She became the first African-American woman elected to Congress.
Throughout her 14-year tenure in Washington, Chisholm rose through the ranks to become a national icon and trailblazing leader. She ran for president as a Democrat in 1972, becoming the first African-American major party candidate to make a presidential bid.
After she retired in 1982, Chisholm was honored throughout Brooklyn and Washington. A state office building in Fort Greene was named after her a decade ago. A post office in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood she represented, was renamed in her honor.
She even posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 from President Barack Obama.
But she has never been honored fully by the House of Representatives, which New York lawmakers hope to change.
On Monday, members of the New York Congressional Delegation, led by Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, announced legislation to posthumously award Chisholm the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor that can be given by Congress.
According to Jeffries, the bill already has more than 50 co-sponsors and has bipartisan support.
“Shirley Chisholm was a dynamic trailblazer, a voice for the voiceless,” he said, “a champion for children and families and a tremendous defender of social and economic justice.”
The Brooklyn congressman noted that when she ran for president in 1972, her theme was “Catalyst For Change.” Though she did not win, her push for change came to fruition in 2008, he said, with the breaking of another barrier.
“Shirley Chisholm got it started, and Barack Obama finished the job,” he said.
When Chisholm retired in 1982, the political class wondered who was the “rightful heir” to her legacy in Brooklyn. Her district was split in two, and two Brooklyn political giants, Ed Towns and Major Owens, were elected.
Towns served for 30 years in Congress, and Owens served 24 years. Owens was eventually replaced by Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, and Jeffries succeeded Towns.
“Yvette Clarke and I have concluded that Shirley Chisholm was such a bad sister, it took two members of Congress to replace her,” Jeffries said. “We’re proud to stand on her shoulders.”
Clarke said Chisholm’s trailblazing ways left a path for women like her to run. In 2018, more than 400 black women throughout the nation are running for public office, she said.
The congresswoman explained that the Congressional Gold Medal is the “highest expression of gratitude for distinguished service and achievement.”
“To be honest, I can’t think of anyone who is more suited or deserves it more than the honorable Shirley Chisholm,” she said.
Chisholm, also the first Caribbean-American to serve in Congress, was the only female founder of the Congressional Black Caucus. She was not only a member of the Education and Labor Committee, but was also the first black woman to serve in the powerful House Rules Committee.
According to Clarke, Chisholm introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation in her seven terms. Some of her accomplishments include creating nutrition assistance programs, expanding health care services, increasing the minimum wage, and the passage of Title IX.
In January, Clarke introduced legislation that would direct the Joint Committee on the Library to find a place for a statue of Chisholm in the U.S. Capitol. The bill has 70 sponsors in the House and 16 sponsors in the Senate, where it is being carried by California Senator Kamala Harris.
“Shirley Chisholm reminds us that if they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair,” Clarke said. “Fifty years later, her folding chair has altered the course of our nation’s history for the better.”
Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who represents parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, remembered going to Washington to see Chisholm when she was a young teacher fighting budget cuts.
Maloney also worked with Chisholm politically in 1980, when her boss, former State Senate Minority Leader Manfred Ohrenstein, and Chisholm were heads of the delegation for the 1980 Democratic Convention. They supported Ted Kennedy for president over incumbent Jimmy Carter.
The congresswoman also added that Chisholm was a poet, and would always start congressional delegation meetings by reciting a poem she had written.
“She is a household name,” Maloney said. “She’s an American heroine, a woman who broke down barriers, defied expectations, blazed a path.”
Queens and Bronx Congressman Joseph Crowley said when Chisholm was first elected to Congress, she was not treated with the utmost respect. She was assigned the Agriculture Committee, which many from New York City could have seen as a slight.
But she took the assignment and “turned lemons into lemonade,” Crowley said. Chisholm used her position to champion nutrition assistance programs that were not only important for her constitutions, but for poor people across the country.
“She was no one’s fool,” he said. “She proved that she was more than up to the test.”
Lawmakers believe that’s why Chisholm is deserving of the Congressional Gold Medal, whose first recipient was George Washington.
“Shirley Chisholm won’t be the last, but she deserves no less,” Crowley said.