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In Barbara Jordan, Mary Beth Rogers ...
In Barbara Jordan, Mary Beth Rogers deftly explores the forces that shaped the moral character and quiet dignity of this extraordinary woman. She reveals the seeds of Jordan's trademark stoicism while recapturing the essence of a black woman entering politics just as the civil rights movement exploded across the nation. Celebrating Jordan's elegance, passion, and patriotism, this illuminating portrayal gives new depth to our understanding of one of the most influential women of our time-a woman whose powerful convictions and flair for oratorical drama changed the political landscape of America's twentieth century.
We have to ask our heroes at the moment their challenge is thrust upon them, with its trials and the possibilities of greatness on the other side: Are you ready? Can you handle it?
It was on July 25, 1974, that millions of television viewers saw Barbara Jordan for the first time. What they saw was a massive, heavy black woman, in a pumpkin-orange knit dress, with a black-and-white polka-dot scarf at her neck. She was such a large woman that there seemed nothing unusual about her round and puffy face, swollen from the prednisone. Pearl earrings were visible under her short, smooth hair, but she wore no makeup or lipstick, and her eyes were shielded by glasses in heavy black frames that reflected the television lights back into the cameras, making her eyes almost impossible to see. Her elbows were on the table, with her right hand holding the edge of her glasses. She leaned into the microphone and started to read her remarks. The magic of her voice began to obliterate her appearance. Its clear, rapid, bell-like tones and rhythmic patterns made most viewers pause. Within a mere fifteen seconds, no more than fifty words into her text, both the sound and the content of her words began to engage, even captivate, her audience.
Earlier today we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, "We, the People." It is a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed on the 17th of September in 1787, I was not included in that "We, the People." I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton must have left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decision I have finally been included in "We, the People."
Today, I am an inquisitor. I believe hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.
Jordan then began to explain--in effect, to teach--what the whole crisis was about: the rule of law and a president who put himself above the rule of law. What the tapes and testimony, the evidence, revealed was a presidential scandal like never before (and never since). The president of the United States had knowingly directed his underlings to raise illegal funds to finance illegal activities designed to destroy the Democratic Party and key individuals. Then he had abused the powers of his office and federal agencies like the FBI to cover up his activities. This abuse extended to denying to the Congress and the courts information they were constitutionally entitled to have. What galled Jordan the most was the lying--the president's lying about his own involvement and that of his staff. To Barbara Jordan, it was contempt and disregard for the law in extreme. She wanted her remarks to get to the center of that issue. She wanted to answer the questions people wanted answered.
First, what was impeachment? It was like an indictment, she told us, an accusation that still had to be proven. "In establishing the division between the two branches of the legislature, the House and the Senate, assigning to the one the right to accuse and to the other the right to judge, the Framers of this Constitution were very astute. They did not make the accusers and the judges the same person." Without "playing games," she also began to lay out a respectable constitutional position for those committee members who had not yet made up their minds. She was telling them, in effect, that they could vote to impeach without having to judge beyond a shadow of a doubt the president's guilt. That would be up to the Senate.
To the American people, Jordan explained why the misdeeds of the president were crimes against the Constitution. She went back to the proceedings of the various states' debates during the process of ratifying the federal Constitution. She quoted from the Virginia Ratification Convention, from the South Carolina Ratification Convention, from Alexander Hamilton's words in the Federalist Papers, and particularly from James Madison's reasoning at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
We know the nature of impeachment. We have been talking about it awhile now. "It is chiefly designed for the President and his high ministers" to somehow be called into account. It is designed to "bridle" the Executive if he engages in excesses. "It is designed as a method of national inquest into the conduct of public men" (Hamilton, Federalist No. 65). The Framers confined in the Congress the power, if need be, to remove the President in order to strike a delicate balance between a President swollen with power and grown tyrannical and preservation of the independence of the Executive. The nature of impeachment is a narrowly channeled exception to the separation of powers maxim; the Federal Convention of 1787 said that. It limited impeachment to high crimes and misdemeanors and discounted and opposed the term "maladministration." . . .
Common sense would be revolted if we engaged upon this process for petty reasons. Congress has a lot to do. Appropriations, tax reform, health insurance, campaign finance reform, housing, environmental protection, energy sufficiency, mass transportation. Pettiness cannot be allowed to stand in the face of such overwhelming problems. So today we are not being petty. We are trying to be big because the task we have before us is a big one.
Then Jordan juxtaposed a few of the impeachment criteria with some of the president's actions:
Impeachment criteria: James Madison, from the Virginia Ratification Convention. "If the President be connected in any suspicious manner with any person and there be grounds to believe that he will shelter him, he may be impeached."
We have heard time and time again that the evidence reflects payments to the defendants of money. The President had knowledge that these funds were being paid and that these were funds collected for the 1972 Presidential campaign. We know that the President met with Mr. Henry Petersen twenty-seven times to discuss matters related to Watergate and immediately thereafter met with the very persons who were implicated in the information Mr. Petersen was receiving and transmitting to the President. The words are, "if the President be connected in any suspicious manner with any person and there be grounds to believe that he will shelter that person, he may be impeached. . . ."
The South Carolina Ratification Convention impeachment criteria: "Those are impeachable who behave amiss or betray their public trust." Beginning shortly after the Watergate break-in and continuing to the present time, the President has engaged in a series of public statements and actions designed to thwart the lawful investigation by Government prosecutors. Moreover, the President has made public announcements and assertions bearing on the Watergate case which the evidence will show he knew to be false.
James Madison, again at the Constitutional Convention: "A President is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution." The Constitution charges the President with the task of taking care that the laws be faithfully executed, and yet, the President has counseled his aides to commit perjury, willfully disregarded the secrecy of grand jury proceedings, concealed surreptitious entry, attempted to compromise a Federal judge while publicly displaying his cooperation with the processes of criminal justice.
As she had done throughout her remarks, Jordan repeated a key phrase for emphasis, also the words of James Madison: "A President is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution."
It was pure Barbara Jordan common sense when she concluded: "If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offense charged here, then perhaps that 18th century Constitution should be abandoned to a 20th century paper shredder."
The audience had been spellbound during her brief remarks. Chairman Rodino had tears in his eyes. Barbara Jordan took a deep breath when she finished. The committee heard the remaining six speakers after Jordan's presentation and did not adjourn until almost 11:00 P.M. Jordan was exhausted, and Myers was waiting to take her to the car outside the Rayburn Building. There was a crowd waiting for her as she made her way, and people started cheering when they saw her. Someone shouted, "Right on!" One man grabbed her arm and told her he knew that "when you talked you were going to base whatever you were going to say on the law, if you had to go back to Moses."
Jordan was surprised. There had been such strict security during the proceedings, and there had been no applause or comment after each presentation, so she had no idea how her remarks had been received. She did not know that in his summation on the CBS News the reporter Bruce Morton had called Jordan the "best mind on the committee." Later, when she thought about it, Jordan felt that people must have "liked it that I didn't present a harangue." Maybe they knew "I was very serious about what I was doing. I felt that was what I was communicating. That here was a person who had really thought this through and had reached a decision, a considered, sincere, and sensible decision." Telegrams flooded into her office the next day, congratulating her. On Saturday, the Washington Post ran the full text of her remarks. By Monday morning, her mail was overwhelming.
One woman from Arkansas wrote: "I want to let you know how much I appreciated your address last evening. It was one of the finest presentations given by any member of the Committee and it clearly showed the effort and research you had put into its preparation. I think the reference to your race and sex was appropriate. Keep up the good work. The country needs to hear from people who are proud to be Americans and not afraid to express themselves in time of crisis."
An attorney from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, had this to say: "I thought it was a brilliant summary. . . . You might be interested to know that before last night I had considered myself a life-long Republican." From an eighty-year-old woman in Miami: "I sat here with tears in my eyes. . . . I am not a constituent of yours. I am an old woman of eighty years and will not be voting for anyone for very much longer, but I will die with renewed belief that there is still a vast store of honesty, truth and honor among the men and women we have elected to serve us--you have restored my faith in our government."
And from a man in San Francisco: "Thank you once again for helping to restore this country and its people to a pride in our form of government and those who govern." A woman in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, wrote: "You brought the basic principles of the Constitution and the Articles of Impeachment alive." From another man in California: "Eloquence, forthrightness, incisive rationality, and dignity are rare qualities. Yet you, as a black woman from the South, vividly displayed these qualities. That a black woman from the South should have these qualities is no surprise; that the American political process should have progressed far enough to allow you to display these qualities to the entire country is a surprise."
She had notes from African Americans across the nation: "All of us who love all of the Mosaic of this precious land that is our own bless you for your Forceful, scholarly, Eloquent and Epic statement of the case. Now you belong to the ages. 'Free at last.'" Another: "I am 48 years old, black, female. I was born in a mining town in rural Alabama. This should give you an idea of some of the circumstances of my early years . . . nevertheless, I have earned a doctorate degree. . . . I have known many outstanding people--Mrs. Mary McCleod Bethune, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney M. Young Jr., Roy Wilkins--all, in my estimation, the epitomes of the dedicated, concerned, active black. Last night, I met you."
And from a one-hundred-year-old black man: "Madam, after Listen to you in Impeachment committee which you speak so eloquence made me Happy. Because I was Born in Texas in 1874. . . . I know you had some Bad Days to make it where you are." He asked her for a photograph of herself, "that I mite keep it the Rest of My Life."
The letters came from naturalized citizens as well. "When you speak of that great Document the 'Constitution of our beloved United States' it brings tears to my eyes. You see I am European born and a citizen by 'choice.' I pledged to protect and pledge allegiance to it, not to the President, whoever he may be."
Many Americans were ready to run Barbara Jordan for president of the United States on the spot: "You have changed the minds of myself, my wife, our relatives and all our friends, for the good of our country, as before we watched you on T.V. we thought only a man should be the President, but all of us will vote for you or any black man or lady." And from another: "Your scholarship was breathtaking tonight; your logic convincing; your sincerity unimpeachable; your power and beauty and dignity overwhelming. When you run for President, you can count on my vote."
Of the opening statements of the thirty-eight members of the Judiciary Committee, many were eloquent, some were agonizingly heartfelt, and others were scholarly and erudite. Yet Barbara Jordan's was the one that resonated with ordinary Americans. She became a national sensation overnight. Houstonians were so proud, they sent flowers and flooded her office with calls. One supporter bought twenty-five billboards all over Houston and plastered them with the message: "Thank you--Barbara Jordan--for explaining our constitution."
What was going on? What was so moving, so inspirational about Barbara Jordan's eleven minutes on national television? Was it the voice? The words? Her very blackness? Perhaps it was the sheer authenticity of this woman who had spent most of her life on the fringe of American mainstream society but was now inside and able to see--and explain--to all of the other Americans who would never be inside, or privy to the high secrets of politics, just what was right, as well as what was wrong, with the American system of law and the people sworn to uphold it. In one sense, Jordan was like the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, who had a certain confidence in the moral coherence of a world in which justice and righteousness should not be violated, mocked, or nullified and who, like others who have spoken in the prophetic tradition, are passionate poets, moral energizers, and discerning social analysts. Jordan's cadence and rhythm did give a poetic ring to her words, creating emotions that touched the hearts as well as the minds of her listeners. But her words conveyed information, too. Her analysis of the legal and moral issues was clear and instructional, and her obvious faith in the Constitution provided a moral energy sorely needed to deal with the whole morass of Watergate corruption. Her passion conveyed the clarity of righteousness and justice. Andrew Young said that when Jordan spoke, "It sounds like the heavens have opened up." The writer William Broyles, the former Newsweek editor who had observed Jordan closely in Texas, believed the religious parallels were apt: her voice was "an evangelical voice, a voice designed to bring to the fold the presence of the Lord." After a year of Watergate revelations, resignations, details, and denials, Americans clearly needed a voice of reason from "on high," and Barbara Jordan gave it to them.
|Ch. 2||The Ancestors||7|
|Ch. 3||The Community||20|
|Ch. 4||The Gift of Voice||35|
|Ch. 5||The Transition||60|
|Ch. 6||The Joy of Politics||74|
|Ch. 7||The Right to Vote||91|
|Ch. 8||The Pursuit of Power||109|
|Ch. 9||Friends in High Places||130|
|Ch. 10||The Opportunity||145|
|Ch. 11||Running for Congress||160|
|Ch. 12||The U.S. Congress||173|
|Ch. 14||"One of Those Texas Tribal Things"||227|
|Ch. 15||The Voting Rights Act of 1975||240|
|Ch. 18||Withdrawal and Renewal||301|
|Ch. 19||American Patriot||324|
|Ch. 20||Final Assignment||335|
BARBARA CHARLINE JORDAN was born February 21, 1936, the third daughter and last child of Benjamin Meredith and Arlyne Patten Jordan. The fortunes of Ben and Arlyne were good enough to pay Dr. Thelma Patten, a relative of Arlyne's father, John Ed, to deliver the baby at home instead of in Houston's charity hospital, where the first two Jordan girls had been born. Ben Jordan saw his daughter almost immediately after the delivery, and his first comment was, "Why is she so dark?"
From that moment, skin and body--color, hue, texture, size, condition--began to determine who Barbara Jordan was and how she reacted to her life. She learned quite early that the degree of blackness for a black child mattered. It mattered to her father, and it mattered in the white world, which would be beyond her imagination until she was almost an adult. It also mattered in the black world, her world, the Fifth Ward of Houston, Texas, and would hit her with full force when she was in the all-black Phillis Wheatley High School in the early 1950s. There, her color, her size, her hair texture, and her features would determine and limit her choices. "Color-struck" teachers favored light-skinned students, who were given the honors and awards, the opportunities for college and jobs. They even escaped the harshness of encounters with the white law. A common saying in the African American neighborhoods was, "The lighter the skin, the lighter the sentence."
By the time she was a teenager in the early 1950s, Barbara Jordan had been confronted by all of America's negative messages about skin color: pitch-black, charcoal, cocoa, bronze, copper, chestnut, mahogany, smoke, milky brown, high yellow--so many shades and variations, but one consistent message. "The world had decided that we were all Negro, but that some of us were more Negro than others," Jordan remembered. "The whole system ... was saying to us that you achieved more, you went further, you had a better chance, you got the awards, if you were not black-black with kinky hair. Black was bad and you didn't want to be black, and so the message we were getting was that you were really in tough shape and it was too bad that you were so unfortunate that your skin was totally black and there was no light there anywhere." It was a particularly tough message to get from your own father.
Barbara looked like her father's father, Charles Jordan, who was dark and strong-featured, with a ridge of bone over his eyes that gave him the appearance of stubborn strength. Ben Jordan did not resemble his father. He had lighter skin and the finer features of his mother, Mary. Tall, handsome, of medium color, and imbued with the pride of a Tuskegee man, Ben Jordan wanted his daughters to represent his success and God's glory. In the African American community in the 1930s, light skin and delicate features were the visible marks that divided the educated from the ignorant, the well-off from the poor, the attractive from the plain. Black was not beautiful. It was a burden. For a girl-child, the degree of melanin pigmentation in her skin and the turn of her features mattered. The shape of her nose or the texture of her hair determined acceptance, opportunity, and status. Ben Jordan knew all of that, and he knew he would have to demand much more of his new baby girl to compensate for her blackness. Mind, will, discipline, work, achievement--those attributes would be the hope, and the challenge, for this child.
The pain of being a dark-skinned female goes back to slavery and intensified with Reconstruction. The preferential treatment of lighter-skinned, mixed-race African Americans by whites had "laid the groundwork for a pattern of color classism in black America." It was the lighter-skinned African Americans who had the first opportunities for education and the benefits of freedom in post-Reconstruction America. Certain churches, neighborhoods, colleges, sororities and fraternities, social clubs, even political clubs, harbored a light-colored elite. At one time African Americans had their own "Blue Vein Society"; admission to this Nashville group depended on skin color. An applicant had to be fair enough for the spidery network of purplish veins at the wrist to be visible to a panel of expert judges.
The separate social and educational paths taken by light-skinned and dark-skinned African Americans during Reconstruction divided their world. By the turn of the century, the light-skinned mulattos were the intellectual and political leaders. They were the doctors, lawyers, teachers, writers, and entertainers, admired and emulated by the rest.
The prevalence of skin prejudice began to weaken after the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, and all but disappeared in the African American community with the resurgence of black pride in the 1960s and 1970s. But even before black pride, before "Black is beautiful," before "I am somebody," Barbara Jordan got comfortable with herself. By the time she was in the third grade, in 1944, she knew in her guts that she was somebody special. It did not matter to her how black she was. If someone didn't like her because of her color, she just thought, "Well, those are stupid people, and I don't have time to deal with them." Quite early, she had the self-confidence to transcend the limits of her body, whether imposed by color, culture, physical capability--or stupidity! It was a pattern of being and behavior that stayed with her until the day she died. To all who thought that black was not as good as white, her retort was, "That's a colossal lie!"
All of her life, she was determined to discredit the naysayers, the people for whom color determined quality or human worth, "the people who thought you were inferior ... because you were born in certain economic conditions, because you're a certain race, because your hair is a certain texture--that because of that you are not as good as the person seated next to you with blond hair and blue eyes." Quite early, she adopted a belief, with all of the considerable passion she could muster, in a fundamental human truth: "You've got to be able to love yourself--love yourself strongly, and not let anybody disabuse you of your self-respect." When anyone, black or white, challenged her--or even really looked at her--they knew it was true. She had worked very hard, however, to create this deep reservoir of self-respect and belief in herself.
She often quoted the former slave Frederick Douglass, who taught himself to read and write and who decided that education was the key to his success. "Education unfits a man to be a slave," he said. Jordan would tell her audiences, "If you want to be free ... free in your heart, free in your mind, free in your movement--free!--that means get something in your head." And that was always her driving force--to get something in her head in order to be free.
The character, certainty, and command at the core of Barbara Jordan, the powerful woman whose voice could move men and women to tears, insight, inspiration, or action, came from that blackness and from her acceptance of it. She took pride in her own inner power. "The greatest motivation ... has to come from inside you.... If you don't think very much of yourself then you are not going to succeed."
The person who taught her to be proud of herself, to be proud of her blackness, was not her father, Ben Jordan, or his father, the dark-skinned Charles Jordan, but her maternal grandfather, John Ed Patten. Her relationship with this old man, and with all of his problems, taught her to be free within herself, even within the confines of her segregated, color-constrained world in Houston, Texas.
"Grandpa didn't want me to be like the other kids.... He would say this very directly. There were kids who lived just behind my grandfather's house ... that he did not want me to associate with," she said. John Ed Patten told her, "`You just trot your own horse and don't get into the same rut as everyone else.'" She always believed that Grandpa Patten considered himself "quite different, just a little cut above the ordinary man, black or white. That was continually driven into me in those years: Look, this man can make it, my grandfather. He can put together whatever combination of things necessary and just kind of make it."
Knowing John Ed Patten is essential to understanding Barbara Jordan, but his story is so rooted in and covered up by the troubles of the past that we can glimpse only snatches. It begins, of course, with the enslavement of African Americans in the South. Slavery, war, freedom, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and all of the political struggles that flowed from these events shaped Jordan's Grandpa Patten--and through him, her.
Barbara Jordan knew little of her Grandpa Patten's story, except that it combined hope and failure, triumph and tragedy. It certainly shaped, however, her view of black history in general. In 1981 she told the Urban League: "History may have consigned to blacks race as an unending negative which will support failure and oppression. That does not have to be the case. Blacks can reject history's negatives and call upon the strengths endemic to us and make America work for us." And then she asked, "But is it possible?"
Barbara Jordan's life was her answer to her own question. Did America work for her? Did she reject history's negatives? Could she transcend race as an unending negative? Her personal answer was a resounding yes! Her patriot's belief in the American Dream was grounded in e pluribus unum. "We are diverse, and yet we can be one," she believed. "Each person must be willing to tolerate the other person in their differences and in their inner souls."
Barbara Jordan's path to her inner soul--and to America's--was laid for her before she was born. We see her first "landmark" in 1891, forty-five years before her birth--appropriately, in the legislative chambers of the state Capitol Building in Austin, Texas. There, a script unfolds that Barbara Charline Jordan would star in, win acclaim for, and complete. There, her personal story begins.
Posted May 23, 2012
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Posted June 3, 2009
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