Shirley Chisholm awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

Tributes by Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the Congressional Black Caucus and President Barack Obama

From Congresswoman Barbara Lee

Oakland – Throughout her life, Congresswoman Chisholm – or Mrs. C as we called her – broke many barriers while tirelessly advocating for the most vulnerable in our nation and our world. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is a fitting tribute to her lifetime of work and advocacy.

Congresswomen Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Lee at an event they attended together in Berkeley in about 1995.
Congresswomen Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Lee at an event they attended together in Berkeley in about 1995.

In 1969, Congresswoman Chisholm became the first African American woman to serve in Congress. She was the first major-party African American candidate and first Democratic woman candidate for the U.S. presidency.

I had the privilege of first meeting Mrs. C when I invited her to speak at Mills College as president of the Black Student Union. Following her powerful remarks, I spoke with her about my government class. The professor required that students volunteer with one of the presidential campaigns, but none of the candidates spoke to the issues important to me and my community, so I was on the verge of failing.

After first taking me to task for not being a registered voter, Mrs. C suggested that I work for her historic presidential campaign. I helped organize her Northern California campaign and traveled to Miami as a delegate for Congresswoman Chisholm.

Since our first meeting, Mrs. C had been a friend and mentor to me throughout my life, including encouraging me to run for office. In fact, at my victory gala following my election to the California State Senate, Mrs. C announced to everyone that she knew that I’d one day be a member of Congress.

While Mrs. C passed away 10 years ago, her words and legacy live on while challenging all policymakers to do more for our nation’s most vulnerable.

As we celebrate Congresswoman Chisholm’s remarkable life with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, I encourage all to heed her words of wisdom: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair.”

Congresswoman Lee is a member of the Appropriations and Budget Committees, the Steering and Policy Committee, is a Senior Democratic Whip, former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and co-chair of the Progressive Caucus. She serves as chair of the Whip’s Task Force on Poverty and Opportunity. She can be reached via James.Lewis2@mail.house.gov.

From Congressional Black Caucus Chairman G.K. Butterfield

Washington, D.C. – The Congressional Black Caucus is proud to recognize this year’s Presidential Medal of Freedom Award recipients. This distinguished group of American citizens have each made significant contributions here at home and abroad through their promotion of peace and cultural excellence in their public and private endeavors.

Shirley Chisholm wasn’t an afterthought in the 1972 presidential campaign but a major force who electrified Black and progressive communities.
Shirley Chisholm wasn’t an afterthought in the 1972 presidential campaign but a major force who electrified Black and progressive communities. An extraordinarily effective advocate, especially for Blacks, women and the poor, Chisholm tempered her outspoken militancy with diplomacy and won the hearts of everyone but the bigots.

This year, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is our nation’s highest civilian honor, will be presented posthumously to one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Shirley Chisholm.

Rep. Chisholm made history in 1968 by becoming the first African American woman elected to Congress, where she served seven terms in the House of Representatives. She was the first major-party African American female candidate to make a bid for the U.S. presidency when she ran for the Democratic nomination in 1972.

She was known as a champion of minority education and employment opportunities and was the driving force behind SNAP and WIC. Her service in Congress on behalf of the constituents of New York’s 12th Congressional District and her leadership within the CBC made an indelible and lasting impact on our 46 current members.

Since its establishment in 1971, members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) have joined together to empower America’s neglected citizens and address their legislative concerns. To learn more about the Congressional Black Caucus, visit http://cbc-butterfield.house.gov.

From President Barack Obama at the Medal of Freedom Ceremony in the East Room of the White House on Nov. 24

Washington, D.C. – Today, we celebrate some extraordinary people – innovators, artists and leaders – who contribute to America’s strength as a nation. And we offer them our highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Let me tell you just a little bit about them – although I suspect people here already know their stories. …

There are people in our country’s history who don’t look left or right – they just look straight ahead. Shirley Chisholm was one of those people. Driven by a profound commitment to justice, she became the first African-American congresswoman – the first African-American woman from a major political party – to run for president.

When Shirley was assigned to the House Agricultural Committee – despite the fact that her district was from New York City – (laughter) – she said, “Apparently all they know here in Washington about Brooklyn is that a tree grew there.” (Laughter.) But she made the most of her new role, helping to create the supplemental nutrition program that feeds poor mothers and their children.

Shirley Chisholm’s example transcends her life. And when asked how she’d like to be remembered, she had an answer: “I’d like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts.” And I’m proud to say it: Shirley Chisholm had guts.

President Obama can be reached at The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington DC 20500, 202-456-1111 or www.whitehouse.gov.