To be equal: Hillary Clinton stands on the shoulders of Shirley Chisholm

“Women in this country must become revolutionaries. We must refuse to accept the old, the traditional roles and stereotypes…We must replace the old, negative thoughts about our femininity with positive thoughts and positive action affirming it, and more. But we must also remember that we will be breaking with tradition, and so we must prepare ourselves educationally, economically, and psychologically in order that we will be able to accept and bear with the sanctions that society will immediately impose upon us.”

— Shirley Chisholm

The nation has marked the historic occasion of the first woman in American history to win the Presidential nomination for a major political party.

While Hillary Clinton has come further than any woman Presidential candidate, she is not the first. Victoria Woodhull ran as the candidate for the Equal Rights Party in 1872. Margaret Chase Smith challenged Barry Goldwater for the Republican nomination in 1964. More recently, Pat Schroeder in 1988 and Carol Moseley Braun in 2004 vied for the Democratic nomination.

But the most historically significant forerunner to Hillary Clinton was Shirley Chisholm, the Brooklyn-born trailblazer who was also the nation’s first African-American Congresswoman.

The daughter of working-class immigrants from the Caribbean, Chisholm became interested in politics while serving as the director of a child day care center and an educational consultant for the New York City Division of Day Care. She served three years as a New York State Assemblywoman before running for Congress in 1968 with the slogan: “Unbought and Unbossed.”

“My greatest political asset, which professional politicians fear, is my mouth, out of which come all kinds of things one shouldn’t always discuss for reasons of political expediency,” Chisholm said.

Chisholm hired only women for her staff, half of whom were African Americans. “Of my two handicaps, being female put many more obstacles in my path than being Black,” she said.

She announced her candidacy for President at a Baptist church in Brooklyn. In an article about her candidacy, the Associated Press wrote, “Ironically, her major headache seems to come from Black politicians.”

“They think that I am trying to take power away from them,” she said. “The Black man must step forward. But that doesn’t mean the Black woman must step back. While they’re rapping and snapping, I’m mapping.”

She competed in 14 states, winning 28 delegates to the convention. As a symbolic gesture, candidate Hubert Humphrey released his 83 Black delegates to cast their votes for Chisholm. With the votes of several other delegates at that contentious convention, Chisholm finished fourth in a field of 13, with 152 delegates.

It is hard to imagine, in this era of sharp division in politics, the remarkable moment during that campaign when she visited her segregationist rival, Alabama Governor George Wallace, in his hospital room after he was shot and wounded. “What are your people going to say?” he asked her. “I know what they are going to say,” she said. “But I wouldn’t want what happened to you to happen to anyone.” She recalled that her words moved him to tears.

Chisholm retired from Congress in 1982 and remained an outspoken activist for civil rights until her death in 2005.

It would be difficult to overestimate the impact and influence of Chisholm’s Congressional service and Presidential candidacy. While Congress remains disproportionately White and male, one-in-five members of the current House and Senate are a racial or ethnic minority, making the 114th Congress the most diverse in history. The nation’s first African-American President is winding up his second term, and a woman – a former senator and Secretary of State – has just won the Democratic nomination for President.

In her acclaimed speech on the Equal Rights Amendment in 1970, Chisholm said, “The Constitution they wrote was designed to protect the rights of White, male citizens. As there were no Black Founding Fathers, there were no founding mothers — a great pity, on both counts. It is not too late to complete the work they left undone. Today, here, we should start to do so.”

Marc Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League.

B.B. King: Why I sing the blues

“The blues has lost its king and America has lost a legend…B.B. may be gone, but that thrill will be with us forever.” —President Barack Obama on the passing of B.B. King.

As a young boy in 1920s Mississippi, Riley B. King, who would one day come to be known as legendary blues icon B.B. King, was introduced to the electric guitar at Reverend Archie Fair’s church. The introduction soon turned into infatuation, with King deciding he would learn to play a guitar. As soon as King got old enough, he ordered a guitar playbook from a Sears, Roebuck and Co. mail catalog. The first tune he learned to play was “You Are My Sunshine.” Fortunately for us, it would not be the last tune he would coax from his yielding guitar strings.

King was born in 1925 on a cotton plantation in the Mississippi Delta. The future King of the Blues, the son of sharecroppers and the great-grandson of a slave, worked the fields, first as a picker at the age of seven and then a mule driver. He aspired to be a gospel singer like his mentor, Rev. Archie, but fate had other plans. In a 1993 interview, King admitted to leaving Mississippi in the early 1940s because of the racial violence, lynchings and hangings that were becoming all too commonplace.

King moved to Memphis, playing small gigs and working as a disc jockey at WDIA, the local blues station. The station manager dubbed King the “Beale Street Blues Boy,” which was shortened to “Blues Boy,” and then to B.B.—and it stuck. It was at this time that King made another momentous introduction, this time to T-Bone Walker singing “Stormy Monday.” King said it was the first time he had ever heard blues on an electric guitar and he was determined to get one. He got that electric guitar in 1946.

What followed was an enduring, influential career that defined and redefined the blues—a quintessentially American art form with roots in African-American slave songs, field hollers and spirituals— King carried its moans and mourning to the four corners of the earth. The blues, set loose on the guitar strings and growl of one of America’s greatest musicians, spoke of our universal experience of pain and perseverance, tribulations and triumphs. King once remarked that, “Blues music actually did start because of pain.” A pain he experienced at an early age, and like so many influential and groundbreaking figures who came before him, King used his talent to rise out of the dirt of his humble beginnings to live a life as industrious as it was incredible.

A 15-time Grammy Award winner— the most Grammys ever received by a blues singer— King was also awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987. In 1998, his most acclaimed song “The Thrill Is Gone” was awarded the Grammy Hall of Fame Award. King also received a National Medal of the Arts award, a Presidential Medal of Freedom and has been inducted in both the Rock and Roll and Blues Hall of Fame. King seemed to always be performing somewhere, playing an average of more than 200 concert dates a year well into his 70s. In 1956, King and his band played an astonishing 342 concerts. He never stopped doing what he loved most: playing the music, which he said, “was bleeding the same blood as me.”

King passed away peacefully in his sleep at his Las Vegas home, and yet, the thrill is far from gone. His notes and innovative sound gave birth to countless blues and rock players, including Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana and Keith Richards, to name a few. His contribution to the blues can be heard, and will continue to be heard, in jazz and rock. King’s outsized influence on blues— on American music— cannot be overstated. B.B. King is to blues what Louis Armstrong is to jazz, Elvis is to rock, James Brown is to funk and Michael Jackson is to pop. Like King, you cannot mention these musical genres without prominently mentioning their names and substantial contributions.

Today, I join the chorus of those celebrating King and his iconic career. He sang his way out of Mississippi’s cotton fields to touch each of us— black or white, American or not—with his talent and insight into our shared human experience. And it is, perhaps, from his brand of soul music that we can learn what found him in that recording studio or night-club almost every day of his life: “Everybody wants to know why I sing the blues. Yes, I say everybody wanna know why I sing the blues. Well, I’ve been around a long time. I really have paid my dues.”

I couldn’t agree more. Rest in peace, B.B.

Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.

COMMENTARY: What the Dunn verdict says about us

“Jordan had no guns. He had no drugs. There was no alcohol. They were coming from the mall. They were being kids.” —Lucia McBath, mother of Jordan Davis

Another mother’s anguish! Another unarmed black teenager in Florida shot dead for no good reason— another indefensible instance of “Stand Your Ground” rearing its ugly head. Eight months after the stunning acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, justice again has been compromised in the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Jordan Davis.


Marc Morial

On November 23, 2012, Michael Dunn, a 47-year-old white man, fired 10 rounds into a SUV after arguing over loud rap music coming from the vehicle with Jordan and three other unarmed African American teenagers.

Three of the bullets struck and killed Jordan Davis. Like George Zimmerman, Michael Dunn claimed self-defense and used Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law to bolster his justification of the killing, as his lawyer stated in his closing argument, “His honor will further tell you that if Michael Dunn was in a public place where he had a legal right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force.”

Dunn claims Jordan Davis brandished a gun so Dunn shot first. But there is one big problem with his story. Jordan Davis had no gun and neither did anyone else in the SUV.

Two weeks ago, a jury found Dunn guilty of three counts of attempted murder, one for each of Jordan’s three friends, and shooting into a vehicle. But they deadlocked on the fifth count— first-degree murder in the killing of Jordan. Dunn could get at least 60 years and may spend the rest of his life in prison for the four lesser counts.

However the failure to convict him of murdering Jordan Davis raises critical questions about the devaluing of the lives of young black males in America and confirms the need for a repeal of Florida’s repugnant Stand Your Ground law that sanctions the use of deadly force by anyone who merely thinks— or claims— they are in danger from a perceived assailant.

Regardless of whether Dunn or Zimmerman chose to fully exercise Stand Your Ground provisions in their defense, this law was very clearly at the center of both cases. It is even clearer that the “shoot first” laws across the country are contributing to needless bloodshed and are ripe for unequal application based on race.

A recent Urban Institute analysis found that in Stand Your Ground states, “When the shooter is white and the victim is black, the justifiable homicide rate is 34 percent. When the situation is reversed and the shooter is black and the victim is white, shootings are ruled to be justifiable in only slightly more than three percent of cases.”

Last September, the National Urban League, in collaboration with the bipartisan Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition and VoteVets, issued a report showing that in the 22 states with “Stand Your Ground” laws, the justifiable homicide rate has risen by an average of 53 percent in the five years following their passage. In Florida, justifiable homicides have increased by 200 percent since the law took effect in 2005.

These statistics and their underlying racial disparities, tell us that expansive self-defense laws such as Stand Your Ground are doing more harm than good, and when coupled with implicit racial bias and unfounded preconceptions, young black males are especially at risk. Dunn’s own bigoted words in letters from jail clearly show his disregard for their lives, as he wrote:

“The jail is full of blacks and they all act like thugs. This may sound a bit radical but if more people would arm themselves and kill these (expletive) idiots when they’re threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior;” and “The fear is that we may get a predominantly black jury and therefore, unlikely to get a favorable verdict. Sad, but that’s where this country is still at. The good news is that the surrounding counties are predominantly white and Republican and supporters of gun rights!”

This view and those like it are why we must commit today to action against the devaluing of our young black lives.

Even as the Michael Dunn trial was getting underway, we learned that Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, had planned to capitalize on the death of a young black male by participating in a “celebrity” boxing match— when his only claim to fame is killing an unarmed black teenager and getting off (The bout was later cancelled). Such a blatant disregard for the value of a black male’s life should be a wake-up call to all Americans. We must intensify our fight against Stand Your Ground laws— and the underlying mentality— that justify the killing of young black men whose only “offense” is being black.

Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.