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Thinking Out Loud

Truth to Power and Privilege

by Michael Jinkins | Jan 19, 2016

The Ethical Legacy of Barbara Jordan

Power and PrivilegeIf you are of a certain age, you may remember her speech. I was a college student, midway through the summer term, glued to my television set that evening, as U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Jordan spoke. The date was July 25, 1974, and we were in the midst of a national crisis. Citizens across the country were about to receive a lesson in constitutional law and democracy that we would never forget. Please allow me to quote from Barbara Jordan’s comments, and as I do, I encourage you to bring to mind the power of that voice, that utterly peerless, commanding tone and authority:

“Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble of 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 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. And 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. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”
[Barbara Jordan, Speaking the Truth with Eloquent Thunder, edited by Max Sherman (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), p. 27.]

Recently I was reflecting anew on Barbara Jordan’s words as I returned to a book given to me many years ago by my friend Bill Powers, at the time the dean of the Law School at the University of Texas and subsequently the president of that university. The book Bill gave me is Philip Bobbitt’s Constitutional Fate: Theory of the Constitution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982). In his book, surely one of the most fascinating texts in the field of constitutional law, Bobbitt argues that too often, when we think about the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, we do not necessarily take ethics into account. In a chapter titled, “Good and Bad/Good and Evil,” Bobbitt writes:

“Ignoring the existence of ethical arguments has had other costs as well: not only candor, but simplicity too is sacrificed. Most importantly, the exile of ethical argument from the domain of legitimate constitutional discussion has denied an important resource to the creative judge who exploits all the various approaches [i.e., to constitutional interpretation, including the historical, the textual, structural, prudential and doctrinal approaches] from time to time and case to case.” (p. 137)

Bobbitt’s comments could be used as a sort of hermeneutical lens through which to read anew Jordan’s words, spoken originally on that summer evening in 1974. Our faith in the U.S. Constitution is not an abstract allegiance, nor an adherence to some ancient standard forever fixed in stone. It is a living confidence in the ability of “We, the People” to respond ethically to the challenges of living together with all our differences over the long haul of history.

Barbara Jordan alludes to the challenge of forging and honoring among us “We, the People” in the keynote address she offered two years later at the Democratic National Convention in New York City.

The driving question behind her address that evening was, “Who then will speak for the common good?” Again, she began her speech with a historical reference that is also an intimate reference, a very personal reference:

“It was one hundred and forty-four years ago that members of the Democratic Party first met in convention to select a presidential candidate,” she said. “But there is something different about tonight. There is something special about tonight. What is different? What is special?” she asked, “I, Barbara Jordan, am a keynote speaker.” She continues:  “A lot of years have passed since 1832, and during that time it would have been most unusual for any national political party to ask a Barbara Jordan to deliver a keynote address. But tonight, here I am. And I feel that notwithstanding the past that my presence here is one additional bit of evidence that the American Dream need not forever be deferred.” After reflecting on the variety of things she might speak about on such an occasion, given this historic opportunity, she tells us what she will speak about: “We are a people in a quandary about the present. We are a people in search of our future. We are a people in search of a national community.” (Jordan, Eloquent Thunder, pp. 35-36)

In the past two years, I have often longed to hear Barbara Jordan’s voice again.* As we have witnessed national tragedies and national disgraces, as we have endured patches of genuine soul-searching, even repentance, but also moments of disappointing denial, I have wished that I might hear Barbara speak truth to power and privilege, as only she could.

Her historical perspective would, doubtless, have helped us think about how far we have come with reference to race in America; but I firmly believe that she would not let any of us off the hook. She would also remind us of how much further “We, the People” have to go to make “justice for all” more than just a rhetorical flourish on an old document.

Her deep personal faith in God would remind us that we are not a law unto ourselves, but that we owe our lives and all we are, including our lives as “We, the People,” to God. Her faith in God would remind us of our own limits, our blind spots and our tendencies to corrupt and undermine even our best inclinations and motivations.

Her profound faith, “whole,” “complete” and “total” in the power of our U.S. Constitution to do good, to speak for the common good, would remind us also that we are not helpless, that we have national resources that transcend party allegiances and ideologies and our own narrow self-interests.

In a time, when so many citizens are prepared to throw up their hands and give up even trying to construct a common good in the midst of dissent and dissension, I wish I could hear Barbara pray the prayer she offered at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1978. On that occasion, this daughter of a Baptist preacher and one of the most respected political leaders and teachers of her time, prayed to God:

“Teach us to know that if we are to be successful stewards, we must be your servants. We know that we cannot solve the many difficulties which beset your people. But you can. We cannot reconcile people whose prejudices and narrow-sighted self-interest prevent brotherhood. But you can. We cannot infuse hope in those who despair. But you can.” (Jordan, Eloquent Thunder, p. 68)


*I am grateful to Texas State Senator Max Sherman for this wonderful collection of Barbara Jordan’s speeches, which includes a compact disc on which we can indeed again hear her voice.

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