Remembering Barbara Jordan on her birthday

February 21, 2019

Barbara Jordan would have been 83 today.

Barbara Jordan statue intended for the campus of the University of Texas, Austin Chronicle photo
Design model for a statue of Barbara Jordan for the University of Texas. Sculpture by Bruce Wolfe; the installed statue is in bronze. I like this plaster model, too.

(Thanks to Pam for alerting me to the anniversary, back in 2008.)

In her stirring keynote address at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, held in New York City in Madison Square Garden, Jordan said:

A government is invigorated when each of us is willing to participate in shaping the future of this nation.

In this election year we must define the common good and begin again to shape a common good and begin again to shape a common future. Let each person do his or her part. If one citizen is unwilling to participate, all of us are going to suffer. For the American idea, though it is shared by all of us, is realized in each one of us.

I covered that convention as a stringer for a western television station. I recall the spirit in the hall when Jordan spoke, and the great spirit that enveloped the entire convention and the City of New York. After the convention every night the cops would stop taxis so delegates could ride. I remember watching two cops help a woman out of a wheel chair and into a cab, and the cabbie saying that the cops had never done that before — and he liked it. Jimmy Carter came out of that convention, and won the election, defeating Gerald Ford.

43 years ago. In 2008 I wrote: “Barbara Jordan didn’t live to see her party come up with a woman and an African American man as the top two candidates for the nomination. That’s too bad. She could have given a great, appropriate speech. Maybe the Dems oughtta just run a film of Jordan from 1976.”

Barack Obama won that election in 2008, and Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination in 2016. Jordan didn’t live to see that, either.

In 2019, we face a Constitutional crisis again, with a crook in the White House hoping Americans forget about the Constitution. If ever we needed ghosts to come back to help us, we need the ghost of Barbara Jordan now. We could just run a film of her speech at the House Judiciary Committee markup of the articles of impeachment for Richard Nixon.

Also:

This is an encore post.
Yes, this is an encore post, with some editing. Defeating ignorance takes patience and perseverance.

Barbara Jordan and Lyndon Johnson: An oral history

September 2, 2007

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.

Barbara Jordan at the Johnson White House, prior to 1972 -- with Andy Biemiller, John Doar - LBJ Library photo

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.

The glories of oral histories. How can you use this in the classroom?

Read the rest of this entry »


When things get tough, the patriotic listen to Barbara Jordan

August 2, 2007

Whose voice do you hear, really, when you read material that is supposed to be spoken by God? Morgan Freeman is a popular choice — he’s played God at least twice now, racing George Burns for the title of having played God most often in a movie. James Earl Jones?

Statue of Barbara Jordan at the Austin, Texas, Airport

Statue of Rep. Barbara Jordan at the Austin, Texas airport that bears her name. Photo by Meghan Lamberti, via Accenture.com

For substance as well as tone, I nominate Barbara Jordan’s as the voice you should hear.

I’m not alone. Bill Moyers famously said:

When Max Sherman called me to tell me that Barbara was dying and wanted me to speak at this service, I had been reading a story in that morning’s New York Times about the discovery of forty billion new galaxies deep in the inner sanctum of the universe. Forty billion new galaxies to go with the ten billion we already knew about. As I put the phone down, I thought: it will take an infinite cosmic vista to accommodate a soul this great. The universe has been getting ready for her.

Now, at last, she has an amplifying system equal to that voice. As we gather in her memory, I can imagine the cadences of her eloquence echoing at the speed of light past orbiting planets and pulsars, past black holes and white dwarfs and hundreds of millions of sun-like stars, until the whole cosmic spectrum stretching out to the far fringes of space towards the very origins of time resonates to her presence.

Virgotext carried a series of posts earlier in the year, commemorating what would have been Jordan’s 71st birthday on February 21. (Virgotext also pointed me to the Moyers quote, above.)

Now, when the nation seriously ponders impeachment of a president, for the third time in just over a generation, Ms. Jordan’s words have more salience, urgency, and wisdom. It’s a good time to revisit Barbara Jordan’s wisdom, in the series of posts at Virgotext.

“There is no president of the United States that can veto that decision.”

“My faith in the Constitution is whole.”

“We know the nature of Impeachment. We’ve been talking about it a while now.”

“Indignation so great as to overgrow party interests.”

And finally:

The rest of the hearing remarks are all here. It’s a longer clip than the others but honestly, there is not a good place to cut it.

This is Barbara Jordan on the killing floor.

This was a woman who understands history, who illustrates time and again that we are, with every action, with every syllable, cutting the past away from the present.

She never mentions Nixon by name. There is the Constitution. There is the office of the Presidency. But Richard Nixon the president has already ceased to exist. By the time she finishes speaking, he is history.

“A President is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution.”

Also see, and hear:

Virgotext’s collection of Barbara Jordan stories and quotes is an excellent source for students on Watergate, impeachment, great oratory, and Barbara Jordan herself. Bookmark that site.

Barbara Jordan, in a pensive moment, in a House Committee room

Rep. Barbara Jordan sitting calmly among tension, at a House Committee meeting (probably House Judiciary Committee in 1974).

Update 2019: Here is the full audio of Barbara Jordan’s speech. It is still salient, and if you listen to it you will understand better what is going on in Congress today.

Barbara Jordan, Statement on the Articles of Impeachment, at AmericanRhetori.com.


%d bloggers like this: