At night Dowling Street is one of the toughest streets in Houston. From its ramshackle bars and flophouses bursts a surging stream of sex and energy that can easily explode into violence. But during the day Dowling is one of the main thoroughfares of the Third Ward, the cultural and intellectual heart of black Houston. Black artist Edsel Cramer has lived at the corner of Dowling and Wheeler for 25 years. To this brick bungalow, nestled amid convenience stores and bars, Barbara Jordan came in the spring of 1973 to sit for a portrait. She was just beginning her first session as a member of the U.S. Congress, and her former colleagues in the Texas Senate, still flush with affection for her, had decided on the unprecedented step of commissioning her portrait to hang in the Texas Capitol alongside portraits of Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, Lyndon Johnson, and Jefferson Davis. She made six visits to Cramer’s studio, always arriving precisely on time and staying exactly two hours.
Cramer has spent years studying the faces of his subjects, searching out the planes and angles, the subtleties of bone structure and coloring, that define appearance and character. He did the same with Jordan, isolating the elements of her face and putting them back together on canvas. “Studying her up close you see exactly how intense she is,” Cramer remembers. “There are fine lines etched around her eyes, the sort of lines that mean stress, hard work, and determination. Her head is like a bull’s head; across her brow is a lump of bone that stands out like the forehead of a bull. That look of bull-like strength is part of her character. But the most impressive thing about her is she is simply so big—both in size and personality. I just couldn’t paint normal scale no matter how hard I tried, even though I prefer to keep the scale of my paintings down. But her painting just kept coming out too big; I couldn’t help but make her larger than life.”
Cramer seemed to consider this some professional failure on his part, as though his hand had failed to restrain his brush. If it’s some consolation, Barbara Jordan’s images have always had a way of becoming larger than life. For example, here are some verbal portraits painted of her lately by journalists and other politicians: “a genius”; “a hero”; “the best politician of this century”; “the salvation of American politics”; “a mythic figure”; “the main inspiration for a troubled time”; “a woman of high destiny”; “a cross between Lyndon Johnson and Mahatma Gandhi.” Her reception at the Democratic National Convention in New York City this summer dwarfed that of every other politician, with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter. A legitimate American hero like John Glenn was given short shrift by a crowd eager for her magic, like an audience impatient with preliminaries and ready for the main event. When her filmed introduction began, and her disembodied voice was heard saying, “If there are any patriots left in this country, then I am one,” the convention roared into life. This was the woman whose eloquent speech (“My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total”) for the impeachment of Richard Nixon elevated that grave process to the level of a national rite. To a country wracked with the longest war in its history, torn by racial division, unsure of its institutions and its future, she furnished clear hope. A Southern woman from the race of slaves, she dramatically affirmed, in spite of slavery, civil war, and segregation, her faith in our original ideals. She inspires the belief that one day the burden of race may be set aside. The first black state senator since 1882, the first black congresswoman from the South, now bandied about as possibly a U.S. senator, and—who knows?—perhaps the first black president, she has established her place as the symbolic trailblazer of Texas politics.
On the other hand, she says she does not want to be a symbol, the first black this or the first black that. She wants to be seen for her performance on the playing field. “I am neither a black politician nor a female politician,” she says. “Just a politician. A professional politician.” But no amount of insisting that’s all she is seems to work. People don’t want to see her as a politician. If she were white, perhaps then they would. Then the ambition would shine clearly through the rhetoric; then the opportunism in her political alliances would be obvious; then she, not John Connally, would be seen as the true heir to Lyndon Johnson’s wheeling and dealing skills. To a good politician the symbolism of Jordan’s position—being Southern, black, and female—would be prime political capital, not to be risked on quixotic causes, but to be invested wisely for political ends. Among the greatest of political ends, of course, is personal advancement. And not only does Jordan continually remind people she is a politician, she also doesn’t make a big secret about wanting to go places. For those who believe her symbolic position as a black woman with power imposes the grave responsibility to consider issues over advancement, this personal ambition does not always sit well. “I have watched Barbara Jordan for almost ten years,” says one critic. “And I have yet to see any evidence she is interested in anything beyond the advancement of Barbara Jordan.”
Now, politicians have been accused of sacrificing principle to ambition and expediency since long before Julius Caesar. In Jordan’s case this accusation is made mostly by whites—and a few black militants—who think she isn’t doing enough for liberal causes or her people. On the other hand, even her most skeptical black constituents seem to applaud not only her performance but also her ambition. They say they are tired of political kamikaze pilots who crash and burn against the warships of the establishment. They want someone who can hold his own with the toughest movers and shakers, someone with staying power. Barbara Jordan has staying power. Although they can point to few concrete examples, they continue to believe she is using the establishment, and not the other way around. This gap between what she says she is and how she is perceived is a paradox; almost everything about Barbara Jordan is. That’s what being larger than life is all about. Her personality ranges from frosty, devastating dignity to warm, humorous folksiness. Her distinctive voice seems without root or place. Personal details about her are few and closely guarded. Much of her time seems spent in rehearsal for some future role, but only she knows what it might be.
Gonna Be Somebody
The best place to begin understanding Barbara Jordan is with a brief tour of black Houston. The primary black neighborhoods are Third Ward and Fifth Ward. Barbara Jordan had her portrait painted in Third Ward, which is just west of the University of Houston and southeast of downtown. Fifth Ward is north of the Ship Channel, northeast of downtown. Until the Elysian Viaduct was built in 1955, Fifth Ward was connected only tenuously to Houston. It was the poorer neighborhood, the brawn to Third Ward’s brains. Like black communities in every Southern town, it was built and owned primarily by whites, who expected at the bare minimum a 20 percent return on the block after block of shotgun houses (so called because you could fire a shotgun through the front door and hit everything in the house). Since the city fathers proceeded on the dubious assumption that blacks paid no taxes—and since until 1945 fewer than 5 percent of the city’s blacks were registered to vote—paved streets, street lights, sewers, and other municipal services were slow in coming.
Even the cramped poverty of black Houston shone like a beacon for the rural blacks of East Texas and West Louisiana. From 84,000 blacks in 1940, it grew to more than 350,000 in the seventies, more blacks than Atlanta, more than New Orleans, the largest black population in the South. There are more blacks in Houston today than the entire 1940 population of the city. The old black neighborhoods were steadily swallowed up into the larger boundaries of the expanding black city. And as Houston grew by annexing the white suburbs that surrounded it, blacks took over virtually the entire east side of old Houston. From well north of Fifth Ward, threading across the Ship Channel and warehouse district to Third Ward, then spreading south to Sunnyside and beyond, black Houston stands like a large expanding hourglass in the center of Houston, cutting the city north to south and separating the more prosperous west side from the industrial east side, the port, and the chemical plants of the Ship Channel.
Even though some black leaders worry about a loss of community identity amid such growth, black Houston has at least as much center to it as white Houston does. The old neighborhoods of Fifth and Third Ward still provide the character. Texas Southern University, the black newspaper, and most business and professional offices are in Third Ward. The black elite lives there, in the former mansions of the Cullens and the Weingartens along MacGregor Bayou; so does the black middle class, mostly in the abandoned Jewish neighborhoods just east of Main Street and north of Hermann Park. Still, there has not been in Houston the sort of second- and third-generation inherited black wealth that has dominated black communities in Atlanta and New Orleans. Black Houston has been a more open place, just as white Houston has. That is true of Fifth Ward as well, which remains the grass-roots heart of the black community. The labor unions are there, as are the largest and most fundamentalist black churches, the largest black funeral parlors, and the wealthiest blacks like Mack Hannah and Don Robey. Wheatley, the Fifth Ward high school, usually wins in football and basketball; Yates, the Third Ward high school, usually excels in academics and debate. Fifth Ward is a poorer and tougher place.
Barbara Jordan is from Fifth Ward. A few years after her birth in 1936, her father, B.M. Jordan, became a Baptist minister. To help support his family he kept his job as a warehouseman. When Barbara was in her teens, the family moved to Campbell Street, just east of Lockwood near the corner of Campbell and Erastus; she and her mother still live there. Most of the houses on the street are shotgun shacks, house after identical house about sixteen feet wide and five feet apart, each constructed with a center door, a small porch, and a window to either side. Since the houses are so small, a good deal of the life on Campbell Street occurs in front yards. Everybody knows everything about their neighbors; it is a small-town feeling that much of white America, with its air conditioning and fixed-glass windows, has unwittingly let slip away. Immediately behind the houses across the street is the vast expanse of the main Houston freight yard, where thousands of trailer trucks and hundreds of railroad cars are constantly in motion, supplying Houston’s booming commerce. But Campbell Street, with its corner bar, Lou’s Beauty Nook, and the Tornado Motel, might as well be light years away from that cosmopolitan prosperity.
The distinctive qualities of Barbara Jordan—her speaking ability, her ambition, her charisma, and, of course, her size—all developed early. Reverend Jordan’s churches were solidly missionary and fundamentalist, the churches that for three hundred years had promised black Americans salvation from a world of tears and travail. On Sundays, Barbara and her two older sisters would get up behind their father after his sermon and sing gospel music, the old-fashioned kind where they clapped and swayed and affirmed the joyous promise of their religion. The father prided himself on speaking correctly, in full, rounded, unaccented tones. To him correct speech was a mark of good breeding and class, and he insisted his daughters speak correctly. The common assumption that Jordan developed her speaking style at Boston University Law School could not be more wrong. “She had it in the cradle,” says Tom Freeman, her debate coach at Texas Southern University (TSU). “She did get a little JFK cadence in her voice from Boston,” says her old friend Andrew Jefferson, a former state district judge and a talented politician. “Those of us who knew her well noticed a little extra when she came back from Boston—a sort of embellishment, a little frosting on the cake.” So far as Jordan herself is concerned, “I don’t have an accent. I just talk like me. I have talked this way as long as I can remember.”
Jordan’s attitude is disingenuous, at the least, since her voice is much of her image. It underscores her aloofness and dignity, it lifts her beyond region, it masks any fuzzy thinking or lowly ambition, and it scares hell out of people. On hearing it for the first time, one awed young woman said, “I turned on my television set and thought I was listening to God.” It sounds, as Congressman Andrew Young of Georgia says, “like the heavens have opened up.” The religious parallels are apt, because the voice is an evangelical voice, a voice designed to bring to the fold the presence of the Lord. For that voice, for much of her ambition, and for her exacting standards of excellence, she can thank her father.
Reverend Jordan wanted his three daughters to become music teachers; two did. In a segregated society, being a music teacher was one of the best ambitions a young black woman could have, and Reverend Jordan insisted on the best. “I would come home with five A’s and a B,” Barbara Jordan told Molly Ivins of the Texas Observer, “and my father would say, ‘Why do you have a B?’” She wanted to please her father, to meet and even exceed his standards; but she wanted to be more than a music teacher. “I always wanted to be something unusual,” she says, “I would never be content with being run of the mill, I was thinking about being a pharmacist, but then I asked myself, ‘Whoever heard of an outstanding pharmacist?’” When she was in the tenth grade at Phillis Wheatley High School, a Chicago lawyer named Edith Sampson addressed the Career Day assembly. Sampson was crisp, competent, confident. Then and there, Barbara Jorda decided that was what she was going to be. At first, her father told a teacher who encouraged this ambition to “stay out of his family’s affairs”; that the law was no profession for a woman. But he came to encourage her “to do whatever I thought I could.” (Reverend Jordan died in 1972, the day after he attended his daughter’s Governor for a Day ceremonies in Austin.)
If anyone who knew her as a girl remembers Barbara Jordan having any doubts about herself, they aren’t letting on. “She has always been, even as a little girl, very sure of herself,” says Mary Justice York, who has known her since the third grade. “We knew from the very beginning she would do something different from the rest of us. She has always been large. … In those days, the kids who were the leaders were usually slim and pretty, with nice, long hair and pretty brown skin … but Barbara—it wasn’t that she tried to be the leader or strove for it—we just recognized her.” A.C. Herald, who was her homeroom teacher at Wheatley, remembers that “she had, even then, such an amazing sense of self.” She had a weight problem, she wasn’t attractive—“My mother says not to make me pretty,” she told her portrait painter—but she was smart, and above all, she had boundless ambition and belief in herself. Apparently the sight of an overweight young black girl (she entered TSU at 16) going about the normal business of growing up in the Fifth Ward with this doomsday voice, this fierce sense of dignity, this tenacious idea of herself and her future, didn’t seem strange. When people who knew her then are asked if she didn’t seem a little, well, phony, with that voice and everything, their response is consistently some variation of: “No, not really. She was just Barbara. That’s just how she was. We always knew she was gonna be somebody.”
At TSU she was everywhere; she wanted to get to the top of everything. She ran for freshman class president, and lost to Andrew Jefferson; she ran for student body president, and lost by six votes. Finally, she was elected editor of the yearbook. But she really shined in debate, where she was the only woman. Her freshman year, Tom Freeman, the debate coach, told her she wasn’t able to speak extemporaneously, and so kept her from doing refutations. “She went on to become one of the best debaters at refutation I have ever had,” Freeman recalls. “I think when I told her she wasn’t good at it that it really challenged her.” While she was at TSU the debate team was spectacular. They toured the country, beating everyone, including Harvard. They integrated the Baylor Forensic Tournament and won the first three years they competed. From TSU, Jordan went on to Boston University Law School, where she was the only woman in her class.
At this point a certain perspective might be helpful. Until she went north with the TSU debate team, Barbara Jordan had lived completely in the segregated society of black Houston. Even when the debate team integrated the regional meet in Waco, they couldn’t stay at the hotel with the other teams. Instead they were put up at all-black Paul Quinn College. The city Barbara Jordan left to attend Boston University in 1956 had segregated taxis, restaurants and lunch counters, restrooms, hospital wards, swimming pools, churches, labor unions, and schools; the handful of black policemen could not arrest whites or eat in the segregated city cafeteria; blacks could not vote in the Democratic primary—the only election in one-party Texas that mattered—until 1944. In 1956, black Houston was a separate city of 200,000 people. Its leading citizens were small businessmen and the leaders of the segregated institutions—the ministers, the educators, the union officials. These men also served as ambassadors to the white society—they lobbied to get a road paved or a library built. In such a society, if you were young, gifted, and ambitious, you had to become aware, in a way no white could really understand, of the limits on your ambitions. You could rise only so far. You had to stay in the black society since the great opportunities of the larger white world were closed. That was what “knowing your place” meant.
The accepted current view of this system, as expressed by the Supreme Court, is that it created a “badge of inferiority” the white society’s claim that separate could be equal was false: separate was inherently unequal. But the vast effort to dismantle this system has obscured certain of its more positive elements. For example, today many Houston blacks believe their schools have lost something crucial. “Give us back our black principals and teachers,” they say. “The new white teachers don’t understand our children, they don’t enforce discipline or values, they don’t make them learn.” When Barbara Jordan was at Wheatley High School they taught pride. “They taught us dignity,” says one of her contemporaries. The segregated black society was ironically a breeding ground of the very fundamental values white Americans were coming to question. Houston blacks were pro-military, pro-education, and, in their own way, pro-American. “I can still get goose bumps when I hear the Star Spangled Banner,” says Jordan, who is fond of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in her speeches. While blacks most likely burned with a common rage at the humiliation of segregation, they also made the best of things within it. And they were proud of their schools, proud of their athletic teams, proud of their churches, proud of themselves.
Barbara Jordan, for one, has never given the slightest indication she feels “a badge of inferiority” because she went to Wheatley and TSU, or because she grew up in a segregated society. In fact, there must be few pleasures sweeter than going to a debate tournament and beating all the teams you aren’t allowed to stay in the same hotel with. And when TSU traveled north and beat the best debate teams America had to offer, that must have dispelled any doubts she might have had about just how good she was. But ability was one thing; ambition was another. Satchel Paige was one of the best pitchers who ever lived, but he only got to play in the major leagues in the twilight of his career. Barbara Jordan was to become the Jackie Robinson of Texas politics, but it would not be easy. When she returned home with her law degree from Boston University in 1959, the first black to win elective office in Houston since Reconstruction had been on the school board for less than a year. The system of segregation was still in effect (after political meetings, if she and her white allies wanted to eat or get a drink in public together, they would have had to go to black Houston). It’s one thing to play in the black leagues when that’s all it seems can be done. But Barbara Jordan had supreme self-confidence, she had a boundless capacity for hard work, and she had her eye on bigger things.
When she returned to Houston, Jordan started her law office on the dining room table of the house on Campbell Street. She also started doing nuts and bolts political work with the Harris County Democrats. This coalition of labor minorities and white liberals was the mainspring of Houston liberal politics. It had its own office, its own leaders and candidates, and its own platforms; in almost every respect it was a separate political party. The struggles with the Johnson wing of the Democratic party were pitched battles. The liberals had great heart, tremendous esprit, high principles—and they almost always lost. With remarkable resilience they would get up to fight again. Since they openly courted blacks, they were the only place for an ambitious black office seeker like Barbara Jordan to start, just as debate was the place to make her mark at TSU. In the 1960 Kennedy presidential campaign she stuffed envelopes and licked stamps, went on to set up systems to identify block and precinct workers, then was asked to speak at a small rally when the scheduled speaker didn’t show up.
If there is anything Jordan has never wasted, it is an opportunity to speak. Soon she was as prominent in the Harris County Democrats as she had been at TSU. She became vice-chairman; she helped screen candidates; she seemed in every respect a committed liberal. When the Connally-backed black political organization set out to keep the endorsement of the Harris County Council of Organizations (HCCO, the key black political group) from going to liberal Don Yarborough in the 1962 Democratic gubernatorial primary, Jordan went to bat for him. Some members of the HCCO still remember her speech that day, although the Connally blacks did succeed in blocking Yarborough’s endorsement. By then she was running on her own. She borrowed money for her filing fee and persuaded Al Wickliff (who had himself run unsuccessfully for the Legislature and who had managed Mrs. Charles White’s successful campaign to be the first black on the school board) to be her campaign manager. The only problem was that blacks made up less than 20 percent of Houston’s electorate, and all state representatives had to run countywide. White ran for reelection that same year, got 34 percent of the white vote, and won with a plurality; Jordan got 23 percent of the white vote and came in third.
As she took stock of her defeat, in a subtle but significant way, she crossed the Rubicon, from black politician to politician. Principles weren’t worth much if you had no power. A black might win election to the Houston School Board, but its politics were byzantine and unrelated to most everything else. But it seemed unlikely that a black, strictly with liberal support, could win a countywide race. What Barbara Jordan had to do, in practical political terms, was expand her base. She had to keep her original black and liberal allies, but she had to find more. She decided to leave the friendly womb of liberal, black Houston and venture forth into the heartland of her opposition. In her own words: “It was clear then that if I was to win … I had to persuade the monied and politically influential interests either to support me or to remain neutral.” In 1964 she increased her white vote by 50 percent, but that, along with her now customary 97 percent of the black vote, was still not enough. And, in the wake of her second defeat, Governor John Connally vetoed her nomination to serve on the State Democratic Executive Committee, on the grounds it wasn’t ready for a black.
And so, her efforts to court the establishment had been unsuccessful; her law practice was barely off the ground because of her political efforts; and ahead seemed to lie only an endless series of losing campaigns. Barbara Jordan contemplated her future. Again, in her words: “I considered abandoning the dream of a public career in Texas and moving to some section of the country where a black woman candidate was less likely to be considered a novelty. I didn’t want to do this. I am a Texan; my roots are in Texas. To leave would be a cop-out. So I stayed.” This story, of course, has a fairy tale ending. The next year the Voting Rights Act extended the franchise, and the “one man, one vote” Supreme Court decisions led to the equalization in population of legislative districts. And there, in the twinkling of an eye, was not only 25 percent more registered black voters, but also a brand-new Texas Senate district almost 50 percent black. Barbara Jordan had been out front first, she had worked hard, and that seat was hers.
She won 66 percent of the vote in the primary (including 34 percent of the white vote) and brushed aside a token Republican opponent to become the first black to serve in the Texas Senate since 1882. When she was elected, the civil rights movement was splintering into separatists, militants, and moderates. The vestiges of segregation were everywhere. Yet this first black state senator had not a single item in her platform designed specifically to benefit blacks. She came out for traditional bread-and-butter liberal and union issues like the minimum wage, fair labor practices, and better teacher salaries. She also strongly supported limits on oyster dredging, and played political expediency with welfare, calling for its expansion on the one hand and getting cheats off the welfare rolls on the other. It was a solid, traditional political platform. It was also a pale reflection of her extraordinary rhetoric and presence. Because of her charisma, she led people to expect that she would set things right, and they didn’t have oyster dredging in mind.
But black issues did not go without their champion in 1966. A young black businessman named Curtis Graves was elected to the Texas House of Representatives the same year. Graves was a vocal black activist who had been arrested in a Houston sit-in demonstration in 1961. When Graves got to the Legislature, he made clear he was a black man interested in black issues, and woe betide white racists. As the sixties continued to unfold, Graves started talking of “honkies” and the “oppressors”; he began building a coalition with the New Left and with hippies; he called Vietnam a racist war. The contrast with Jordan could not have been more direct. Graves was passionate and impulsive, she was aloof and calculating; he was angry, she was conciliatory; he made whites feel personally guilty for the sins of segregation, she emphasized common problems; he would have nothing to do with the establishment, she courted it. While he made herculean efforts to become an effective day-to-day politician, Graves’ real ambition was to make the transition from civil rights activist to politician with principles intact: same strategy, different tactics.
Jordan in 1967.
The Houston Post Co.
Curtis Graves; in 1972, these trailblazers would clash head-on.
The Houston Post Co.
Looking back from the perspective of the mid-seventies, it seems obvious that Jordan’s approach made more sense. At the time, however, it was not so clear. The changes most affecting the lives of blacks were being inspired by black activists, not black politicians. These blacks—mainly students and young ministers—were the new leaders of black Houston. They could point to concrete accomplishment; blacks who worked within the system came back with their hands empty. Quiet voices didn’t get action. Loud voices did. In 1960, the year after Jordan returned from Boston, the sit-ins began, and continued until 1962, the year she made her first race for the Legislature; lunch counters were integrated, and some firms began hiring black employees. Three years later, the focus switched to the slow pace of school desegregation. Ten thousand blacks led by Reverend Bill Lawson marched on the school board; there was a school boycott. Black Houston seemed up in arms.
Through this epic period in black Houston’s history Barbara Jordan ran for office. She was a member of the NAACP, the most conservative civil rights organization. She took part in no sit-ins, marched in no demonstrations, carried no signs. And although there were fewer than 30 black lawyers in town, she did not volunteer to defend any of the jailed protestors. In spite of the practical effects of the attacks on the system, she never wavered in her burning desire to find a place in it. And as the sixties wore on, she attacked black power and made no bones about her intentions to continue working with the white establishment. For someone of her age and ambition, this behavior might well have earned the epithet Uncle Tom. But it did not, in part because of the sheer power of her rhetoric, but also because as a woman and a lawyer she was not expected to be a fighter. Just as her childhood friends had accepted her uniqueness ten years before, so the leading civil rights leaders of black Houston—some of her former TSU classmates—accepted her uniqueness in the sixties. She was “just Barbara,” and she had her own role to play.
It was not a “black” role. Barbara Jordan can count votes; to achieve power she would have to expand, not jeopardize, her white support. The “black” issue she has most consistently fought for is voting rights. When she filed in the State Senate race she brought along the black dentist whose lawsuit in 1944 had won blacks the right to vote in the Democratic primary. She made a rare display of calling in her political chips to prevent the Texas Senate from considering a bill to restrict the franchise by compounding the difficulties of voter registration. She took the same risk in Congress when she went against both the Texas establishment and the congressional black establishment—the two normal sources of her strength—in her successful effort to expand certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act to cover Texas. The blacks were against expansion on the grounds it would jeopardize the Act being renewed for the South; in this case, contrary to the accepted stereotype, they were timid and she was bold. She considers the Voting Rights expansion her most significant legislative accomplishment. The franchise is her sort of issue; its exercise is decorous, restrained, impersonal—but effective. It is the cornerstone of the system she believes in. She wasn’t raised to rebel or to make a scene; she didn’t learn that at home, and she didn’t learn it at Wheatley. And, as far as she knew, most blacks were as uncomfortable with those methods as she was. But the militants paved the way for her. They made her seem moderate, respectable, and safe. As Everett Collier of the Houston Chronicle says, “Barbara worked to prevent any violence or radicalism that would cause trouble.” And there could be no more pure political tightrope artistry than the ability to make a Collier think she is keeping the blacks in line, while making a Reverend Lawson think she is manipulating the establishment.
“The civil rights movement,” says Lawson, the leader of the school boycott, “brought to prominence a different sort of person than Barbara. The civil rights leaders were angry, passionate, impulsive people who drew attention to an ancient wrong in a dramatic way. In the language of the Olympics, they were the dash men; for the long haul you need distance runners. Barbara is a distance runner. It’s simply not her style to get out with a sign, or to be disruptive. It is no accident that the impulsive and eloquent voices of the civil rights movement did not make the transition to positions of power and responsibility. Those sorts of positions belong to people like Barbara, people with a purpose but also with the ability to hold their own in political infighting with the establishment’s best.”
And so, when the clash between Graves and Jordan came in 1972, it would be Jordan who would win. After the census of 1970, Houston was redistricted; a new congressional district, the 18th, was drawn for Jordan. She had, however, left Graves the impression he would get her senate district when she moved up. Instead, it was cannibalized into other districts, making it virtually impossible for a black to win. Graves held her responsible for losing it. It was the last straw in what he took to be a long string of compromises and deals with the establishment. He decided to oppose her for Congress. Jordan had worked hard on labor issues, and had the unions sewed up. She also had the financial backing of the Houston establishment. Graves was the underdog; labor unions threw him out of endorsement meetings, he had no money, his old friends didn’t seem to mind that the richest blacks and whites were backing Jordan—her money men were old black conservative Mack Hannah and white Houston booster Gail Whitcomb. Those were the sort of people Graves and his allies had always fought, but his allies seemed to be slipping away. The hippies and the New Left radicals he had courted were little help.
Graves then did the only thing he could: he attacked. He called Jordan a “tool” and raged about “an open attempt to buy the 18th district” as she sat tight-lipped on the same platform. This was his case, which has been the standard case against Jordan: “The congressman from this new district must be someone who owes his allegiance to the people who are in the district and not to the corrupt politicians who have brought our state to shame and ridicule. If you are looking for someone who goes along to get along, one who plays politics with your lives, one who is long on speaking but short on delivering services, then don’t vote for Curtis Graves.” As his position became more desperate, some of his supporters began spreading rumors about Jordan’s sex life. It was a tough campaign, an unprecedented battle between two prominent black politicians. Jordan never attacked Graves, and simply repeated that the issue was “who can get things done, who is more effective.” She received 80 percent of the vote. Graves got 13 percent, and left Texas for good.
Why did she win? There are several answers, but the most important is she was simply a better politician. She had carried water for key supporters like labor unions, she had gathered new supporters among the Houston establishment, and she had protected her base in the black community by appealing to its abiding conservative instincts. Although Graves played an important role in the protest movements of the sixties, he didn’t know, as another black politician said, “when it was time to put his dashiki in the closet, stop raising hell, and start getting things done.” The politician with a low civil rights profile beat the militant. In the words of Reverend Lawson, who is also a friend of Graves: “She had a vision back in the sixties. Most of us couldn’t see it. She saw beyond conflict to the enduring institutions, and she saw that most people, even black people, wanted to believe in them, if only they could be made to work. Within those institutions she saw that people like Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson got more done. So she wed her philosophy and purpose to their practical skills. But she kept her purpose. The rest of the civil rights movement is far behind her in making that transition.”
The Heir of LBJ
The transition from the civil rights movement to Johnson-Rayburn politician was actually not that difficult a transition for Barbara Jordan to make. She had never really been in the civil rights movement. She had always, from her days at TSU, been in politics. Johnson-Rayburn politics were the politics of the big-time campus operator writ large, and the first opportunity Jordan had to practice them since her student days was when she arrived in the Texas Senate in 1967. As a freshman, she had to earn the support—in student terms—of the seniors. “The Texas Senate was touted as the state’s most exclusive club,” she wrote in Atlantic Monthly. “To be effective I had to get inside the club, not just inside the chamber. I singled out the most influential and powerful members and determined to gain their respect.” Barbara Jordan was the perfect freshman to integrate the school: she was bright, she did her homework, she had great talent; she also loved the institution, gave deference to its elders, and made them feel that it—and they—were the most important things in her life.
Since no black face had been seen in the Senate chamber since 1882, and since that body had its share of unreconstructed Southerners, there was still a certain period of adjustment. Back then it was traditional for Claude Wild, Sr., the Humble Oil lobbyist, to give a little dinner dance for the Senate before the session began. Wild thought he had a bit of a problem, so he called Don Kennard, a liberal senator from Fort Worth who was rumored to know a few blacks personally. Kennard tells the story: “Don,” Wild said, “I’ve got a little dilemma with Senator Jordan.” “What’s that?” Kennard asked. “Well, it’s about [late Dallas Senator George] Parkhouse and Mrs. Parkhouse, not to mention some others. What if Senator Jordan brings along a big black man from Houston? How will everybody react? What if her date tries to dance with Mrs. Parkhouse? What then?”
“They were breaking new ground, and no one knew what would happen,” Kennard recalls. “So my wife and I invited Barbara to go to the dinner with us. Within three minutes after she arrived she had charmed everyone and was the center of the stage. Just by being so gracious and charming she literally compelled even the biggest racists to be gracious and charming too. It started that night, really. She obviously respected them and didn’t make them feel evil or guilty. And they had never been confronted with an intelligent, imposing, witty black person before; so they warmed to her. I know it sounds silly looking at it all from ten years later. But those were different times. She was the first, and she ended up beating all of us at our own game.”
The game, of course, was politics. Jordan studied the Senate’s procedure so closely that within weeks she was recognized as one of its leading parliamentarians, not above using, as she puts it, “the trickers’ tricks.” Among politicians political skill is respected apart from ideology, and Jordan quickly demonstrated that she had great technical skills. She only spoke when she knew what she wanted, she didn’t preach or harangue, she concentrated on a few subjects and became the Senate expert on them. She never embarrassed a fellow senator; she always gave the impression she understood his own political situation and left him room for self-respect. She shattered stereotypes about blacks: to racists she wasn’t shiftless and dumb and she didn’t smell bad; to guilt-ridden liberals, who believed that all blacks would be liberal, pure-of-heart, and anti-establishment, she proved to be a hard-nosed politician who gave no hint she had suffered under segregation.
She also shrewdly combined her exacting and aloof sense of dignity with warm good humor. Since it softens the abrasiveness of conflict, humor is among the most valuable political skills. Few politicians appreciate a somber ideologue, even if he is on their side. Jordan came to the Senate as a female and a black, an inevitable damper for the club’s easy sexual and racial humor. It didn’t work out that way. “There have always been jokes told on the floor of the Senate,” Kennard recalls. “Sexual, racial, good taste, bad taste. No one would have ever thought of including Mrs. Colson [a previous female senator]; no one would have ever thought of not including Barbara. She had a superb sense of humor and could even top old Parkhouse when she wanted to. We’d clean it up a little bit for her, because she just required by God respect. I’m sure the antics of the Senate frustrated her, seemed too frivolous. But she never let on. She put up with it, participated in it, and she used it.” (Extemporaneous political humor doesn’t always translate very well, but here are two examples: Senator Chet Brooks, addressing Jordan: “Senator, the only thing missing in this portrait is your voice; without your voice, it just isn’t you.” Jordan, in reply: “Senator, these walls have been needing a touch of color, and when my painting hangs amid the august people on the walls of this chamber, believe me, it’s gonna talk.” Reporter: “Senator Jordan, congratulations on your election to Congress.” Jordan: “Thank you, but that’s premature. I still have a Republican opponent in the fall, but since none of you seem to know who he is, I’m not about to tell you his name.”) She was, in short, one of the boys. She would joke with them, drink with them, stay up late, play the guitar and sing songs with them. But there was something at the center she always held back. In both her personal and her political life, there was no way to assume you knew her, or to take her for granted.
“Even though Barbara was with us on almost every crucial issue,” said one liberal senator, “somehow you never could assume she would be. If you had a real good bill, you know, that did everything right, that had in it all the sort of things she had been supporting, you still couldn’t just check off her vote on your scorecard. You had to go see her, reason with her, make her understand what you wanted to do. The same was true of her personal contacts. While she had the easy banter and could be one of the boys, few politicians felt they really knew her. If they tried to get too close, she would cut them off cold. Land Commissioner Bob Armstrong recalls one occasion, when he was in the Legislature: “It was one of those parties Charlie Wilson used to give. Barbara was there, and she and I stayed up almost all night—laughing, joking, telling stories, playing the guitar, and singing songs. It was one of the happiest nights I’ve spent. I really felt I knew her—she was like my sister. The next day or so I ran into her in the Capitol and went rushing up, and—nothing. She was polite, but everything I thought was there between us just wasn’t. I don’t regret that experience we had together. I was just surprised.”
Now some politicians are committed people, as are some friends. Many committed Texas liberals and conservatives believe that if someone is against you on one issue of principle, then he is automatically against you on all issues of principle; that he is, in short, either a friend or an enemy. If a man is your enemy on civil rights, so this sort of absolutist political approach goes, then he will be your enemy on environmental matters, gun control, education, taxation, labor issues. Jordan’s, however, was not a seamless fabric of political ideology. She approached issues one at a time, and she took her allies where she found them.
In her three regular sessions she introduced more than 150 bills and resolutions, about half of which were the apolitical meat and potatoes of legislation, from creating a new court and establishing a new medical school, to closing off the street that ran through TSU and setting safety standards for people who go into manholes. But the rest were solidly liberal: extending the minimum wage to cover non-unionized farmworkers and domestics; a fair labor practices act; pollution control; a whole range of workmen’s compensation acts (her specialty); equal rights and anti-discrimination. She fought for liquor by the drink and against extending the sales tax. But she insisted on not being take for granted, and she had the charisma to make that insistence stick. She always ended up in the corral, but damned if she didn’t have to be rounded up every time.
In the Senate, then, her political techniques were the same ones she would later perfect in Congress: deference to leadership, loyalty to the institution, hard work, humor, an unwillingness to be typecast, all wrapped up in the power and mystery of her personality and topped off with that old standby, her voice—which could either create an easy intimacy or intimidate, seemingly at will. At the end of her first session, her colleagues unanimously passed an unprecedented resolution expressing the Senate’s “warmest regard and affection. . . . She has earned the esteem and respect of her fellow citizens by the dignified manner in which she conducts herself. . . and because of her sincerity, her genuine concern for others, and her forceful speaking ability, she has been a credit to her state as well as her race.” The thirty men then rose and gave her two standing ovations. To call a militant like Curtis Graves a “credit to his race” in the emotion-charged years of the late sixties would have been patronizing and unthinkable; he would have been outraged. Barbara Jordan was pleased. “I have not been treated with any more respect by any group of men anywhere,” she said, apparently unambiguously; when she left in 1972 she said, “Nothing that can happen in my lifetime will equal the memories that I have of my years of service in this chamber.”
The dazzling show she was putting on for her fellow senators caught the eye of the protean godfather of Texas politics, Lyndon Johnson. It was not a good time for the president. The prodigious outpouring of Great Society and civil rights programs was behind him, and the Vietnam war, no matter how much he wheeled and dealed and plotted and planned, steadily kept pulling him beneath the political waves. His protégé in Texas, John Connally, didn’t care about the Great Society and in fact had done some impressive foot dragging on anti-poverty programs and civil rights. This pained Johnson deeply. To LBJ, these programs were more than just legislative accomplishments; they were his legacy, they were what would go beside his name in the history books. All the political operating in the world wasn’t worth a damn if you didn’t do something with it. So far as Johnson could tell, both Connally and his protégé Ben Barnes had inherited his skills but none of his heart.
Barbara Jordan was different. She had many of the qualities Johnson admired: she had a deep respect for legislative bodies and the legislative process, she was uncomfortable with ideologues, and she had great humor and political skills. She admired and recognized what a political accomplishment the Great Society programs were, how much arm twisting and cajoling and convincing and political chips they had used up. But she also knew what they meant to real people. She told him the Voting Rights Act had been crucial in getting her elected. His Texas cronies didn’t appreciate that, and other prominent blacks didn’t appreciate what he had done either—they just kept yelling “More! More! More!” or encouraging separatism, riots, God knows what. When black riots swept Washington and other cities after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Johnson took it personally. “Don’t they realize what I’ve done for them?” he would ask. Barbara Jordan realized what he had done, and told him so. After he had renounced his reelection campaign because of the war, she went to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, announced she would support him over anyone should he change his mind, and openly fought to keep the Texas delegation solidly behind the plank endorsing LBJ’s Vietnam policy. In the King Lear fantasies of his final year, with John Connally a Republican, Barnes’ political career in ruins, and Nixon dismantling the Great Society, she was the one child who never wavered, who kept his legacy and promised to carry it on. When he died, she said simply, “He was my political mentor and my friend. I loved him and I shall miss him.”
LBJ was a great help to her. He opened establishment doors, attended her fund-raisers, touted her to influential politicians and businessmen, helped get her a seat on the Judiciary Committee when she went to Congress. John Connally, however, was another story. She had spoken passionately against his gubernatorial campaign in 1962; he had vetoed her for a place on the State Democratic Executive Committee in 1964. But beyond those earlier clashes was a fierce clash of egos. Connally maddened Jordan by simply ignoring her. She was the star attraction of the 1967 Senate, but he acted as if she didn’t exist. They both had LBJ’s backroom magic, but Connally had Lyndon’s poor-boy materialism and she had Lyndon’s New Deal heart. Blended together, they made a pretty good LBJ. But like half-siblings, she and Connally were fated to clash.
When Connally led the Texas delegation to the Democratic Convention in 1968, Jordan announced from the beginning that she would not support him as a favorite son. She was for Humphrey. Then Connally changed his mind and wanted to lead the delegation into the Humphrey Camp. Jordan then changed her mind and wouldn’t go along (she did end up supporting Humphrey). Whatever Connally wanted, she opposed. In 1972, when one of Connally’s key political operatives, UT Regents Chairman Frank Erwin, Jr., sent her a $1,000 campaign contribution as a peace offering, she sent it back. However, she did testify as a character witness at Connally’s bribery trial, for some or all of these reasons: because it put the Houston establishment even deeper in her debt; because beneath the deepest of differences politicians share a basic mutual protection society so far as prison is concerned; and because—less likely—as a lawyer she believed her testimony would help him get a fair trial. At the trial, she testified, “As far as I know from my personal experience, he had a good reputation for honesty.” When asked if she had any political differences with Connally, she replied, “I have had spectacular. . .” At that point the prosecution objected, and she was not allowed to finish. Full circle of irony: he helped keep her off the State Democratic Executive Committee in 1964; she helped keep him out of prison in 1975.
From LBJ to Connally the line of succession went, until Jordan came along, to Ben Barnes. Barnes was a real comer, the major star—Jordan had a supporting role then—of late sixties Texas politics. He was the youngest Speaker ever of the Texas House of Representatives, and in 1968, when he was 30, he was elected lieutenant governor by carrying every county in Texas. Barnes and Jordan were both natural politicians, and they got along well. They understood each other. Jordan knew what Barnes was up to, and he knew that while she was in the full flights of her oratory on the Senate floor he could catch her eye from the podium, wink, and she would wink back. They almost never agreed on issues, but they had one thing in common: towering ambition. In the spring of 1971, he helped her carve out a congressional seat for herself; she gave him the impression she would support him for governor. She made it, he didn’t.
The Revenge of Aunt Jemima
The election of Barbara Jordan to Congress in 1972 continued an undeniable personal achievement. She had come home from the East at 23, a black lawyer with few prospects in a segregated society. She was returning to the East at 36, a U.S. Representative and the protégé of the former president of the United States. Her traditional approach to politics had been overwhelmingly vindicated against a black militant. Her ambition, her intelligence, her sense of personal destiny, her voice, and her charisma—combined with her shrewd political skills and her penchant for hard work—would make the Congress her personal national stage. But while Jordan has tirelessly sought office, she has not so obviously sought acclaim. She has consistently gone after power, but recognition came to her. She worked hard to get where she is, but she became a celebrity almost effortlessly. Before taking a final look at her personal and political achievements, the real and symbolic sources of her national appeal, and the reasons she seems to strike such a deep chord in American, it would be wise to reconsider just how she got there.
Barbara Jordan brushes aside high-flown descriptions of her symbolic significance and insists she is just “a practical politician.” In judging politicians, means are often as important as ends: how a politician reaches his goals can be as important as the goals themselves. Jordan’s means have been the classic politics of her mentor, Lyndon Johnson; some of her liberal critics call her “a black LBJ.” Those politics can be characterized in many ways, but above all they are the art of the possible: the practical craft of knowing how things work, what buttons to push, who has power and who doesn’t. Such a politician is popularly known as “someone who can get things done.” The reduction of politics to the level of practical makes good, hard-nosed sense in most cases; there are times, however, when it backfires.
Being practical means avoiding unnecessary risks. The line between political prudence and political timidity is very thin; the danger lies in settling for less than you might have gained had you fought harder. When Barbara Jordan used good old political horse trading to create a congressional seat she could win, somehow her old Senate seat got lost in the process. “Either that was part of the deal with Barnes or she just felt she had to give something up to get something, but it wasn’t necessary,” recalls a former Senate colleague. “If she had used her muscle to keep the Senate seat for blacks, she could have had both. They would have cratered. That’s exactly the sort of thing they are most afraid of her about. But she didn’t make a peep.” “It just wasn’t in the game plan,” says Jordan. Safe, practical politics. The result: while each state senator represents about 400,000 people, there is no black state senator for Houston’s 350,000 blacks, which is the rough equivalent of dividing up Fort Worth to be represented by Dallas, Abilene, and Wichita Falls.
Being practical also means knowing where the power is and cultivating it. The trap here is confusing the trapping of power for power itself. When Jordan let Barnes believe she would support him for governor, she confused his power in the state Capitol, which was near absolute, with his power in the state, which had dissipated in the wake of the Sharpstown scandal. (Barnes seemed “clean,” but he was then the state’s most prominent wheeler-dealer politician, and the political mood was “throw the rascals out.”) Both conservative and liberal political outsiders smelled blood. Frances Farenthold was the liberal candidate for governor. To Jordan, Farenthold must have seemed a political lightweight: she was only a state representative, she didn’t understand how practical power worked, she was, in short, yet another quixotic, maverick liberal doomed to defeat. But when Jordan went to the Harris County Democrats endorsement caucus, she got a surprise. It was a heated meeting. The liberals were disillusioned with Jordan. They wanted to know where she stood on the governor’s race; they wouldn’t stay neutral in her congressional race with Graves unless she endorsed Farenthold. For an excruciating moment, the chickens were home to roost. Then Jordan made her choice: without naming Farenthold, she pledged to support the candidate of the Harris County Democrats. No one knows what she told Barnes, who got 17 percent of the vote and came in third. Farenthold made the runoff, losing finally to Dolph Briscoe, another outsider.
Being practical means playing the game with the people in power. In the intraparty squabbles of Texas Democrats, Jordan customarily comes down on the side of the “ins,” which means the conservatives. “Party issues are power issues,” says one committed liberal. “Barbara’s devotion to the conservatives means she keeps the party’s power on the side of the people who oppose her legislative goals. She’s been vice-chairman of the State Democratic Executive Committee for four years, and as far as I know she’s never attended a meeting. That means blacks and liberals really have no voice, which is how the conservatives want it. She doesn’t seem to care that her inaction means important issues like voter registration and party finances are in the hands of the conservatives. In party politics, she is truly a token. They use her, and she gets nothing for blacks or liberals in return.”
Being practical is making the most of what you’ve got. The most immediately obvious thing Jordan has is being black. What should have been an obstacle she has turned into an asset. One longtime liberal recalls that no one even thought to scrutinize Jordan’s intentions or character when she first became active in liberal politics. “I had no idea she would turn out an establishment Democrat,” he groused. “Back then we didn’t question the motives of blacks. It didn’t occur to us that one of them might be using us for her own ambitions. It sounds naïve, but then we thought, well, blacks were better, more pure and honest, than white politicians, that they had a cause bigger than themselves. If she had been white, we would have seen her as just another ambitious politician.” The source of white admiration for Barbara Jordan, this theory goes, is akin to the admiration white audiences had for an entertainer like Al Hibbler, a blind black pianist. Hibbler was good, but the applause was out of proportion to his performance, because white people were so proud of him for overcoming his handicaps. “Barbara makes it easy for mossbacks to like her,” says one white political reporter. “They get buddy-buddy with her and in one fell swoop they can convince themselves they aren’t sexist or racist.” Admiring Barbara Jordan, in other words, solves the problem of how to deal with all these blacks and women clamoring for recognition. “Black politicians who try to follow Barbara’s footsteps are doomed to failure,” says one black politician who has tried. “The establishment only needs one black to be cozy with, and she’s it.”
Being practical also means trading off today’s issues for power tomorrow. It means, for example, going with the establishment on energy to get their support on other issues. A better example, however, was Jordan’s support for the plank in the 1968 Democratic platform praising President Johnson’s Vietnam policy. As early as 1966 Jordan had been opposed to the Vietnam War, but in Chicago she rigorously defended it. Why? Here’s what she told the Wall Street Journal: “That plank probably resulted in further killing and dying, but I felt it was important for Texans to be supportive of their man.” These values—that supporting “their man” is more important than killing and dying—are odious. They are an extreme example of how the Rayburn-Johnson practical politics can function as more blinders, blocking out conscience by political expediency. These values of “Texans supporting their man” may well also have contributed to her decision to testify for John Connally.
Now, no one seriously wants politicians to be “impractical,” and no doubt subjecting the careers of other ambitious politicians to similar scrutiny would yield at least as many, and probably more, lapses, missteps, errors in judgment. Such performance is disturbing in Jordan’s case, however, because in spite of her protestation that she is only a politician, she is universally thought to stand for something more. In her behalf, her supporters say, as Reverend Lawson did, that she has tied Rayburn-Johnson techniques to a higher purpose. Further testimony comes from black State Representative Mickey Leland, whose Houston district includes Jordan’s home: “Barbara uses the system for blacks; it doesn’t use her.” But Andrew Jefferson says it best: “Barbara will listen to the establishment about their problems, and she’ll take the time to understand divestiture and the natural gas shortage. She won’t oppose them just because they are the establishment. But when it comes down to some long-standing demand, some long-standing principle, she can be counted on to help the establishment understand it just as she tried to understand their energy problems. She gets her leverage that way, and she’s not afraid to use it.”
The central dilemma about Barbara Jordan is that while almost everyone believes she has this central core beyond politics, this ultimate devotion to long-standing principles, no one really knows what it is. No one can point to many long-standing principles that she has made the establishment recognize. Given her constituency, she should be expected to vote liberal, and she does: she rolls up 80, 90, 100 percent scores on all the tallies kept by black, liberal, feminist, and environmentalist groups. She votes virtually down the line with the Black Caucus on black issues, although she will occasionally oppose them on energy. In Texas she did work for the minimum wage, workmen’s compensation, fair labor practice, anti-discrimination. In Washington she passed the Voting Rights Act expansion and extension. But these voting records and these legislative accomplishments are simply straight liberal politics; they are not the core. The remark is, “Well, they’re part of it, but they’re not it.”
What “it” is, is of course the mystery. The same aura that surrounded her as a young girl surrounds her as a mature politician. That elusive quality of being beyond definition, of being “just Barbara,” defies the analysis of skeptical adult observers just as it defied the analysis of teenagers. More than anything else, this accepted inevitability of her greatness is her biggest asset. “Barbara has that rare mental capacity to have a master plan for her life, a sense of high destiny,” says Reverend Lawson. “Gandhi had that. Martin Luther King had that. John Kennedy I believe had that. When you have it, other people can sense it. It’s both a knowledge of how much only you can do and how little time you have to live to do it in. I suspect it’s what makes her work so hard, drive herself so much. It’s a destiny not so much for herself, but for a people; not black people, but a whole coalition of suffering, yearning people. I can’t define it, and she might not be able to, but I am sure she understands what it is.”
One of the most important reasons she inspires such hope is because she is a Southerner, and understands as well as anyone the significance of the New South. While she may rigorously avoid being typecast as a black, female, or liberal politician, she takes pains to insist she is a Texan and a Southern one. “I am a Texan,” she wrote. “My roots are there. . . ‘Texan’ frequently evokes images of conservatism, oil, gas, racism, callousness. In my judgment, the myths should be debunked, or at the least, should include the prevalent strains of reasonableness, compassion, and decency.” Her friends say she is really only comfortable with Southerners, including blacks like Georgia’s Andrew Young but also some of the most reactionary members of Congress. Jordan says she has a “very good relationship with old, establishment white conservatives. Maybe I have a natural affinity for Southerners because I am a Southerner.” Part of the reason, of course, is her application of the same charm, deference, and humor she used on the same sorts of men in the Texas Senate.
Barbara Jordan’s rapport with white Southerners is also testament to the basic political change in the South since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Representative Andrew Young of Georgia, the influential Atlanta black who has thrown in his chips with Jimmy Carter, describes the process: “It used to be you registered 10 to 15 percent in the community and folks would start saying ‘nigra’ and then you get 35 to 40 percent registered and it’s amazing how quickly they learned to say ‘neegrow’ and now that we’ve got 50, 60, 70 percent of the black votes registered in the South, everybody’s proud to be associated with their black brothers and sisters.” That is the language Jordan understands. Although blacks are only 20 percent of the voting-age population of the South, that still makes them the largest cohesive voting bloc, except on those increasingly rare occasions when whites vote together. It is not rare for candidates to get more than 90 percent of the black vote; in political arithmetic, that means with only 40 percent of the white vote the election is won. In urban areas where blacks are more than 20 percent, the arithmetic is even better. The result is a Fred Hofheinz or a Jimmy Carter, a Barbara Jordan or an Andrew Young.
But beyond politics, back in the nooks and crannies of a society’s most basic psyche, the South has made an even more fundamental change. Blacks now openly talk about preferring the South to the North, of feeling a greater trust and understanding for their fellow white Southerners than for even the most bleeding-heart Northern liberal. Black support for Jimmy Carter is of course one manifestation of that trust, but it goes deeper. Black voices make this point best. This is Eddie Bernice Johnson, a black state legislator from Dallas: “In the North, racism has had a façade, a pretense that it didn’t exist. People wanted to think that nothing was wrong, that everything was okay and the problem was somewhere else. They didn’t want to admit they had it too, and if you don’t admit the problem, you can’t deal with it. In the South whites are trying to deal with it; the ones that have dealt with it have been through something, and you can generally trust them down the line.” And Reverend Lawson: “The South has always depended on the power that brings the harvest and the seasons, something bigger than one’s self and one’s strivings. That condition reminds us of our common humanity beneath the shadow of larger forces; it breeds a basic compassion and a basic religiosity, an esteem for others even when you don’t particularly like them. In addition, white families in the South have always depended on blacks. Black mammies raised their children and taught them manners, black men tilled their cotton and built their houses. Martin Luther King called it a web of mutuality, a binding of the two races together. That isn’t true in the North; the black is a newcomer there, and by and large he isn’t wanted. Even George Wallace is somehow more aware of the humanity of blacks than is the average white in Grosse Pointe.”
The symbolic dimension of Barbara Jordan’s achievement is to link the troubled past with a hopeful future, to bridge from a segregated society to an unsegregated one. She has been called Aunt Jemima by both her friends and her enemies, and, although she doesn’t like it, the metaphor is apt. In appearance she conjures up the common memories of a culture—she is every black maid, black cook, black mammy. She comes to us direct from Gone with the Wind or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an enduring stereotype of the black women who lived closest with whites, who sustained the web of mutuality. The awesomeness of her presence is rooted in her explicit destruction of that image, as if every black mammy and Aunt Jemima had risen up with their rolling pins to take over the world.
The final mystery about Barbara Jordan is, what next? One of 435 United States Representatives can only do so much, no matter how great her political skills or symbolic import. Carter had her on his list of vice-presidential possibilities (and rejected her, Carter sources say, not because she was black but because, like Carter, she was from the South), and she is mentioned as a possible attorney general or Supreme Court justice should Carter win. For her part, she considers the Supreme Court a place to retire to. The U.S. Senate? Perhaps. Four years ago she dismissed the idea with incredulity: “Barbara Jordan run for senator? A black woman run for the U.S. Senate in Texas?” Today she knows those old barriers are falling and is now open to the possibility, perhaps against John Tower in 1978. But ultimately, as one friend says, “all she really wants to do is be president.” And brothers, that will be the day.
News & Politics
Our latest stories and analysis, sent to your inbox each week.