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Shirley Chisholm speaks with her mind and her heart

Published Oct. 16, 2005

Shirley Chisholm speaks at 8 p.m. today at Griffin Chapel, Eckerd College, St. Petersburg. When Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1968, her motto was "Unbought and unbossed." She won the support of the people in her New York district because of her self-assured spirit and fierce devotion to the issues that were facing the average man and woman.

This penchant to speak out and be independent did not make her popular with the Democratic Party machine, but it kept her in Congress for 14 years while she worked for legislation that would benefit humanity. She focused on children's issues, education, black colleges and minimum wage for domestics, as well as issues concerning American Indians, Haitian refugees, migrant workers, African-Americans and Hispanics.

Chisholm, now 66, will speak tonight at Eckerd College as part of its Black Emphasis Month sponsored by the Afro-American Society. Her speech is titled, "The Necessity for Multi-Cultural Education in American Society."

In a telephone interview from her home in upstate New York, this recipient of some 30 honorary degrees said it is easy for her to speak out with confidence. Her self-esteem was developed early in life, she said, because she spent her formative years in the West Indies. There, 85 percent of the people were black and in control of their government, and her world revolved around people who looked like her. They were nurturing, supportive and confident about who they were.

"My fundamental education was in Barbados," Chisholm said. "I learned to read and write when I was 3 or 4 years old. I returned to the United States when I was 10 or 11. In Barbados, black people did not have to face the stark, raw, naked discrimination which makes Americans grow up feeling inferior because of what the white man has inculcated into the system of this country. When I returned to this country, I was very confident about myself and felt comfortable because I knew who I was."

Chisholm said her mother had to make frequent trips to the school she attended because she often talked back to the teachers when something was unjust or unfair. She says her mother tried to explain that life in America was different.

"The first time I ever heard the word 'nigger' was when I was 11 years old," Chisholm recalled. "I've known I was somebody since I was 2 or 3. My rearing attributed to the fact that I had this fiery, assertive focus. That was very difficult for the white world during the 1960s, when a black woman dared to say, 'I will run for Congress or be president."' Chisholm, who was the first black woman elected to Congress, says she braved racist and sexist insults. One congressman told her, "You should kiss the very ground you're walking on in here."

"It was all done to make me feel inferior," Chisholm said. "But in four or five months the word got around not to fool with me. They said, 'She's articulate, and she's not afraid.' I spoke out and spoke up. I never had to use curse words, and I didn't have to be nasty. God had blessed me with the ability to speak out."

Although she faced a "double jeopardy" because she was an African-American and a woman, and attitudes toward her were harsher, she said, other women in Congress also experienced difficulties. This helped them band together.

To those in Congress who were unrelenting in their dislike for her, she said: "'Look, since you resent my being here, when you see me coming just get out of the way. I'm on a mission. I didn't come here to play.' I had to make it very clear that I would not stand for any of the negative patterns of social behavior directed toward me. After that, the rest of my stay in Congress was marvelous. In fact, when I left, some cried. Along with speaking up, I had a sense of humor. I can laugh at myself and laugh at others."

Chisholm also was the first woman to campaign for the U.S. presidency. She said it was a "fantastic experience." Her strongest support came from the South and the Southwest. Florida and Minnesota were the first two states to raise $10,000 toward her campaign.

"Black folks and white folks in the South were superior to those in the North," she said. "Women in the state of Mississippi lost their jobs because they supported a black woman. I wrote about it in my book, The Good Fight.

"I ran because I realized that in this country, someone other than white males could be president. Someone had to have the nerve, guts, and audacity to run. I realized that when I accepted that challenge I would be laughed at and subjected to racist and sexist remarks. Florida and Minnesota said, 'Mrs. Chisholm, you have the right to run."' Politically, African-Americans are gaining more political clout, as evidenced by the recent election of David Dinkins as mayor of New York City, and of Virginia's Douglas Wilder as the first elected black governor of a state. But Chisholm warned that as African-Americans and Hispanics gain more power, those who have been a part of the status quo and who feel threatened by this show of power "will use the mechanism that would have a harassing effect on those who are now rising to power. History repeats itself. After the Civil War, when black people were elected to positions in the South, we began to get threats from white groups."

This explains some of the escalation in racial violence nationwide, Chisholm said. But she is not pessimistic. "This too will pass away. ... We will have setbacks, and we will have gains, but the gains will continue in the future.

"The 1960s were a second reconstruction period, but there was retrogression under President Reagan, who when he was elected said he did not recognize that there was any discrimination in this country. He did not use the full force of this country to stop the rise of racist violence seen in the work of the Aryan Nation, Skinheads and the Neo-Nazis. When he did not assert himself to say, 'We will not go back to this time in history,' he silently gave passive approval. Now everybody is out of the closet."

Chisholm said she is heartbroken as she travels to cities that she has visited before and sees the spiral of poverty and hopelessness among African-Americans and Hispanics.

People of color who are in the depths of despair and suffer from chronic unemployment are often not strong enough to recognize that there is something they can do to help themselves, she said. So drugs become an escape from the real world and a source of getting money that they could not get otherwise.

"White and black people are trying to escape from a world that seems to be lacking in moral and spiritual values - which seem to give you a crutch that is needed when going through the valley of despair."

She believes one important key to reversing this trend is education. However, she said that the traditional methods will not properly educate the majority of the children of color who are entering the public school system today.

"We know that in another 10 years, some 40 percent of the large cities will have a predominantly large black population, and if we don't educate the children in a way that they can function in an automated technological society, they will not be productive," Chisholm said.

"This will have a deleterious impact on the American economy.

Citizens must know that they are not hurting anyone when they say they will withhold necessary resources to educate children of color, because it will eventually affect the whole economy, and America will lose her place on the world scene."