By EDITORIAL BOARD
Last week, the city announced that a statue would be constructed in honor of Rep. Shirley Chisholm, to be erected at the parkside entrance to Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The honor, which comes 50 years after she became the first black woman elected to Congress, is a nice tribute, but it would be inaccurate to say it is befitting. No statue has the capacity to adequately reflect Chisholm’s brilliance. You can’t name enough schools or parks in the five boroughs in her honor to drive home how extraordinary she was as a politician, leader and human being — though that shouldn’t stop us from renaming a few dozen schools around the city.
Throughout her remarkable career, Chisholm was a voice of conscience for the party. She advocated for the poor when it wasn’t popular to do so. Food Stamps exist because of her efforts, as does SNAP — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which feeds tens of millions of hungry children each year. She staunchly supported spending less on the military in favor of helping the less-privileged. She was skeptical of the influence of big corporations long before Democrats espoused the idea. She also campaigned tirelessly for increases in the minimum wage and healthcare for all — and the list goes on.
In 1972, Chisholm became the first black woman to seek the Democratic Party nomination for president of the United States. Her campaign slogan and overall ethos was “Unbought and Unbossed,” in keeping with her wariness of big corporations. Unfortunately, it has taken the country about 48 years to catch up to her ambitious and principled message. At the time, she told people that she “met more discrimination as a woman than for being black.” Yet she didn’t let the prejudice she experienced distract her from a more important mission of bringing people together for a common good. Later in life she would remind her students, “If you don’t accept others who are different, it means nothing that you’ve learned calculus.”
Chisholm seems like she would be the perfect candidate for the fractured Democratic Party right now — not just because she is black woman, but because her life and career epitomized the moral values of the Democratic Party at its best: a party that is tolerant, focused on helping others, and dedicated to justice for all.
Currently, the party lacks a unifying leader and increasingly seems to be dividing into two factions. The most recent evidence of this fracture also took place this past week. There was a close battle inside the House Democratic Conference for the position of Caucus chair — the fourth–most-powerful position in the Chamber. Progressive California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who characterizes Chisholm as an iconic influence on her career, lost a close vote to Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who represents many of the same neighborhoods in Brooklyn that Chisholm served in Congress.
The symmetry is almost a perfect microcosm of the Democratic Party’s current circumstances: a party that is seeking a brilliant leader to unite everyone — a leader all could agree would move the country forward in a positive way, and of such high intellect as to merit our total confidence with him/her in charge when the going gets tough.
At this point, it is anybody’s guess who the 2020 Democratic nominee for president will be. But the party could do no better than to nominate a candidate who embraces the legacy of Shirley Chisholm.