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Shirley Chisholm, Unbought and Unbossed

A campaign poster reads "Vote Shirley CHISHOLM 1972. Unbought and Unbossed."

(U.S. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Shirley Chisholm, unbought and unbossed.

Has there been a better political slogan this side of “I Like Ike“? No, there hasn’t.

I had always thought the “unbought and unbossed” reference was to her time in the U.S. Congress — unfazed by the party leadership in the House, that is. But it turns out that it was from her original run for Congress, in 1968, and it referred to the New York City machine:

Chisholm had the audacity, and the political talent, to run for a newly drawn New York congressional seat in 1968 without the backing of the Brooklyn Democratic Party bosses. She described herself as “the people’s politician,” fighting for higher wages for working people and more money for public education and demanding respect for black Americans and women.

That Congressional district had just been redrawn to focus on the not-so-affluent Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn — Bed-Stuy, it was called — where Chisholm had deep roots:

The influential Democratic political machine, headed by Stanley Steingut, declared its intention to send an African-American candidate from the new district to the House. The endorsement of the machine usually resulted in a primary victory, which was tantamount to election in the heavily Democratic area. In the primary, Chisholm faced three African-American challengers: civil court judge Thomas R. Jones, a former district leader and New York assemblyman; Dolly Robinson, a former district co-leader; and William C. Thompson, a well-financed state senator. Chisholm roamed the new district in a sound truck that pulled up outside housing projects while she announced: “Ladies and Gentlemen … this is fighting Shirley Chisholm coming through.”

Yeah! She was elected from New York’s 12th District in 1968, and served seven consecutive terms, retiring in 1983. (It has since been redrawn again as one of the wealthiest districts in America, including even Trump Tower in Manhattan.)

Chisholm liked the slogan so much that she made “Unbought and Unbossed” the title of her 1972 biography. That year she ran for president of the United States, and she used the slogan then, too. (That’s her presidential poster above.) She didn’t win, but she did, as always, shake things up.

Shirley Chisholm in 1973.

The Library of Congress has a terrific photo feature about Shirley Chisholm that includes this shot from 1973. Firm-jawed, no nonsense, unbought and unbossed.

See our biography of Shirley Chisholm »

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