In 1969, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm — the first Black congresswoman in the country’s history and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination — spoke at Delta Sigma Theta’s founders day luncheon in Brooklyn. Susan Brownmiller, a reporter for the New York Times, was present to write an article that was published in the paper that year.
“You have no idea what those people in Washington with their hands on the power have been plotting and planning for us,” she said in her West Indian accent. “Let me tell you. Do not be complacent. The Man says he knows we ain’t never gonna come together.”
Chisholm then facetiously described the “good advice” she’d been receiving from her counterparts since ascending to Congress.
“They tell me, ‘Shirley, you’re just a freshman and you have to keep quiet as a freshman.’ … I listen sweetly to them and then I say, ‘Gentlemen, thank you for your advice. I understand what you’re saying. But when I get up there on the floor of Congress, I’m sure you’ll understand that I am speaking with the pent-up emotions of the community’.”
I thought of Chisholm after I interviewed Illinois State Senator Kimberly Lightford last week about the unprecedented package of legislation she’s been able to steer through the General Assembly as Senate Majority Leader and head of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus.
The senator, who represents parts of Oak Park and River Forest, explained passionately what the caucus has called its “Four Pillars.”
Pillar one covers criminal justice, violence reduction and police reform. Pillar two covers education and workforce development. Pillar three covers economic access, opportunity and equity. Pillar four covers health care and human services.
In less than a year, the Black Caucus has managed to push out seven bills addressing those Four Pillars, which are in the position of likely becoming laws that will provide tangible changes in the lives of many Black and Brown people — changes like ending the cash bail system.
I don’t have time or space to go over the details in all of the bills, but I encourage you to research them for yourself at ilga.gov. They include: HB 3653, HB 2170, SB 1980, SB 1480, SB 1608, SB 1792 and HB 3840.
I know on the surface that this all reads like a numerical and alphabet soup of abstraction, but beyond the nomenclature is a reality that too many of us, Black men in particular, know painfully in our bones, in our being.
Nearly 40 years after Shirley Chisholm gave that speech in Brooklyn, Kalief Browder, a Bronx teenager, was arrested for walking in his neighborhood. At the time, he didn’t know what he had done and did not have the stolen item police claimed to have stopped, searched and arrested him for.
Browder was, quite simply, trapped in the Kafkaesque plot that Shirley Chisholm was talking about — the plot in front of our eyes but that too many white people in America are less inclined to believe than QAnon, despite the overwhelming evidence proving the former.
Kalief Browder died by suicide two tormented years after he was released from Riker’s Island, where he was tortured for three years — by solitary confinement, by grown men assaulting him, by guards who were not guardians — without the state having provided a lick of evidence tying him to a stolen backpack. His bail was $3,000, but his family couldn’t afford to pay it, so he was forced to stay at Riker’s until his trial.
As Lightford read through the long list of reforms included in the caucus’ legislation last week, her pained countenance burdened with the “pent-up emotions of” her community, she would often pause from the policy speak and talk about the people who may be affected by the Four Pillars legislation.
The unemployed young people she passes on the streets. Hard-working students struggling to pay college tuition. Generations of jailed and jobless and just-getting-by breeding more generations of jailed and jobless and just-getting-by. Several times over the last 12 months, at press conferences and in interviews, I’ve seen the state senator break down in tears. The pain is real.
Lightford explained how her caucus, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, unified and collectively resolved to try to bring about tangible racial and economic equity after decades of Springfield fortifying a rigged system — a system that always and forever delays justice and equality and equity for Black and Brown and poor and powerless people.
In order to try ending cash bail, for instance, caucus members had to work in stealth and in tandem, Lightford said, beneath the prying eyes of the police unions and the Downstate Republicans and the other forces Shirley Chisholm channeled in 1969 (the “Man says he knows we ain’t never gonna come together”).
This time, it appears, “we” did. And we have the Black Caucus — whose members worked with grassroots activists and advocates, held hundreds of hours of hearings, combed through research and whipped up the votes — to thank.