“We Americans,” I said in my maiden speech late in March, “have come to feel that it is our mission to make the world free. We believe that we are the good guys, everywhere, in Vietnam, in Latin America, wherever we go. We believe we are the good guys at home, too. When the Kerner Commission told white America what black America has always known, that prejudice and hatred built the nation’s slums, maintains them and profits by them, white America could not believe it. But it’s true. Unless we start to fight and defeat the enemies in our own country, poverty and racism, and make our talk of equality and opportunity ring true, we are exposed in the eyes of the world as hypocrites when we talk about making people free.
“I am deeply disappointed at the clear evidence that the number one priority of the new administration is to buy more and more and more weapons of war, to return to the era of the Cold War and to ignore the war we must fight here, the war that is not optional. There is only one way, I believe, to turn these policies around. The Congress must respond to the mandate that the American people have clearly expressed. They have said, ‘End this war. Stop the waste. Stop the killing. Do something for our own people first.’…”
I concluded, “We must force the administration to rethink its distorted, unreal scale of priorities. Our children, our jobless men, our deprived, rejected, and starving fellow citizens must come first. For this reason, I intend to vote ‘no’ on every money bill that comes to the floor of this House that provides any funds for the Department of Defense. Any bill whatsoever, until the time comes when our values and priorities have been eliminated and our country starts to use its strength, its tremendous resources, for people and peace, not for profits and war.”
In a movie, of course, the House would have given me a standing ovation and members would have crowded around to congratulate me and confess that they had understood for the first time what was happening and were behind me from then on. But the reality of Congress is that no one is usually swayed one way or another by any speech made on the floor. Debate in the House is not discussion, give-and-take to clarify the issues, an attempt to make up other members’ minds. It is a succession of monologues in which everyone gets his predetermined stand on the record. Sometimes it is like a poker game, in which each side reveals some of the strength it has, trying to make it just enough to convince a waverer that there is a lot more being held back and he’d better join the winning side. It is seldom that anyone listens to what is being said on the floor of the House.
All that happened was that as I walked out I overheard (probably was meant to overhear) one member say to another, “You know, she’s crazy!” Later other colleagues told me that even if I really believed what I had said, it was not a wise political move to say so publicly. After all, the country was at war and responsible Congressional leaders shouldn’t say they are not going to support defense bills. Think of the soldiers over there: how do they feel when they read that the country isn’t behind them and that some people are talking about not even supporting them even with the material they need to stay alive?
Only a handful of members of Congress dared to defy such logic — at most twenty of us. You can’t argue with someone whose premises are completely different from yours, where there is not even an inch of common ground. What I wanted was perfectly plain. It was not to deny support to servicemen in Vietnam, for heaven’s sake, but to bring them home at once, to stop forcing them to risk death or disfigurement in the defense of a corrupt puppet dictatorship. What I saw was this country at war with itself, and no one in a position of power paying any attention, our lives deteriorating around us and scarcely anyone trying to find out why and stop it.
Excerpted with permission from Unbought and Unbossed by Shirley Chisholm, 1970.