Elected to Congress the same year Richard Nixon was elected president, Shirley Chisholm blazed a ground-breaking trail with a pragmatic style and genuine frankness rarely found in Washington today.
Chisholm, who died last week, was savvy enough to become the first black woman elected to Congress in 1968. She was brash enough to hire an all-female staff once she took office, and tough enough to win 151 delegate votes as the first black woman to seriously seek a major party presidential nomination in 1972. She was serious enough to walk out of a private lunch with President Reagan years later, once she realized he wanted to do little more than trade small talk.
The daughter of Caribbean immigrants who earned a master's degree by age 30, Chisholm had little time for nonsense, adopting a campaign slogan _ "unbought and unbossed" _ that summed up her direct, unflinching style. At a time when black people were asserting new power in the nation's culture and at the ballot box, she emerged as a symbol of strong, principled leadership _ constantly reminding America of its responsibility to a people it had oppressed and repressed for so long.
"My greatest fear is that the progress that we have made has halted because we've failed to keep our shoulders against the slow and steady wheel," Chisholm told an audience at the University of South Florida in 1996. "The darkness and distance between black and white Americans is greater than ever before. Civil rights laws seem to be yellowing and crumbling in our very fingers. Did tomorrow ever come? Or is today really yesteryear?"
With so many civil rights landmarks approaching significant milestones _ the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act _ many notable figures from those times are passing from the scene. Chisholm was 80 when she died in Ormond Beach, where she had retired after representing a New York House district for seven terms. PBS will air Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed, an expansive documentary on her campaign, on Feb. 7.
Coming weeks before Martin Luther King's birthday and the start of Black History Month, Chisholm's passing serves as another reminder that courage and fortitude can make a difference in this life.