Generous Orthodoxy  

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Lacrosse teams, debate teams, Barbara Jordan

Did you ever hear of a debate team gang-raping women? What is the matter with these football teams and lacrosse teams, and what is the matter with their coaches? "Boys will be boys"? What a craven excuse for genuine masculine leadership, mentoring, teaching.

These thoughts are occasioned not only by the lack of any suitable response thus far from the lacrosse coach and/or the president of Duke University to a recent highly publicized incident, but also by a stunning hour-long program just heard yesterday on NPR about Barbara Jordan. Are your children and grandchildren looking for heroes? Don't let them be satisfied with basketball players and hip-hop stars. Tell them about Barbara Jordan, for whom the Constitution of the United States was a decree straight from heaven.

She was raised in the New Hope Baptist Church in Houston, where she was expected to spend the entire day on Sunday. You might think that sounds like drudgery, she said, "but it was very important for me and it remains important today." Who were her major childhood influences? Her father and her grandfather. She spoke, with her signature eloquence, about the expectations they had for her, and the standards they held her to. She was "not self-effacing," she said with a chuckle; "if my grandfather was going to tell me to be my own person, I was going to get out there and be it." But this was not some program of "self-expression." Intensely hard work and dedication were called for. The self-confidence gained from her father and grandfather were essential to the ascendancy of a dark, large woman, because lighter-skinned, petite black girls were generally more favored. She arrived at all-black Texas Southern with a supercharged work ethic and the good fortune to find herself in the care of famed debate coach Tom Freeman (an African-American original, to judge from his interview on the program-- he still coaches debate teams today). Freeman's young black men and women won matches against universities all over the country. Freeman said later that beating Harvard was like winning the World Series.

Barbara Jordan was trained as a star debater by Freeman. She was always a superb speaker, but was not able to formulate positions on the spot, to rebut without preparation, until she had had four years under his tutelage. From Texas Southern she went on to Boston University (historically welcoming to blacks) for a law degree, and then back home to Texas and the House of Representatives where LBJ took her under his wing and pushed her into key positions (over the objections of his aides, as Joe Califano ruefully remembered on the program). She was only a freshman member of Congress, but already her fellow Representatives were seeking her advice and counsel. It was not long before she was catapulted into stardom.

It was the year of Watergate, and Barbara Jordan was the junior member among 38 Congressmen on the House Judiciary Committee. The whole nation was watching-- in bars, at coffee breaks, in store windows-- while the committee debated whether or not to investigate the President. The members gave speeches in turn, beginning with the senior members-- 38 speeches. Barbara Jordan was last. Providence arranged it so that she was on during prime time. As soon as her sonorous tones emerged from her imposing frame, the nation was hooked. "If God were a woman," Bob Woodward reflected, "that would be the voice." In the space of twenty minutes, she became history professor to the nation, the voice of the Framers redivivus, the conscience of America. And because she stated so clearly that "We the people..." had not originally included her, a black woman, but now did, she symbolized both the struggles and the triumphs of every American who had known repression. Once she had finished, Dan Rather remembered later, there was no doubt that there would be an investigation. Nixon resigned two weeks later.

She became an instant celebrity. People mobbed her everywhere she went. They loaded onto her all their hopes and dreams, said Rather. She was a genuine phenomenon. Her subsequent illnesses and premature retirement and death (ten years ago yesterday) feel like an incalculable loss. Indeed, it could be argued that whereas Martin Luther King's death assured his place in history because his great work was done and (as the mural at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery depicts him) flights of angels sang him to his rest, the deaths of Malcolm X and Barbara Jordan appear to this day to have been cruelly out of synch. At least, that is the way it seems to me. All indications were that Malcolm was changing radically in his outlook and was moving to become one of the most excellent influences on young black men that America would see. As for Barbara Jordan, we desperately need some one like her in politics today. How she would disdain the posturing of Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney! Alas, there is no one of Jordan’s heroic, unimpeachable stature-- in either party, of any color, of either gender -- anywhere presently in view.