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Obama honors Brooklynite Shirley Chisholm’s legacy with Presidential Medal of Freedom

November 19, 2015 Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Brooklyn native and Brooklyn College alum Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress, is pictured in 1979. Chilsholm is being posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. AP Photo/Charles Harrity
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“What would it mean if President Obama or Hillary Clinton evoked Shirley Chisholm’s name?” asked Dr. Zinga A. Fraser, the new director of the Shirley Chisholm Project on Brooklyn Women’s Activism at Brooklyn College recently.

She received an answer in a most significant way when it was announced that Chisholm, who was born in Brooklyn and graduated from Brooklyn College in 1946, would be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, by President Barack Obama at a ceremony to be held on Nov. 24 at the White House.
“Kudos to President Obama for recognizing Shirley Chisholm and what she represents,” said Brooklyn College President Karen L. Gould at the 2015 Shirley Chisholm Day program, held on Nov. 17 in the Brooklyn College Student Center. Keynoting the annual event in honor of Chisholm was Robin D.G. Kelley, the Gary B. Nash professor of American history at the University of California-Los Angeles.

“The college has a very long history of graduating students who go on to serve in public office and do amazing things. We say in our mission statement that one of the things we want our students to acquire is the ability to think critically, a quality exemplified in the work and continuing significance of Shirley Chisholm,” added Gould.

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“At Brooklyn College and the Shirley Chisholm Project, we’re already aware of how great Chisholm was. We’re very pleased that President Obama and the White House have also acknowledged that greatness — and with one of the highest honors in the land,” said Fraser. “It’s a testament to Chisholm’s enduring legacy and lasting impact.”
Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress, representing Brooklyn’s 12th Congressional District, is best known for being the first major-party black candidate for president of the U.S. and the first woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. She helped to create the college’s SEEK program, co-founded the National Political Congress of Black Women and helped to found the National Organization of Women.

Chisholm’s memoir, “Unbought and Unbossed,” details her grass-roots, community-building efforts among a wide variety of constituencies, including blacks, whites, Latinos, lower-income and middle-class families, women across the board and the LGBT community. Her work with the last group, Fraser says, was ahead of its time and is often overlooked by scholars. It also illustrates how difficult forging these alliances can be, even in a place like Brooklyn that has one of the highest numbers of black women elected to public office in the country.

“Her ability to create coalitions that transcended gender, race and class is what makes Chisholm’s political career admirable, revolutionary and radical,” said Jenna Carter Johnson, a student majoring in sociology who spoke at the Chisholm Day event. “Today’s Black Lives Matter movement was created by three women of color in 2012 and seems to mirror Chisholm’s strategy of inclusion as it wishes to affirm the existence of all black people, including the disabled, incarcerated, undocumented and all of those along the gender spectrum.”

“Chisholm also tells us a great deal about the possibility and importance of learning from political failures,” said Fraser, a former endowed post-doctoral fellow in women’s and gender studies and recipient of the American Political Science Association‘s 2014 Byran Jackson Dissertation Research on Minority Politics Award. “As much as her story is about the aspirational, groundbreaking work that she did, it’s also about the constraints in coalition building.

“In the end, it wasn’t her ability to connect these groups, but the inability of these groups to work together for a common cause. But even in her failure to get various coalitions to work collectively, she provides us with some of the playbook that would later be utilized by our current president,” Fraser added.

Fraser is currently writing a book that is a comparative study of Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan, as well as other black women political figures, in the context of examining their political genius and the different strategies they used to promote change.

The Shirley Chisholm Project on Brooklyn Women’s Activism, whose archive is housed at the Brooklyn College Library, is the world’s largest source of Chisholm-related artifacts.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is “presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

  • Information from Brooklyn College

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