Barbara Jordan: Speaking the Truth with Eloquent Thunder

By Max Sherman | Go to book overview

EROSION OF CIVIL LIBERTIES

MY ONE REGRET FOR THIS SMALL BOOK ON THE WORDS AND wisdom of Barbara Jordan is that her May 11, 1974, commencement address at Howard University, “Erosion of Civil Liberties,” was not recorded in her own voice. It should be the first speech on the DVD that accompanies this text. It is the first speech in the book because she warns us about the mortal danger of entering into a Faustian bargain to give up a little liberty to obtain a little safety. As a fifteen-year-old boy making my first trip to the Statue of Liberty, I made a note from a plaque in the statue's narrow, winding staircase. My note was this quotation from Benjamin Franklin: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Barbara's 1974 warning was that we not make this bargain “under the guise of the maintenance of national security.”

Barbara's emphatic statement that “your government has violated civil liberties” was supported by early 1970s examples of the expansion of government power to use wiretaps, search warrants, and other surveillance techniques —examples familiar to us now through the USA Patriot Act. She then addressed the consequences for those graduates to whom she was speaking:

You, the graduate, will emerge from academia with the expecta-
tion, and with the hope, that you will be free to pursue your life
as you define it, and you are going to hope that no one will inter-
fere with your definition of your life. You have a basis for that pre-
sumption because there is something in the history of the United
States which says that freedom, that liberty, is a part of what we
are about. That history started in 1776, and now, almost two hun-
dred years later, those freedoms which were so painfully gained

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