including Democratic Sens. Ed Muskie (Maine) and George McGovern (S.D.). She was in danger of flunking the class.
Then the BSU invited Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.) to address students. Coincidentally, Chisholm spoke about her long-shot race for the presidency, opening the door to a conversation about Lee’s class assignment.
Lee went on to organize Chisholm’s northern California campaign — and passed that class as well.
Chisholm’s passion and courage inspired Lee.
“I learned a lot about how to form coalitions with women and people of color and African-Americans and clergy,— she said. “It was all because we believed in Shirley Chisholm.—
Earlier this week, Lee, now the president of the Congressional Black Caucus, got a chance to honor her mentor. The CBC unveiled an official portrait honoring Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress, in recognition of Women’s History Month.
Lee’s relationship with Chisholm didn’t end with her presidential campaign. Chisholm campaigned for Lee’s races for the California Legislature and then for Congress, and Lee wrote a resolution honoring her mentor in 2001.
[IMGCAP(1)]“We were very close,— Lee said. “I could call her about anything.—
Lee said Chisholm, who was elected in 1968, paved the way for modern black politicians, including Jesse Jackson, President Barack Obama and the 14 female members of today’s CBC. She was outspoken not only on issues of race and gender, but also on the Vietnam War and education.
The daughter of a Guyanese father and a Caribbean mother, Chisholm grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. After college, she worked as a nursery school teacher and earned a master’s degree in early childhood education. She became the second African-American woman elected to the New York Legislature in 1964.
Chisholm won her election to Congress in the midst of redistricting in 1968. She referred to herself as “fighting Shirley Chisholm.— Her campaign motto was “unbought and unbossed.—
Chisholm was brash and made her opinions known in the House, but she also strived for cooperation between the parties, the races and the genders represented in the lower chamber. She helped co-found the CBC in 1971 and served as the first black woman on the Rules Committee.
In 1982, Chisholm retired from the House. She moved to Florida and continued working as a political activist and a teacher. She died in Ormond Beach in 2005.
Four years after her death, Chisholm got a hero’s remembrance in the portrait unveiling Tuesday afternoon. House leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), and members of the CBC saluted Chisholm’s contributions and her character. Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), who represents part of Chisholm’s former district, appointed herself as Chisholm’s “legacy keeper.— An enthusiastic crowd made up mostly of the red-clad African-American women of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority (in the nation’s capital for their annual collegiate forum) applauded every speaker. Chisholm had been a member of the sorority.
The portrait, painted by Kadir Nelson, shows Chisholm at her most sassy, turned to the side but looking straight forward with her arms crossed over her chest and her signature black curls piled atop her head. House officials are still determining where on the Capitol grounds it will be displayed.
Correction: March 6, 2009
The article incorrectly stated that Rep. Shirley Chisholm’s father was African. He was from Guyana.