Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Mills College: Shirley Chisholm

BOND: And older when you get to Mills College, teachers there, people in the Oakland community — ?

LEE: Oh yeah, when I get to Mills College, I've got to tell you, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton were very influential in my life. They — even though controversial and even though J. Edgar Hoover and his administration took them on, wrongfully so, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton were very important in terms of my involvement in what was our civil rights movement in the Bay area.

At Mills College, I met Shirley Chisholm. I had never registered to vote before, but I was a Black Student Union president. Shirley came per my request to speak to our college. I didn't know that she was running for president then, but after I heard her speak, as a result of my getting ready to flunk a class where I was required to do field work in one of the campaigns — I wasn't going to do anything for [Edmund] Muskie, [George] McGovern, or [Hubert] Humphrey. I didn't feel they were about anything, for me, as a young African American woman, but after I heard Shirley speak I went up to her and I said, "Mrs. Chisholm, I've got this class. Maybe I'll pass it now because I think I like what you stand for. How do I get involved?" And she said, "Well, my dear, the first thing you've got to do is register to vote." Then she said, "The second thing you have to do is figure out how to help." She said, "I don't have a national campaign. I'm counting on my local people." So I ended up organizing her northern California campaign along with Sandre Swanson, Wilson Riles, Jr., and Sandy Gaines out of my class at Mills College, so Shirley Chisholm was very influential.

BOND: What was it about her, particularly? What was it about her that resonated with you?

LEE: Gosh, she was like my mother in a lot of ways. She was independent. She was tough. She wouldn't back down. She spoke her mind. She was against the Vietnam War. She was for peace, and she understood that we had to think globally and yet act locally, and she could put that all together. And then she was the first African American woman elected to Congress. I couldn't figure out how she did that in this white, male-dominated political system and so I just — and over the years I just looked up to Shirley as someone who I loved, who I revered, and who I miss right now very much.