One week before Shirley Chisholm’s 91st birthday, President Barack Obama presented a posthumous award — the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award in her honor.
“There are people in our country’s history who don’t look left or right, they just look straight ahead. Shirley Chisholm was one of those people,” President Obama said at the Nov. 24 White House ceremony.
Born Shirley Anita St. Hill on Nov. 30, 1924 she died Jan. 1, 2005 and is revered as a trailblazer, politician, educator, and author.
To Brooklyn voters and particularly residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Chisholm remains one of the borough’s most iconic politicians having been first to represent its residents when in 1968 she became the first Black woman elected to the Congress.
She represented the 12th Congressional District for seven terms from 1969 to 1983.
In 1972, she became the first major-party Black candidate for president of the United States, and the first woman ever to run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“When Shirley was assigned to the House Agricultural Committee despite the fact that her district was from New York City, she said, ‘apparently all they know here in Washington about Brooklyn is that a tree grew there.’ But she made the most of her new role, helping to create the supplemental nutrition program that feeds new mothers and their children. Shirley Chisholm’s example transcends her life, and when asked how she’d like to be remembered, she had an answer. ‘I’d like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts.’ And I’m proud to say it: Shirley Chisholm had guts.”
Perhaps the congresswoman described herself best when she told NPR’s Tavis Smiley, in 2003: “I was very outspoken, very articulate, and I wouldn’t take any guff from anybody.”
Also named for the prestigious high honor were 16 distinguished citizens.
Among them: singers Emilio and Gloria Estefan, actress / singer Barbara Streisand, playwright Stephen Sondheim, film director Stephen Spielberg, baseball coach Yogi Berra, baseball legend Willie Mays and musician James Taylor. A female NASA mathematician, a Native American and violinist Itzhak Perlman were also hailed during the ceremony.
“What a great blessing to be in a nation where individuals as diverse, from as wildly different backgrounds, can help to shape our dreams, how we live together, help define justice, and freedom and love,” President Obama said.
“They represent what’s best in us, and we are very, very proud to be able to celebrate them here today.”
California Congresswoman Barbara Lee had plenty to say about the Bedford-Stuyvesant icon she volunteered to campaign for when the feisty and ambitious Democrat made a bid for the White House.
The Oakland, California representative said it was her mentor, Chisholm who first told her she would serve in Congress. Then a mere college student at Mills, Chisholm made her announcement that she intended to run as the “Unbought & Unbossed” Democrat.
According to Lee, that association spawned a 33-year friendship and one that compelled her to participate in the 1972 Miami convention. She was one of Chisholm’s delegates and proudly declared that despite losing the party’s nomination, Chisholm took 10 percent of the votes cast.
Lee was elected to Congress in 1988.
Throughout her tenure there she has propelled the name of the Brooklyn Democrat by introducing legislation honoring the Caribbean champion.
She is responsible for commissioning a portrait of the pioneer to be hung in the Capitol.
Congresswoman Lee has also authored numerous resolutions to honor Chisholm’s legacy and was influential in petitioning a commemorative postal stamp in her honor.
The Californian relishes the fact she now sits in Congress fully cognizant that Chisholm was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The nation’s first Black congresswoman was also lauded by NYC Public Advocate Letitia James who said: “Shirley Chisholm has been a lifelong role model of mine. As the first Black woman in Congress, she shattered ceilings and paved the way for women like me to run for office,” she said in a statement.
“Shirley was a deeply compassionate woman and rare kind of politician who cared about doing what was right — not what was politically expedient.”
Yours truly, also join the chorus in sharing sincere joy at this momentous and historic occasion. I knew the congresswoman well. It was she who convinced me of the importance of voting. She urged me to fully exercise my citizenry by voting during the most menial of elections. She impressed upon me that it was integral that I exercise my rights by voting during school board, planning boards and most of all during primary elections.
I watched how she mentored young Puerto Rico-born Victor Robles who served as her assistant. With her guidance, the Williamsburg resident eventually ran for the position of district leader and later elevated his constituency to become an assemblyman and a city councilman before replacing NYC first Black Mayor David N. Dinkins as City clerk.
On my many military tours I called into her office with reports on my journalism training. While in Indianapolis, Indiana on assignment she called my company commander to ensure my condition was not threatened in the co-ed barracks I shared with multi-service personnel training to be war correspondents, media specialists and broadcast and print journalists.
I was more than elated in 1993 when President Bill Clinton named her ambassador to Jamaica. Although she decided against taking the position, it meant a lot to more than a few that she was considered to serve again after retiring from public service.
When she moved to Palm Coast, Florida, the entire southern state adopted her as a citizen. There earlier this week, on the last day of the month of November, a birthday celebration regaled the trailblazer.
Patrons toasted her life’s work during a meet and greet, presented speeches from prominent residents, offered a signed copy of numbered reproduction of an original Shirley Chisholm illustration by Ron Bryant.
There also, Palm Coast residents viewed “Unbought & Unbossed ’72,” the critically acclaimed PBS documentary about her presidential bid.
Cheers to you, Madam Congresswoman, happy, happy birthday to the most dedicated legislator I have been privileged to know and associate. You above all deserve the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Catch You On The Inside!