Before there was Hilary there was Shirley Chisholm, heck before there was Obama there was Shirley; political pioneer extrodinare. Shirley Chisholm has claim to a whole litterny of firsts: first African American congresswoman, the first African American woman to run for demotic party presidential nomination and the first African American to run for President.
Born in 1924 in Brooklyn to working class immigrant parents, the importance of an education was installed in Shirley at a young age. She trained to become a teacher, and in 1953 started working in early years education in New York. It was around this time that Shirley discovered politics, she became an authority on child welfare and education and started to volunteer for political organisations- all of which were promindently white, particularly at the top. Shirley looked to change that
‘if they don’t give you a seat at the table bring a folding chair’
Just over a decade later in 1968 Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman elected to congress. It wasn’t an easy road for any women in politics, daily life was full of challenge after challenge and in this era of civil rights those challenges were multiplied for Shirley. Yet she remained undeterred, continuing her battle to ensure black voices were heard at the political table, fighting for the rights of immigrants, access to education, extending the food stamps programme and ensuring benefits extended to domestic workers.
Shirley’s background as the daughter of working class immigrant parents was front and centre when she decided to break down yet another barrier; in 1972 Shirley Chisholm ran for presidency.
Her candidacy was against it from the start; underfunded and seen as little more than a symbolic vote, Shirley fought to be taken seriously, even suing to ensure she was included in TV debates and gaining backing from The Black Panthers, who dubbed her ‘the best social critic of America’s injustices to run for presidential office’ (this was also notably the first time The Black Panthers were involved in election politics) Several assassination attempts later and it was clear she was now being taken seriously. But Shirley refused to stop.
In the end Shirley lost the democratic vote to George McGovern. It was a blow but in hindsight it’s clear that Shirley Chisholm’s presidential race still won, breaking down countless walls for those that came after her.
Trinidadian Jazz prodigy Hazel Scott was wowing audiences with her piano prowess from just 16, her future was bright; indeed she would go onto become a groundbreaking entertainer, however in just a few years she would be blacklisted from the very world she helped build.
In 1943 after several years of drawing crowds and acclaim on the New York jazz circuit, Hazel Scott moved her sights to Hollywood. Her musical talent caught the attention of Hollywood producers and Hazel joined the likes of Lena Horne as one of the first well paid and highly acclaimed black performers in film.
Like Horne, Hazel avoided roles that played into already damaging black stereotypes, choosing to appear in musical variety films as herself and point blank refusing to take parts that cast her as a ‘singing maid’.
This proved to be a canny career move and Hazel Scott’s popularity as a jazz musician famed for ‘swinging the classics’ grew. In 1950 she became the first black person to have their on TV show; The Hazel Scott Show.
Scott’s outspoken refusal to play into stereotypes helped her secure her landmark TV deal, but it had also built her an undesirable reputation within the industry. Scott required final cut on any films she was in, helping her to ensure her image wasn’t distorted. She also refused to wear any costumes she found demeaning (often also fighting for the rights of her black co-stars) It helped create her brand, BUT it went directly against the status quo of the time and this didn’t do her any favours. The film work soon dried up.
Hazel Scott wouldn’t back down, she stood by her views and hit the road. It quickly transpired that she was just as ballsy on tour as she had been on a film set. In 1949 she sued a restaurant in Washington that wouldnt serve her and a friend as they ‘were negroes’.
She refused to play segregated venues and when discovering that a venue in Austin, Texas had segregated seating, she had to be escorted out of Austin by Texas rangers after refusing to perform (the most badass way to end a tour by the way). Later saying:
‘Why would someone come to hear me, a negro, and refuse to sit next to someone just like me?’
Hazel Scott’s continued vocal campaigning came with a price. In 1951 McCarthyism and the red scare hit Hollywood hard and Hazel was listed in Red Channels, the notorious pamphlet which ‘outed’ 151 communists and communist sympathisers in the entertainment industry.
The blow to her career was almost instant. Outraged Hazel voluntarily appeared in front of HUAAC (The House Un-American Activities Committee) admitting to supporting Benjamin Davis, a communist candidate in Harlem-but pointing out that Davis was supported by socialists and was not in fact part of the communist movement that HUAAC was built to ‘protect’ America from. But Hazel didn’t stop there. She then blasted the very committee she was standing in front of, pulling apart the reasons behind the blacklist and the harsh methods the committee used.
A week later The Hazel Scott Show was cancelled.
Scott left America, moving to Paris and touring Europe. She became more involved in the civil rights movement, eventually coming back to America, where she of course remained outspoken until her death in 1981 .
Floyrnce ‘Flo’ Kennedy described herself as ‘radicalisms rudest mouth’. This trailblazer for civil rights and feminism could not be described more perfectly. An activist with an anarchist fun streak; when heckled during a speech ‘are you a lesbian?’ she shot back ‘are you my alternative?’.
Raised in 1920s Missouri as part of a large black family, Flo was taught to stand up for herself from an early age. She left school a feisty, scrappy young woman, top of her class. Ignoring family suggestions to go into nursing she became one of the first black women to graduate from Columbia Law in 1948 (a feat she was only permitted after threatening legal action against the law school…)
By 1951 she was settled in New York and was running her own legal practice, counting stars like Billie Holiday as clients. However by the time the 1960’s rolled in Flo was starting to fall out of love with the law, wondering if true change could ever be made in a system that seemed stacked against the people that needed it most.
Flo became a full time activist in the 60’s so she could ‘kick more ass’, founding the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 and in the same year creating the Media Workshop, which directly challenged discrimination within advertising and the media at large. Successfully challenging several large ad by forming latching pockets outside thier offices, coining the phrase:
‘When you want to get in the suites start in the streets’
Flo helped to align mainstream feminism movements with the current civil rights struggles and built bridges between them and groups like the black panthers, highlighting the need for activists to work together to achieve a greater goal and ensuring that the form of feminism she fought for was always entrenched in abolishing white dominance over all people.
In 1969 she formed a group of female lawyers to challenge New York’s anti abortion laws, successfully having these overturned the next year. At one point she even took on the Catholic Church over abortion, filing tax evasion charges against the church, claiming that their stance on abortion went against their tax exempt status.
By 1971 she had helped found the Feminist Party, which offered help to another lady on our list, Shirley Chisholm, during her presidential candidacy. During the 70’s Flo also teamed up with another influential feminist, Gloria Steinem, on a lecture tour, once more emphasising the need to extend activism beyond just one cause.
Daisy Bates had what I am going to call a Batman-esque origin story – in that, with her start in life there was no way she wasn’t going to shake shit up. When she was just a baby Daisy’s mother was murdered by a gang of white men after refusing their sexual advances, her body was found dumped in a pond. Daisy’s father quickly fled town fearing repercussions from the murder. Daisy was taken in by friends of her parents.
By the mid 1950’s Daisy was living in Little Rock, Arkansas, with her husband, where the pair ran The Arkansas State Press, the leading African American paper in the state and a beacon of the area’s civil rights movement.
It was through this paper that Daisy chronicled the landmark 1954 case of Brown v Board, which saw the US Supreme Court deem segregated schools unconstitutional. As the President of her local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NACCP) Daisy played a key role in helping ensure Arkansas complied with the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Little Rock was court ordered to integrate schools by 1957. Daisy worked with the local black community to pull together a group of students who would become the first black students to attend Little Rock’s Central High School. Daisy ensured all students put forward were of an extremely high calibre, with grades that would match or surpass Central High School’s top students. After a rigorous round of interviews through the state school system, 9 students were chosen. They would go on to be known as ‘the little rock nine’.
‘What is happening at Little Rock transcends segregation and integration, this is a question of right and wrong.’
Prior to the first day of the school year threats were made. Daisy Bates and her husband saw rocks thrown through their windows and crosses burned on their lawn. A poll showed that 85% of the state were opposed to desecration and Arkansas’s Governor said that were the Little Rock Nine to attend the first day of school, ‘blood would run in the streets’.
They went to school anyway.
On the 4th September 1957 the Little Rock Nine were met at the school doors by soldiers with bayonets who had been ordered by Arkansas’s Governor to prevent the nine children from entering.
Daisy Bates became the children’s spokesperson and mentor, her home turned into a second home for the group as they plotted out what the best course for action would be. On 24th September 1957 President Eisenhower federalised the Arkansas National Guard and deployed 1000 paratroopers to the school. The next day on September 25th the Little Rock Nine met at Daisy’s house and traveled in a military convey to their first full day of lessons at Central High School.
A month later Daisy and other members of the NCAAP were arrested in retaliation. Daisy was fined and her conviction ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court.
Over the next year Daisy was the point of contact between the school board, Central High School and the Little Rock Nine, ensuring that measures continued to be in place to allow for the children’s safety and continued education.
In 1958 the first of The Little Rock Nine graduated. It was a victory, but a bitter one. The battle of Little Rock had seen bombs thrown at Daisy’s home, a constant stream of threats and the closure of her and her husbands paper.
After Little Rock Daisy moved to Washington DC to continue her work. Joining The Democratic National Committee and working in LBJ’s administration on anti-poverty programmes. Later in life she moved back to Arkansas, where she went back to bettering her local community.