Dr. Jessica Johnson: ‘Shirley’ provides valuable lessons

One of the recently released spring biopics that I really looked forward to is the Netflix film on Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman to be elected to Congress in 1968. Simply titled “Shirley,” the film takes viewers on an intense and dramatic journey of Chisholm’s 1972 Democratic presidential campaign, a campaign she had no shot to win but valiantly ran to be a voice for those who were not represented on Capitol Hill.

Growing up, I remember how my mother would always tell me that she admired Chisholm’s political acumen and her fierce stance to never waver on her beliefs from reading the Congresswoman’s classic memoir “Unbought and Unbossed.” Chisholm was the essence of a maverick in Washington, and neither Congress nor the country was truly ready for an elected official like her. One of her most famous quotes is that “if they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” This was the moxie of a woman who was born in 1924 to immigrant parents in Brooklyn, New York, and never doubted her ability to lead on a national level.

Academy award-winning actress Regina King brings the tenacity and fervor of Chisholm to life on screen, elegantly depicting Chisholm’s stately poise in her mannerisms and attire. King also effectively portrayed Chisholm’s humorous side, as a fun fact that I learned was that Chisholm loved McDonald’s strawberry shakes. I suppose happily indulging in a treat like this was part of the joy that helped safeguard Chisholm when she took on the harsh realities of a political system still heavily steeped in racism and sexism in 1972.

Our country was not even a decade removed from the landmark legislation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act. Americans were still bitterly polarized regarding the Vietnam War in ’72, as U.S. forces had been fighting fiercely to hold off the North Vietnamese in what came to be known as the Easter Offensive. The Watergate scandal would also break during the presidential campaign season that year.

In the midst of war and political chaos, Chisholm viewed herself as a critical catalyst for change, an exceptional candidate who would bring hope to people tired and weary of the status quo.

The attribute that I respect most about Chisholm is the compassion she showed her political detractors and opponents as she leaned on her Christian faith while being attacked as an incompetent, domineering and stubborn woman. In her fiery speeches and debates, she pushed policy change that would best meet the needs of her campaign base and constituents in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and did not stoop to ad hominem attacks.

Her relationship with Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who was also seeking the Democratic nomination, showed how Chisholm did not judge others through the lens of race. When Wallace was shot five times while at a rally in Laurel, Maryland, Chisholm later visited him in the hospital, courageously going against the warnings of her trusted advisor Wesley McDonald. In the film McDonald (Lance Reddick) irately pleads with Chisholm, asking her, “What does this say about you as a candidate?” To which Chisholm unflinchingly replied, “What does it say about me as a Christian?”

With Wallace narrowly escaping death, Chisholm wasn’t looking at him as the man who had indignantly promised “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” after Alabamans elected him as governor in 1963. She was looking at Wallace as a soul and sincerely prayed that the “light of God” would guide him and keep him “safe in Jesus’ name.”

I have no doubt that this unexpected encounter with Chisholm touched Wallace’s heart and moved him to change his life. Two years after the 1972 election, in which Richard Nixon won over the Democratic nominee George McGovern, Wallace backed a bill proposed by Chisholm that advocated for domestic workers to be able to earn minimum wage. Many years later in 1995, three decades after the Selma to Montgomery march, Wallace humbly asked for forgiveness, which civil rights activist Rev. Joseph Lowery graciously gave him.

Forgiveness in politics is a rare quality, and in Chisholm’s case, it illustrated how she believed Wallace was redeemable from his racist dogma. It also showed how she truly valued the human dignity of all people, which made her such a remarkable and groundbreaking leader.

As Chisholm’s 1972 presidential run is shared with a new generation just learning this history, hopefully aspiring young politicians will emulate her integrity and empathy as they strive to make the world a better place.

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @JjSmojc. Her opinion does not necessarily represent the views of The Lima News or its owner, AIM Media.