Chisholm '72

PBS Premiere: Feb. 7, 2005Check the broadcast schedule »

Excerpt: Chisholm's Memoir

On the System

On the System

Shirley Chisholm in the early 1970s

Whenever I speak to student groups, the first question they ask me is "Can't you do something about the war?" The next one usually is "How can you stand to be part of this system?" They mean, "How can you stay in Congress and keep talking about progress, about reconciliation, after all that this society has done to you and your people?" It is the hardest question I could be asked, and the answer is the most important one I can offer. I try to explain to them:

"You can be part of the system without being wedded to it," I say. "You can take part in it without believing that everything it does is right. I don't measure America by its achievement, but by its potential. There are still many things that we haven't tried — that I haven't tried — to change the way our present system operates. I haven't exhausted the opportunities for action in the course I'm pursuing. If I ever do, I cannot at this point imagine what to do next. You want me to talk to you about revolution, but I can't do that. I know what it would bring. My people are twelve percent of the population, at most fifteen percent. I am pragmatic about it: revolution would be suicide."

Campaigning from the 'Chisholm Trail' bus

Campaigning on the "Chisholm Trail" bus

What is the alternative? What can we offer these beautiful, angry, serious, and committed young people? How are we all to be saved? The alternative, of course, is reform — renewal, revitalization of the institutions of this potentially great nation. This is our only hope. If my story has any importance, apart from its curiosity value — the fascination of being a "first" at anything is a durable one — it is, I hope, that I have persisted in seeking this path toward a better world. My significance, I want to believe, is not that I am the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress, but that I won public office without selling out to anyone. When I wrote my campaign slogan, "Unbossed and Unbought," it was an expression of what I believe I was and what I want to be — what I want all candidates for public office to be. We need men and women who have far greater abilities and far broader appeal than I will ever have, but who have my kind of independence — who will dare to declare that they are free of the old ways that have led us wrong, and who owe nothing to the traditional concentrations of capital and power that have subverted this nation's ideals.

Chisholm poses with flag making victory sign

Such leaders must be found. But they will not be found as much as they will be created, by an electorate that has become ready to demand that it control its own destiny. There must be a new coalition of all Americans — black, white, red, yellow and brown, rich and poor — who are no longer willing to allow their rights as human beings to be infringed upon by anyone else, for any reason. We must join together to insist that this nation deliver on the promise it made, nearly 200 years ago, that every man be allowed to be a man. I feel an incredible urgency that we must do it now. If time has not run out, it is surely ominously short.

Excerpted with permission from Unbought and Unbossed by Shirley Chisholm, 1970.