(Teresa A. Bingman is an attorney, hired in 2020 to lead Mayor Andy Schor’s Racial Justice and Equity Alliance.)
On Jan. 25, 1972, Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress, announced her decision to run for president of the United States. Confronting the racial history of our country, she boldly proclaimed that leadership is having “the vision of what is necessary and the courage to make it possible.”
I read about Chisholm’s bid for the presidency as an elementary student in the Weekly Reader and became curious about her story and the stories of other Black leaders. While reading the article, I smiled, beaming with pride and joy while imagining the possibilities for my life. I was inspired by Chisholm’s announcement, which validated my parents’ dream for their children — that Black people, many of whom were invisible to the leaders of our country, would have opportunities to earn a seat at tables of power in America.
Almost 50 years after Chisholm’s announcement, U.S. Sen. Kamala Devi Harris ran for president under the banner of a “For the People” campaign logo, paying tribute to Chisholm. In December 2019, Harris suspended her campaign and was later named President Joe Biden’s running mate. On Jan. 20, after a hard-fought campaign, Biden was sworn in as president and Harris became our nation’s first woman and first woman of color to become the vice president.
On the campaign trail, Harris, who is Black and South Asian, talked about being part of the legacy of powerful Black women who came before her such as Chisholm, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Fannie Lou Hamer. I’m confident that their stories propelled Harris to remain steadfast.
Bethune, the daughter of slaves, was an accomplished educator, a champion for racial and gender equality, and founder of Bethune-Cookman University. In 1936, Bethune was named by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to serve as director of Negro affairs of the National Youth Administration. She was the first Black woman to lead a federal agency.
Hamer, a voting and civil rights activist, was co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Having been brutally beaten and incarcerated while advocating for voting rights and racial justice, in August 1964, Hamer appeared, uninvited, at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. As she stood before the credentials committee to disclose injustices suffered by Black people who wanted to vote, she valiantly demanded that the committee seat the Freedom Party instead of Mississippi’s all-white delegation, which mostly consisted of uncompromising segregationists. Many remember Hamer’s quote: “We are sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Black history stories of yesterday and today inspire people to become catalysts for change. We learn from the stories and become empowered. Some of us choose to dedicate our careers to help liberate marginalized communities, by fighting to address inequities, racism and sexism.
Indeed, hearing the riveting stories and witnessing the audacious actions of many Black leaders have motivated people from all cultures to work to advance to leadership roles in state Capitols, city and county halls, education systems, nonprofit organizations, corporations and beyond.
I embrace Black history this month and every single day, paying tribute to my ancestors and role models — Black pioneers who stand for positive change, racial justice and equity: historical figures, family members, ministers, educators, friends, and colleagues.
Racial justice and equity warriors continue to operate under the scourge of the stubborn history of racial inequities in America. Yet, I’m grateful for the people who support our efforts, wielding the power of their positions and their voices to make positive changes — people who unabashedly find ways to help blaze trails, break barriers, and create opportunities.
We must continue to fight for what’s right and remain on the battlefield, while heeding Chisholm’s words: “You don’t make progress by whimpering and standing on the sidelines, you make progress by implementing ideas.”