I got to know Shirley Chisholm through the making of Chisholm ’72 — Unbought & Unbossed. What I discovered is that Chisholm was not a great woman. She was an ordinary woman, who exercised the extraordinary in her by taking great risks. She started her professional life as a school teacher, who volunteered at the local Democratic Club and evolved through the years into a politician. She saw things in her community that she wanted addressed. Instead of complaining, she tried to do something about it. That attitude took her on many journeys throughout her life, including a run for the Democratic nomination for president.
While this documentary is about her bid, the main question I had was: why did she do it? I originally thought that her run was largely symbolic. Chisholm said so herself, “I ran for president, despite hopeless odds, to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.” She wanted to do this by drawing new voters into the political system. But there were also circumstances in 1972 that made this possible. Rather than a strong Democratic candidate leading the pack, Chisholm was one of thirteen Democrats who threw their hats, or as newscaster Walter Cronkite announced when Chisholm entered the race, “her bonnet,” into the presidential ring. Due to the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s, more African Americans were finding their voices in electoral politics. The newly implemented Twenty-Sixth Amendment, which changed the voting age from 21 to 18, was also going to infuse the political process with a predicted 10 million first time voters.
I began to see that behind her symbolic exercise was a political strategy with Vegas style odds. Mrs. Chisholm gambled that if she ran in enough primaries she would go to the Democratic National Convention with delegates and political leverage. Mrs. Chisholm ran in just over half of the 21 primaries held in 1972. She won 3 percent, 5 percent and as much as 9 percent of the votes in those races, winning delegates. As Chisholm explained to some of her campaign workers, “Well, even if I am not able to achieve the nomination, to [the] extent that I go to that convention with delegate strength, delegate strength. Because that’s the name of the game. You can go to the convention, you can yell, ‘Woman power here I come!’ You can yell, ‘Black power, here I come!’ White power! Or, any kind of thing. The only thing those hard-nosed Washington types are going to understand at the convention: how many delegates you got?” In a close race between the two front-runners she understood that delegates might make the difference between winning the nomination for one of the other candidates. Rather than lobby for the issues, she would have political currency to leverage with nominees. It did not turn out that way, but no one knew that until the bitter end. The point is that she went all the way, taking a chance on making a change.
Like a scientist trying to make a discovery, or a civil rights protester, or anyone pushing the limits, believing in change or ideas that are not yet the norm, there are those who fail for others to succeed. Shirley Chisholm’s run for president is that kind of sacrifice play. Chisholm was a politician with courage and conviction, who stood on principle and with sound strategy. While you did not have to agree with her, you had to respect her. What I take away from her story, and what I see as her legacy, is her willingness to push the limits, and take calculated risks, without worrying about failing. She won some. She lost some. But, she always played the game.
—Shola Lynch, Director