Chisholm ’72: Excerpt: Chisholm’s Memoir

On Young People and Change

On Young People and Change

Chisholm volunteers at campaign headquarters

Young people volunteered for Chisholm’s 1972 presidential campaign in large numbers

One question bothers me a lot: Who’s listening to me? Some of the time, I feel dishearteningly small and futile. It’s as if I’m facing a seamless brick wall, as if most people are deaf to what I try to say. It seems so clear to me what’s wrong with the whole system. Why isn’t it clear to most others? The majority of Americans do not want to hear the truth about how their country is ruled and for whom. They do not want to know why their children are rejecting them. They do not dare to have to rethink their whole lives. There is a vacuum of leadership, created partly by the bullets of deranged assassins. But whatever made it, all we see now is the same tired old men who keep trucking down front to give us the same old songs and dances.

There are no new leaders coming along. Where are they? What has happened suddenly? On the national level, on the state level, who commands respect, who is believed by a wide enough cross section of the population to qualify as a leader? I don’t see myself as becoming that kind of a leader. My role, I think, is more that of a catalyst. By verbalizing what is wrong, by trying to strip off the masks that make people comfortable in the midst of chaos, perhaps I can help get things moving.

It may be that no one can have any effect on most adults on this society. It may be that the only hope is with the younger generation. If I can relate to them, give them some kind of focus, make them believe that this country can still become the America that it should have been, I could be content. The young may be slandered as “kooks” and “societal misfits” by frightened, demagogic old men, but that will not scare them. They are going to force change. For a while they may be beaten down, but time is on their side, and the spirit of this generation will not be killed. That’s why I prefer to go around to campuses and talk with the kids rather than attend political meetings. Politicians tell me I’m wasting my time and energy. “They don’t vote,” I’m told. Well, I’m not looking for votes. If I were, I would get the same kind of reception that a lot of political figures get when they encounter young people, and I would deserve it.

Shirley Chisholm in 1972

There are many things I don’t agree with some young zealots about. The main one, I suppose, is that I have not given up — and will not give up until I am compelled to — my belief that the basic design of this country is right. What is essential is to make it work, not to sweep it away and substitute — what? Something far worse, perhaps.

Most young people are not yet revolutionary, but politicians and police and other persons in power almost seem to be conspiring to turn them into revolutionaries. Like me, I think, most of them are no more revolutionary than the founders of this country. Their goals are the same— to insure liberty and equality of opportunity, and forever to thwart the tyrannous tendencies of government, which inevitably arise from the arrogance and isolation of men who are securely in power. All they want, if it were not too fashionable for them to say so, is for the American dream to come true, at least in its less materialistic aspects. They want to heal the gaping breach between this country’s promises and its performance, a breach that goes back to its founding on a Constitution that denied that black persons and women were full citizens. “Liberty and justice for all” were beautiful words, but the ugly act was that liberty and justice were only for white males. How incredible that it is nearly 200 years since then, and we have still to fight the same old enemies! How is it possible for a man to repeat the pledge of allegiance that contains these words, and then call his fellow citizens “social misfits” when they are simply asking for liberty and justice?

Such schizophrenia goes far back. “All forms of commerce between master and slave are tyranny,” intoned Thomas Jefferson, who is rumored to have had several children by black women on his estate. If the story is true, the great democrat was a great hypocrite. Even if it is not true, it has verisimilitude. It could be a perfect metaphor for the way our country was founded and grew, with lofty and pure words on its lips and the basest bigotry hidden in its heart.

The main thing I have in common with the kids is that we are tired of being lied to. What we want is for people to mean what they say. I think they recognize at least that I’m for real. They know most adult are selling something they can’t deliver.

Nowhere nearly enough young persons are involved in politics. Too many have been discouraged from participating, for various reasons. Some retired into inactivity after 1968, the year when Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were killed, Eugene McCarthy was ignored by the men who controlled the Democratic convention, the Chicago police attacked them in the streets, and finally, Richard Nixon was elected President. It was a discouraging year for youth, a year when their hopes were trampled into the mud one after another. Not much since then has given young people any hint that the forces of reaction are not firmly in control.

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Excerpted with permission from Unbought and Unbossed by Shirley Chisholm, 1970.