Today we present chapter three of the Rocky Mountain News' "Unconventional Wisdom" series, featuring some notable characters of past Democratic National Conventions offering their advice for Sen. Barack Obama, convention organizers, the city of Denver and average voters watching at home.
To follow the entire series, bookmark this link HERE. And keep checking back.
Part 3 of 10
Dr. Thomas Freeman on his student, Barbara Jordan, New York 1976
The story by M.E. Sprengelmeyer is HERE.
The video by Judy DeHaas is HERE.
The transcript of the Freeman interview is HERE.
Portraits are by Chris Schneider.
Below is a bit of the back story on the making of the 1976 chapter.
* * *
There are many ways we could have approached the 1976 chapter.
We could have made a trip to Plains, Ga., looked up an old peanut farmer and asked him what went right and what went wrong at the Democratic National Convention that helped turn him into President Jimmy Carter.
But in 2008, as the party was preparing to nominate the son of a Kenyan father to be its presidential candidate, there was a bigger question to answer.
Now, finally, is the country ready for someone other than a white male to lead the nation?
It's a question I wished I could have asked one of the keynote speakers at that 1976 Democratic National Convention: the late Rep. Barbara Jordan.
She was a force of nature, African-American daughter of the segregated south who ignored most of the other barriers in her life - racism, sexism, a physical handicap - and became a powerful voice of reconciliation in the awkward interregnum following the Vietnam War, Watergate and the toughest times of the civil rights struggle.
She burst onto the national scene during the House Judiciary Committee's Watergate investigation. And at the Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden, she gave an address that's still considered one of the most powerful keynotes in the history of American political discourse.
After the speech, she was flooded with fan mail that now sits mostly ignored in the archives at her undergraduate alma mater, Texas Southern University. Letters poured in from every corner of the nation.
Imagine my surprise when I found a post card from a Pennsylvania teenager named Marc Holtzman, who would later run for Colorado governor as a Republican. I bolted out of the library and placed a call to Holtzman and left a message asking if he had ever lived at such and such an address.
He quickly called back from an overseas trip to Europe, and he was stunned to hear the reason. Oh, yes, he said excitedly. That speech, that voice, that woman had made such a powerful impression on him. It was "a political awakening" for Holtzman, and he wanted to be just like her, he said. (Well, a Reagan-Republican version anyway...)
So many people wrote to Jordan, urging her to run for president, wondering why Jimmy Carter hadn't selected her as his running mate.
And she replied to every one of them with variations of a grim assessment of where the country was in 1976 - and where she knew someone like her could not go. Not quite yet.
"While I respect Governor Carter's sensitivity to the needs of blacks and women, I do not feel that the country is ready to accept a woman in the second highest office in the land," Jordan wrote to one letter-writer.
To another, she stressed the country not being ready for a black person in such a high position of leadership.
But each time she included a bit of hope, too. "However, when that time does come, I plan to be ready..."
Jordan's political career - and her life - ended before that day came.
So we turned to one of the more influential figures in her life, Dr. Thomas Freeman, a debate coach so legendary that the actor Denzel Washington studied his moves before a role in the movie, "The Great Debaters."
Freeman is 88 years old. He insisted that we check his still-valid driver's license. But he still works in his office seven days a week, is super-charged with energy and infuses each conversation with all the dramatic flair of his look-alike, the late entertainer Cab Calloway.
He walked us through his four years training Barbara Jordan to become one of the country's great orators. He spoke of the obstacles she had to overcome.
And then we got to the big question. If she were around today, what would she say?
Is the country ready yet?
At this point, Dr. Freeman's voice rose in volume, then abruptly dipped to a whisper as he pointedly leaned forward and looked into the eyes of the white journalist who had asked the question.
"We made progress up to the '70s, but so much more progress needs to be made to get America ready. Because the very question that is being raised . . . There would be no reason for the question if we were ready. Nobody would ask, 'Are we ready?' We would just move along."
The lesson of this chapter is, well, inconclusive. Because Barbara Jordan isn't around to give us any more clues. And the voters haven't answered the question yet either.