Listening to Barbara Jordan #7: “Who then will speak for the common good?”

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Barbara Jordan, concerned about the moment, the history, the impact, seriously studied all of the Watergate hearings in review, listened attentively, and indicated to all of us that she viewed this Constitution as a serious document and would not view it and see it be diminished. She took this role seriously, and she was concerned that she speak in measured words and tone, so those who might be looking would still have faith in the Constitution and in this Government.

US Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, (D) Texas
Tribute to the Late Honorable Barbara Jordan
Congressional Record: January 24, 1996 (House)

Today is the 71st anniversary of the birth of Barbara Jordan, and this is the final post in this series, dedicated, primarily, to Jordan as an inspiration and an agent for change, a voice of moral authority.

When I started putting these posts together, it was because there had recently been a number of voices calling out for change, and that had given me a little bit of hope. Hope that it might not be too late for the country to turn around, to stop the surge, to begin to end the war, and the list goes on and on.

That was a month ago and it’s been a tough month for hope. Molly Ivins left us, Bloggergate raged, the resolution against Bush’s surge was blocked, and just this week, habeas corpus was further ground underfoot when a federal appeals court ruled that Guantanamo Bay detainees cannot use the U.S. court system to challenge their indefinite imprisonment.

As candidates begin to position themselves for the 2008 election, there has been no shortage of rhetoric, but all by people who want to be elected first and foremost.

Barely a year ago, Molly Ivins wrote a column entitled “The Shame of Texas,” contrasting today’s political climate to that of 30 years ago during Watergate, specifically comparing US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ appearance before the judiciary committee on domestic wiretapping to Jordan’s Watergate address. Progress is not the watchword.

Thirty years ago, this state could produce Barbara Jordan — and now we send that pathetic pipsqueak Al Gonzales. Enough to provoke a wailing cry of “O tempera, O mores!” even from the depths of Lubbock.

As a New York Times editorial succinctly put it, Attorney General Gonzales’ Judiciary Committee appearance was a “daylong display of cynical hair-splitting, obfuscation, disinformation and stonewalling.”

How fortunate that Republicans running the committee did not insist the chief law enforcement officer of the United States take an oath before testifying. God forbid that he should actually be held to the truth.

I realize it’s a cliche for those of us who remember the Beach Boys to mourn the days when giants roamed the Earth and all was on a grander and finer scale. But I knew Barbara Jordan, and I know Al Gonzales, and it is damned depressing — he’s too lightweight to even be a mediocrity.

(emphasis mine)

In the same column, Ivins also quoted a review of New York Times reporter James Risen’s book, “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.”

Thomas Powers, an authority on American intelligence, reviewed the Risen book for The New York Review of Books and notes: “If the Constitution forbids a president anything, it forbids war on his say-so, and if it insists on anything, it insists that presidents are not above the law. In plain terms, this means that presidents cannot enact laws on their own, or ignore laws that have been enacted by Congress. …

“In public life, as in kindergarten, the all-important word is no. We are living with the consequences of the inability to say no to the president’s war of choice with Iraq, and we shall soon see how Congress and the courts will respond to the latest challenge from the White House — the claim by President Bush that he has the right to ignore FISA’s prohibition of government intrusion on the private communications of Americans without a court order and his repeated statements that he intends to go right on doing it.”

Ivins sadly concluded a year ago, “The time is coming when someone will have to say no.”

A couple of days ago, Joe Conason’s “It Could Happen Here” excerpt in Salon, wherein he mused that the “it” in question “could signify our own more gradual and insidious turn toward authoritarian rule” was met by a chorus of bloggers pointing out that “it” has already happened.

Thirty years ago, Jordan asked, “Who then will speak for the common good?” She couldn’t have foreseen the internet, let alone the blogosphere, but her answer serves as marching orders for the netroots between now and 2008:

“A nation is formed by the willingness of each of us to share in the responsibility for upholding the common good. A government is invigorated when each of us is willing to participate in shaping the future of this nation.”

Because we were carried on the shoulders of giants: Barbara Gittings, 1932-2007

 

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“As a teenager, I had to struggle alone to learn about myself and what it meant to be gay. Now for 44 years I’ve had the satisfaction of working with other gay people all across the country to get the bigots off our backs, to oil the closet door hinges, to change prejudiced hearts and minds, and to show that gay love is good for us and for the rest of the world too.”

Barbara Gittings died three days ago, February 18, at the age of 75.

I just read the news today. On one hand, I’ll note that it was reported on the AP wire, and I see it was on various gay news sites, so it wasn’t a secret, I just didn’t see it.

On the other, when I think about all the various “mainstream media” items that have entered my consciousness unbidden during the last three days in relation to the significance of this one woman’s passing, it makes me even sadder.

I never met Barbara Gittings, though I remember tearing up, cheering and waving as the open car carrying Gittings and a handful of other surviving GLBT pioneers passed along the purple-striped parade route during Gay Pride in NYC.

It was, after all, only because of the old people in that car that we were all there to begin with. From the Dykes on Bikes that led off in the front (“Ladieeeeeees, start your engines!”), to the beautiful queens shaking it on the Puerto Rican float (always the best float to march behind—from Central Park West all the way down to the Village, you never once stopped dancing), to the queer parents pushing strollers, to the Gays and Lesbians of Samoan Descent. We had all gotten here on the shoulders of those giants from the decades before us.

It was thrilling to recognize Gittings’ face, familiar from every gay documentary I’d ever seen, smiling back at the adoring crowd. She had made a point of being recognizable—of being seen — for most of her life.

“Gay people didn’t have a face until Barbara started demonstrating in 1965,” said Mark Segal, publisher of Philadelphia Gay News. “Up until that point, no gay face had been seen in the newspaper, on television or in the movies.”

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I can’t for certain say that Barbara Gittings saved my life, though it’s certain there are lives, possibly thousands, that she did save, just by fearlessly living her own during a half century of gay activism. I can say, without qualification, my life and that of thousands of others, was made richer, fuller, healthier, happier, because of her pathbreaking example.

Gittings, 75, succumbed to breast cancer with her partner of 46 years, Kay Lahusen, by her side, he said. The couple, who also lived in Philadelphia, had a longtime home on Harrison Street in Wilmington.

In the late 1950s, Gittings helped organize the first East Coast chapter of the pioneer lesbian rights group, Daughters of Bilitis. Elected the New York City chapter’s first president, Gittings edited The Ladder, a ground-breaking lesbian publication, and went on to fight the federal government’s policy of firing homosexuals in its employ, according to Gay American History by Jonathan Katz.

It was through the New York City group that Gittings met Lahusen and, together, they “played important roles in the gay liberation movement emerging in the 1950s,” according to the Cornell (N.Y.) University Library, which has a collection about the couple in its Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.

In the early days of gay activism, Gittings said in a biography she wrote for media use, “there were scarcely 200 of us in the whole United States. It was like a club — we all knew each other.”

In 1965, she gained international attention by helping organize and joining the first gay rights demonstrations at The White House and Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

“These were the first such demonstrations in American history and began an era of gays coming out of the closet,” Segal said.

Gittings headed the American Library Association’s Gay Task Force and was involved in the organization for nearly 20 years. “Though not a librarian,” the Cornell library says, “she was an avid book lover” and joined the task force as soon as she learned it existed.

Gittings also was a leader in the successful campaign that got the American Psychiatric Association, in 1973, to stop categorizing homosexuality as a mental illness.

She worked with Lahusen on her book, “The Gay Crusaders,” which was published in 1973.

Two years ago, Gittings and Lahusen attended the unveiling of the nation’s first official historic marker recognizing the gay rights movement. The Pennsylvania state marker, at Sixth and Chestnut streets in Philadelphia, across from Independence Hall, honors the early protests by Gittings and others, saying “these peaceful protests and New York’s Stonewall riots in 1969 & Pride Parade in 1970 transformed a small national campaign into a civil rights movement.”

She served on the boards of the National Gay Task Force, now the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, and the Gay Rights National Lobby, forerunner of the Human Rights Campaign.

She appeared in the documentaries “Out of the Past,” “Gay Pioneers,” “Before Stonewall” and “After Stonewall.”

She enjoyed giving a show-and-tell lecture, “Gay and Smiling: Tales from Our 55 Years of Activism” on the hidden history of the early gay movement.

 

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