During this presidential campaign year, already infamous for its divisive political rhetoric, Mary Beth Rogers will interject a dose of humanity and ethics based on the life and teachings of her Texan colleague and one of America’s bright stars, Barbara Jordan.
Rogers, author of Barbara Jordan: American Hero, will jump-start the Chautauqua Women’s Club’s 2016 Contemporary Issues Forum speaker series at 3 p.m. July 2 at the Hall of Philosophy. Her talk is titled “Who Was Barbara Jordan and What Would She Do in the Crazy World of American Politics Today?”
Some answers to the first part of that question: educator, lawyer, politician, first Southern African-American Congresswoman, first African-American woman to deliver a keynote address to the Democratic National Convention, chair of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, member of the National and Texas women’s halls of fame, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, and more than 20 honorary degrees.
As Rogers will convey, however, Jordan was also a mighty force for change. She was a wise and inspirational person of exemplary character and moral integrity who believed in the sanctity of the U.S. Constitution and walked her talk personally and professionally.
During Watergate especially, Jordan experienced firsthand the trials of America’s democratic society and responded eloquently.
A member of Chautauqua’s notable “Austin pod” for the past five years — a group of close friends from Texas who have contributed significantly to both communities — Rogers met Jordan in the early 1990s while they were working in different capacities for Texas Gov. Ann Richards.
“I knew Barbara Jordan,” Rogers said. “Anyone growing up in Texas interested in politics knew her and how amazing she was. My husband and I were in politics.”
Before Richards appointed Rogers as deputy treasurer upon her election in 1982 as state treasurer, Rogers directed a three-year, comprehensive museum project about contributions made by Texas women throughout the state’s history. Titled “Texas Women — A Celebration of History,” the exhibition was the first of its kind in the U.S.
Together from 1983 to 1988, Rogers and Richards brought organization, efficiency and innovation to the outmoded Texas treasury agency, turning it into one of the nation’s best.
When Richards ran for governor eight years later, she hired Rogers as her campaign manager. Following her victory, Rogers served as her chief of staff for 19 months. Their vision for Texas was of governmental accessibility, inclusiveness, efficiency and accountability.
“The governor of Texas has few powers,” Rogers said, but filling a few thousand political appointments is one. “[Jordan] would hold seminars every three to four months for new appointees about ethics and their obligations to the public. She was wonderful. People were thrilled.”
Later, Jordan was influential in on-boarding Rogers at the University of Texas at Austin in 1994.
With Rogers facing criticism because she had not earned a doctorate, even though her first book, Cold Anger: A Story of Faith and Politics, had been published four years earlier with an introduction by Bill Moyers, Jordan intervened on her behalf.
“The faculty looked askance,” Rogers said. “Barbara did not have a Ph.D. either. She knew it might be bumpy for me coming in and she took me under her wing.”
During her five-year tenure at the LBJ School, Rogers held the Lloyd M. Bentsen Chair in Government and Business Policy, won the Teaching Excellence Award, and was honored by the University of Texas Ex-Students Association as an outstanding teacher.
As it turned out, Jordan and Rogers had “concentric circles of friends.” Rogers said that almost immediately after Jordan died in 1996, a mutual friend suggested that she write Jordan’s biography.
Rogers said that she hesitated.
“Barbara Jordan was such a private person that I knew it would take a lot of time,” she said.
When the dean of the LBJ School assigned Jordan’s assistant, Sharon Hutchings, to Rogers, doors opened for her. Hutchings turned over Jordan’s rolodex.
“It was a stroke of luck or Barbara was up there — a divine providence in the form of Barbara,” Rogers said.
She spent two years traveling to Houston and Washington, D.C., to retrace Jordan’s steps, reading black history, learning about Reconstruction and Houston (which has one of the largest African-American communities in the South), and writing.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” she said.
In writing Barbara Jordan, Rogers said she was most challenged by “the age-old question of how can a white person understand an African-American. I really worried about that, which is one of the reasons I immersed myself in black history.”
What kept Rogers going was a dream.
She said that in this dream she was on one side of the road and Jordan was on the other, in a wheelchair, so she crossed the road to help Jordan.
Upon awaking, she saw it as a metaphor for helping Jordan’s story be told.
“Barbara said, ‘Go for it; there’s no reason you shouldn’t understand me,’ ” Rogers said.
Currently Barbara Jordan: American Hero is under movie option. Viola Davis, an Academy Award nominee, is expected to portray Jordan, and Pulitzer Prize-winning Tony Kushner is to write the screenplay.
After Rogers left the University of Texas, she became the president and CEO of KLRU-TV, Austin’s PBS affiliate.
Her latest book is Turning Texas Blue: What It Will Take to Break the GOP Grip on America’s Reddest State.
“In this critical time in this election cycle, when there’s a candidate with such little understanding of the tenets of moral democracy, it’s important to stop and say what’s really going on here,” Rogers said. “Barbara felt, during the Watergate hearings, that our democracy is fragile. Right now, our political system is fragile. Those of us used to sitting on the sidelines, particularly at Chautauqua, which is steeped in values, let’s not be silent anymore.”