Goshay: Kamala Harris is because Shirley Chisholm was

Charita Goshay

In 1989, retired Rep. Shirley Chisholm of New York City told an audience of 300 women in Canton, Ohio, that if they expected to be catalysts for societal change, they had to learn how to pick their fights and take their place as equal partners.

Chisholm came to Canton to take part in the Stark County Women’s History Project. And who better?

She told the gathering: “Don’t let anyone tell you in what direction you should go. If anyone tries to stop you from being what you want to be, just say, ‘Please, get out of my path, I’m on a mission.’”

She had solidified her own place in the American story as the nation’s first Black woman to serve in Congress, starting in 1968, and then again in 1972 when she became the first Black woman to run for president.

No one knew it then, but that quixotic, longer-than-long shot quest resulted in an unseen hairline fracture, eventually growing to break apart that which was assumed to be impenetrable.

Her campaign, with its theme “Shirley Chisholm for the People,” shed light on the uncomfortable issues of poverty, racism and gender inequality. At the time, it was met with smirks and eye-rolls from the mainstream media, white liberals, even from some other Blacks, but all change begins with a step, however small and halting.

It was perfectly in keeping with the fearless woman who once famously remarked: “If they don’t have a seat for you at the table, bring a folding chair.”

However hopeful, Chisholm’s campaign had no realistic chance. She deserved more respect and credit than she was given for being a political vanguard.

Destiny rarely runs in a straight line, but in this case, it does. Kamala Harris’ adoption of Chisholm’s campaign theme as her own in 2020 was an open acknowledgment that had Chisholm not pushed open the door 49 years ago, Harris very likely would not be the nation’s 49th vice president.

When Chisholm returned to Stark County in February 1992 to speak at Kent State University’s Stark campus, she was prophetic, predicting that President George H.W. Bush would lose his reelection in “a silent, bloodless revolution” because middle-class voters were dissatisfied that they were losing their piece of the American Dream.

She also cited a U.S. Department of Labor report that predicted white men would make up just 39% of the U.S. workforce in 2000.

“That makes a lot of people angry and frightened, especially people who have enjoyed the benefits of the status quo,” Chisholm told the standing-room audience. “That although the majority of whites have certainly struggled to achieve their status, they have also had a ‘ready-made passport’ to gain entry into the mainstream of society.”

The report turned out to be wrong. White men over 20 make up the majority of American workers at 69.8%; a decline from 77.5% in 1992. White men also still make more than any other group of workers.

Chisholm also saw a coming regression in race relations, saying: “There is a mean-spiritedness, a coldness in this country that I have not seen in many years. We are moving backward.”

Whether or not that turned out to be right, probably depends on who you are.

Vice President Kamala Harris was 8 years old when Chisholm ran for president, so they didn’t have the chance to compare notes. Nonetheless, Chisholm probably would be delighted at today’s outcome, and proud of the role she played in making Harris’ vice presidency possible.

But she also would be issuing a challenge to Harris and President Joe Biden, pointing out that history for history’s sake is not sufficient, not when the nation is in such dire straits.

She would demand that attention be paid to Black men, who have become an endangered species both within and outside of their communities. She would call for Biden and Harris to do more in ensuring that women and girls of color around the world enjoy human rights, and that struggling Americans of all races are given the tools needed to lift themselves out of poverty.

Chisholm died in 2005, which means she didn’t live to see President Barack Obama, but hopefully, she died knowing that it wasn’t a matter of if, but when an American of color would achieve what she did not.

Those who plant trees know they’re unlikely to see them flourish in their full maturity, providing rest and shade.

They plant them, still.

Reach Charita at 330-580-8313 or charita.goshay@cantonrep.com. On Twitter: @cgoshayREP