Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Barbara Jordan: 'I never had to apologize'

Search on women and public speaking -- or ask your network about eloquent women, as we did recently on Linked In -- and Barbara Jordan's name always seems to come up more than once. For many who heard her in the 1960s and 70s, it's her voice that still resonates--and her ability to put simply some of the most complex ideas in democracy.
She's another barrier-breaker: the first African-American since Reconstruction to be elected to the Texas Senate, the first female African-American from the South to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and the first woman--and African-American--to deliver a keynote address to the Democratic national convention.

But this was no shy role model for women in public speaking. The citation for a late-career award from West Point noted her early interest in public speaking:
Deciding early in life to be something out of the ordinary, she honed her gift for public speaking in high school and later at Texas Southern University, where she won national recognition in competitive debate and oratory. After graduating magna cum laude, she enrolled in the Boston University School of Law.
Many feel her finest speech happened on July 25, 1974, as her opening statement to the House Judiciary Committee's proceedings on the impeachment of Richard Nixon. With speed, eloquence and just a touch of humor, she opened with an acknowledgement that a black woman member of the House of Representatives might have a grievance with the Constitution she was about to uphold--and solved that issue neatly for the audience, establishing her authority to question the President under the law, never once mentioning her gender or race, but letting the televised image speak for itself:
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 seventeenth 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 just 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.
An oral history interview with Jordan by the LBJ Presidential Library lets her describe that subtle approach: "You don't have to focus on that [race] specifically nor stridently, you just have to be there. And when you are there, black people are represented." Jordan also notes that "wherever I travel no one has forgotten that speech." Televised in prime time and watched by millions, it prompted an enormous public reaction, swaying many citizens about the case for impeachment--and offering what many considered the best civics lessons they'd ever had on the Constitution. It ranks number 13 in the top 100 American political speeches -- and Jordan, one of a handful of women on that list, is the highest-ranked woman political speaker, the only woman in the top 10 and on a par with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy in placing twice in the top 15.

The same oral history discovers that her confidence came from an independence instilled in her by her grandfather:

I never had to apologize for whatever I was doing. I was not self-effacing. Now, some people may say that that's bad, but I always figured that if he said that I was to be my own person, that I could just go out there and be it, which I did do. So I didn't look back and I didn't look around for excuses for non-achievement. I just decided that what one wants to do, one proceeds to do it.... That doesn't work for everybody...I have to remind myself that it worked for me, but it does not work for everybody.
Earlier this year, her speeches were collected in Barbara Jordan: Speaking the Truth with Eloquent Thunder (Louann Atkins Temple Women and Culture Series), edited by her friend Max Sherman and published by the University of Texas Press. Sherman notes that, in an interview shortly before her death, she was asked to define ethics and did so in an eloquent--and utterly simple way:
Ethical behavior means being honest, telling the truth, and doing what you said you would do.
The book also includes some of the speeches on a DVD; you can see an interview with Sherman and an excerpt from the DVD here. The university includes an archive of text, audio and video of Jordan speeches here. The texts are moving, but the audio's even more so. If you remember Jordan's speeches, tell us what made them memorable to you; if you're new to her speaking, listen, read and react in the comments below. (Photo credit: Larry Murphy, University of Texas at Austin News and Information Service.)

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