Like every speaker at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan’s chief oratorical aim was to make the case for Jimmy Carter’s candidacy. But as the first Black woman to deliver a keynote at a national party convention, Jordan’s billing also carried symbolic weight. Unlike her peers, Jordan had an additional, headier task: to acknowledge her own historical significance within the context of American politics.
And for that reason, today, Jordan’s speech stands out in large part because of what she didn’t say.
Typically, politicians use speaking slots at national party conventions to introduce — or reintroduce — themselves to the American people. From a speechwriting perspective, invoking your identity and telling your story is an effective way not only to connect with an audience, but to illuminate your values.
And yet, with the national spotlight shining down on her, Jordan didn’t start with an introduction. She didn’t start by talking about what it was like to grow up in Houston’s impoverished Fifth Ward under Jim Crow. Or how Black Americans like her were systematically shut out of the political process in the South. Or how she persisted in the face of injustice, becoming one of her party’s most beloved elected officials.
Then, she addressed our country’s ugly past by explaining that for the majority of U.S. history, it would have been “unusual” for any national political party to ask “a Barbara Jordan” to deliver a keynote address. Not a black woman — but “a Barbara Jordan.”
While Jordan’s identity was implicit in her phrasing and visible for anyone to see, she never named it. Instead, she alluded to the Black struggle more generally, tucking in a reference to Langston Hughes’ poem about the long-overdue fight for racial equity. “My presence here,” she intoned, “is one additional bit of evidence that the American Dream need not forever be deferred.”
Although we can’t know for sure why Jordan used this particular construction and omitted her own narrative, it’s worth remembering that, historically, women and people of color have been perceived as inherently radical just by virtue of their desire to wield political power. Achieving some measure of acceptance has often required tough compromises and bold ambitions cloaked in palatable language.
And in politics, so often that palatable language takes the form of reverence for our founding texts and the virtues of bipartisanship, which dominate Jordan’s keynote. In fact, Jordan didn’t spend much time dwelling on the struggles of everyday Americans or interrogating structural inequities. She was also hesitant to disparage Republicans or pin voter frustrations on the opposition party, stating that Americans deserved more than a “recital of problems.”
Instead, Jordan doubled down on her unshakeable faith in the American experiment, telling voters they “[could not] improve on the system of government” devised by the Founding Fathers, but could realize a “common destiny.” She also asked Americans to consider the perils of division.
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?
Of course, from our vantage point in 2020, the shared national community to which Jordon aspired is tearing at the seams — and the culprit isn’t solely partisanship. Income inequality is at an all-time high. Police officers continue to brutalize Black people with impunity. And the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black communities, causing economic hardship and a staggering loss of life. The hurdles preventing Americans from realizing the full promise of our founding texts have been laid bare.
With this pain, however, has come a renewed sense of urgency. Recent policy proposals and polling indicate our nation is finally ready to reckon with its long history of inequality. More than 67 percent of Americans say they support the Black Lives Matter movement. Democratic voters all over the country have embraced anti-racism platforms. Local communities are reforming their police departments. And on the federal level, elected officials are calling for universal health care, tuition-free college, and overhauls to the criminal justice system. The majority of Americans have realized that in order to live up to the principles that Jordan and our founders espoused, we need ambitious policies.
Viewed through a contemporary lens, Jordan’s address seems a bit tepid, and at times, out of step with today’s push for reform. And that’s a good thing. One of the merits of looking back on historical firsts like Jordan’s speech is examining all the ways our nation has grown from them.
It’s tempting to wonder what Jordan herself would say if she were still alive today.
Sadly, Jordan passed away in 1996, during President Clinton’s administration, but since then, the composition of the body politick has changed: We’ve elected a Black president and put a woman at the top of the ticket. In 2018, the American electorate ushered in the most racially and ethnically diverse Congress in history. And while it’s become less “radical” to see women and people of color in American politics, it’s become more common to see Democrats of all stripes call for ambitious policies that might have been deemed “radical” in 1976.
Today, if Jordan were the keynote speaker, would she be more critical of the system? Would she call out Republicans for enabling President Trump’s worst impulses? Would she speak not as “a Barbara Jordan,” but just as Barbara Jordan, a Black woman from Texas, who dedicated her life’s work to ending the systems of oppression she experienced firsthand.
Perhaps, though, the more important question is for all of us: do we have what it takes to become the nation Barbara Jordan believed we could be?
Stay tuned, America.
In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.
Read Congresswoman Barbara Jordan’s 1976 Democratic National Convention address here.