Bintel Blog

Sorry, Rev. Wright, You’re No Barbara Jordan

By Daniel Treiman

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The Rev. Jeremiah Wright is back in the spotlight — this time of his own volition. Those hoping for contrition, or even a little bit of self-reflection, will be sorely disappointed. In a PBS interview with Bill Moyers and a speech today at the National Press Club, Obama’s former pastor went after his critics — with a vengeance. At the National Press Club, Wright said that attacks on his sermons were actually “an attack on the black church.”

“This is about Barbara Jordan,” he said. “This is about Fanny Lou Hamer. This is about my grandmamma.”

So apparently Wright — who fancies himself a prophetic voice — thinks that criticizing his sermons is akin to attacking the late Barbara Jordan, a beloved stateswoman who was the first African-American woman from the South elected to Congress. Since the Rev. Wright’s views and sermons are already fresh in our minds, let’s refresh our memories about Jordan’s brand of prophetic oratory.

Here’s what she had to say during her famous 1976 address to the Democratic National Convention:

It was one hundred and forty-four years ago that members of the Democratic Party first met in convention to select a Presidential candidate. Since that time, Democrats have continued to convene once every four years and draft a party platform and nominate a Presidential candidate. And our meeting this week is a continuation of that tradition. But there is something different about tonight. There is something special about tonight. What is different? What is special?

I, Barbara Jordan, am a keynote speaker.

When – A lot of years 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 – 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.

Now – Now that I have this grand distinction, what in the world am I supposed to say? I could easily spend this time praising the accomplishments of this party and attacking the Republicans – but I don’t choose to do that. I could list the many problems which Americans have. I could list the problems which cause people to feel cynical, angry, frustrated: problems which include lack of integrity in government; the feeling that the individual no longer counts; the reality of material and spiritual poverty; the feeling that the grand American experiment is failing or has failed. I could recite these problems, and then I could sit down and offer no solutions. But I don’t choose to do that either. The citizens of America expect more. They deserve and they want more than a recital of problems.

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. We are a people trying not only to solve the problems of the present, unemployment, inflation, but we are attempting on a larger scale to fulfill the promise of America. We are attempting to fulfill our national purpose, to create and sustain a society in which all of us are equal.

Throughout – Throughout our history, when people have looked for new ways to solve their problems and to uphold the principles of this nation, many times they have turned to political parties. They have often turned to the Democratic Party. What is it? What is it about the Democratic Party that makes it the instrument the people use when they search for ways to shape their future? Well I believe the answer to that question lies in our concept of governing. Our concept of governing is derived from our view of people. It is a concept deeply rooted in a set of beliefs firmly etched in the national conscience of all of us.

Now what are these beliefs? First, we believe in equality for all and privileges for none. This is a belief – This is a belief that each American, regardless of background, has equal standing in the public forum – all of us. Because – Because we believe this idea so firmly, we are an inclusive rather than an exclusive party. Let everybody come.

I think it no accident that most of those immigrating to America in the 19th century identified with the Democratic Party. We are a heterogeneous party made up of Americans of diverse backgrounds. We believe that the people are the source of all governmental power; that the authority of the people is to be extended, not restricted.

This – This can be accomplished only by providing each citizen with every opportunity to participate in the management of the government. They must have that, we believe. We believe that the government which represents the authority of all the people, not just one interest group, but all the people, has an obligation to actively – underscore actively – seek to remove those obstacles which would block individual achievement – obstacles emanating from race, sex, economic condition. The government must remove them, seek to remove them. We.

We are a party – We are a party of innovation. We do not reject our traditions, but we are willing to adapt to changing circumstances, when change we must. We are willing to suffer the discomfort of change in order to achieve a better future. We have a positive vision of the future founded on the belief that the gap between the promise and reality of America can one day be finally closed. We believe that.

This, my friends is the bedrock of our concept of governing. This is a part of the reason why Americans have turned to the Democratic Party. These are the foundations upon which a national community can be built. Let all understand that these guiding principles cannot be discarded for short-term political gains. They represent what this country is all about. They are indigenous to the American idea. And these are principles which are not negotiable.

In other times – In other times, I could stand here and give this kind of exposition on the beliefs of the Democratic Party and that would be enough. But today that is not enough. People want more. That is not sufficient reason for the majority of the people of this country to decide to vote Democratic. We have made mistakes. We realize that. We admit our mistakes. In our haste to do all things for all people, we did not foresee the full consequences of our actions. And when the people raised their voices, we didn’t hear. But our deafness was only a temporary condition, and not an irreversible condition.

Even as I stand here and admit that we have made mistakes, I still believe that as the people of America sit in judgment on each party, they will recognize that our mistakes were mistakes of the heart. They’ll recognize that.

And now – now we must look to the future. Let us heed the voice of the people and recognize their common sense. If we do not, we not only blaspheme our political heritage, we ignore the common ties that bind all Americans. Many fear the future. Many are distrustful of their leaders, and believe that their voices are never heard. Many seek only to satisfy their private work – wants; to satisfy their private interests. But this is the great danger America faces – that we will cease to be one nation and become instead a collection of interest groups: city against suburb, region against region, individual against individual; each seeking to satisfy private wants. If that happens, who then will speak for America? Who then will speak for the common good?

This is the question which must be answered in 1976: Are we to be one people bound together by common spirit, sharing in a common endeavor; or will we become a divided nation? For all of its uncertainty, we cannot flee the future. We must not become the “New Puritans” and reject our society. We must address and master the future together. It can be done if we restore the belief that we share a sense of national community, that we share a common national endeavor. It can be done.

I wonder what Barbara Jordan would have to say about “God damn America”?

Read her full speech here. (For a true treat, listen to the audio version on the same page.)

UPDATE: It turns out that an author of a forthcoming autobiography of Barbara Jordan has tackled the question of what the late congresswoman would think about the Rev. Wright affair — and she comes to a different conclusion than I do. While her take is worth reading, I’m sticking to my guns on this question. I think that the Rev. Wright’s oratory encourages a debilitating cynicism about America and its promise. In contrast, Barbara Jordan acknowledged and assailed injustice, but she did not traffic in the rhetoric of alienation. Indeed, in her 1976 convention speech, she explicitly warned, “We must not become the ‘New Puritans’ and reject our society.” Instead, she pointed the way forward and encouraged citizens of all races to draw sustenance from the best of our shared American tradition.


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Comments
Annette R. Smith, Ph.D. Wed. Apr 30, 2008

As someone who adored Barbara Jordan and believes had she lived would have truly made a great President, I thank you for this article. It is right on!

Ruth Tue. Apr 29, 2008

Thank you to the Bintel Blog and particularly Mr. Treiman for so articulately and intelligently exploring the Reverend Wright issue, one that speaks not just to minority groups such as African-Americans and Jews but, of course, to our whole country in this crucial time.




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