Barbara Jordan’s voice was distinctive, and commanding. “The voice of God,” Molly Ivins called it. After Jordan’s death, Francis X. Cline wrote what might be an even higher tribute, saying her voice was “as though Winston Churchill had been reincarnated as a black woman from Texas.” She spoke in complete paragraphs, usually, with words that seemed selected carefully to fit exactly the ideas she presented.
How delightful, then, to read (and perhaps to actually hear) Barbara Jordan describe her fear of stammering in her first meeting with President Lyndon Johnson. The LBJ Library in Austin has a series of oral histories, including this one:
I went up to what I now know was the Cabinet Room. There were other people assembled, people who were active in the civil rights movement. We sat and waited around a table for the President and the Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, to arrive. Well, as I sat there really at the far end of the table, I still said to myself, “Now, Lyndon Johnson probably doesn’t know who I am or what I am about, and my name probably just slipped in somehow and got into that [list].” So the President came in, everybody stood up. He sat down, we all sat down, and we started to discuss this legislation, fair housing legislation. And the conversation was going around the table. The President would call on first one person for a reaction and then another person for a reaction. Then he stopped and he looked at my end of the table, he said, “Barbara, what do you think?” Well, I just . . . in the first place, I’m telling you, I didn’t know the President knew me, and here he’s looking down here saying “Barbara” and then saying, “What do you think?” So that was my first exchange with Lyndon Johnson. I’m startled. I got myself organized, of course, not so that I wouldn’t stammer, since it is not my habit to stammer when talking, and I gave a response and then this conversation ensued.
That was my first contact personally with Lyndon Johnson.
- Photo from the LBJ Library: Texas State Sen. Barbara Jordan at the White House; Andy Biemiller, State Senator Jordan, and John Doar; Image Number C4510-16
The glories of oral histories. How can you use this in the classroom?
The history of Barbara Jordan and Lyndon Johnson
Oral histories in the University of Texas collection at the Johnson school focus on the Johnson administration and Johnson himself. We learn something about Jordan in this instant interview, but we learn more about Johnson.
1. Isn’t it fascinating that Jordan didn’t know Johnson was watching her, and watching out for her? Johnson was a master of personal relations. With an invitation to one meeting, and with a touch of his personal charm, Johnson called Jordan by name and opened the door to a long relationship that benefited both of them.
2. In a series of document-based questions, we can contrast the leadership styles of various presidents. The meeting Jordan describes, on a policy issue, in the Cabinet Room of the White House, is typical Johnson style. He often assembled diverse groups of people both to hear their ideas and to test his ideas. Can you see Richard Nixon ever doing the same thing? Bill Clinton? George Bush? (Presidents-elect ought to be required to go to a school to see how things were done in the past.)
3. This particular oral history cuts across several issues of the 1960s: Civil rights, presidential power, impeachment, voting, and a rapidly changing American culture. I like to have students make a timeline of a period, and then consult that timeline to place events as they study them. This is an activity that gets students moving and thinking, breaks up the lesson plan into learning chunks, and improves their perspective on what happened, when.
Surely you can see other possibilities. Many — but not enough — of the oral histories collected by the LBJ Library are on-line (could we have audio, too?). Transcripts come in .pdf documents — just waiting to be used as original documents. The list of histories available suggests what you could do with a day in the LBJ library.
Oral histories as classroom exercises and student projects
The LBJ collection offers an instructive view for oral history projects and classroom assignments:
1. A tightly-focused interview often works best. If your students are interviewing World War II veterans, for example, the entire process may be easier if the students start out with the veteran’s view of his (or her) particular theatre of war, or of a battle they took part in. This is really the meat of the interview. Yes, it’s nice to have the history of the person, where they were born, their parents’ names, their early schooling — but focus on a particular issue tends to sharpen the questions and sharpen the memories of the people interviewed.
You may want to use oral histories throughout the year. You can start with a general interview, with the students using a set of questions the class develops, for example querying their parents or educational partner about their experience studying history in school. I wager a majority of your students have never discussed this with their parents.
2. Notice that good oral history is lot more than merely turning on the
tape voice recorder and letting it run. With good questions come good answers.
3. While you’re there getting the interview, get perspective on the event you want, but get other information when it’s available. The LBJ oral histories focus on LBJ. The Barbara Jordan interview focuses on her relations with LBJ. She played a huge role in the impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon, too. That is discussed, and the record is made.
4. A study of the list of people interviewed for the LBJ library reveals a lot of people who may have had small roles in the grand scheme of things. Everybody is a witness to some history. Brainstorming can produce a list of local people to interview about world or national events. (Last year, guest teaching in one school, we covered much of the history of the 1960s including the Kennedy assassination in Dallas. On the way out I ran into an old acquaintance working security at the school — he is a former cop, and is one of a decreasing handful of people who were on duty at the time of the assassination. I asked him whether he ever got invited to talk history with kids, and he said not. Sources are under our noses, everywhere.)
You may want to do a survey of parents of your students and teachers and others in your school, similar to a Venture Crew talent inventory, to see what resources you have easily available.
Notice on LBJ Library oral histories, from the library site:
LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON LIBRARY ORAL HISTORY COLLECTION
The LBJ Library Oral History Collection is composed primarily of interviews conducted for the Library by the University of Texas Oral History Project and the LBJ Library Oral History roject. In addition, some interviews were done for the Library under the auspices of the ational Archives and the White House during the Johnson administration.
Some of the Library’s many oral history transcripts are available on the INTERNET. Individuals whose interviews appear on the INTERNET may have other interviews available on aper at the LBJ Library. Transcripts of oral history interviews may be consulted at the Library r lending copies may be borrowed by writing to the Interlibrary Loan Archivist, LBJ Library, 313 Red River Street, Austin, Texas, 78705.
- Transcript, Barbara Jordan Oral History Interview I, 3/28/84, by Roland C. Hayes,
Internet Copy, LBJ Library.
- Oral History Collection, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, Austin, Texas
- Barbara Jordan (1936-1996), Statement at the U.S. House Judiciary Committee Impeachment Hearings, Washington, D.C. – July 25, 1974; from “Say It Plain, A century of great African American speeches,” American Radio Works (audio and written transcript available)
- Website for “Say It Plain, A century of great African American speeches,” American Radio Works (one-hour program)