Speeches that Made History: Barbara Jordan Celebrates Texas Independence

by Derrick G. Jeter

Barbara Jordan, had a voice like the rubbling of the sea. It was gravelly, melodious, and soothing—always stout, but never shrill. With a bit of a Boston brogue—an accent she picked up from her rhetoric and debate teacher at college—mixed with her Texas twang, the voice produced within her wide diaphragm was deep and distinctive. Like Daniel Webster’s, Barbara Jordan’s voice once heard rang in your ears for years to come. “It was,” according to one biographer, “almost as if there were a clear, single sound coming from her throat that encompassed a harmonic blend of a dozen tones, round and complete.” [1] Her diction was precise and her deliver dramatic. She simply became known as “The Voice.”
After making the constitutional case for the impeachment of Richard Nixon in July 1974, Jordan became an American icon. Next to the Speaker of the House, she was the most famous representative in the Congress. But she was still a Texas girl at heart, longing to return to the state she loved. Leaving Congress behind, at the end of her third term, in 1978, she moved back to Texas to teach at the LBJ School of Public Policy at the University of Texas at Austin.
On March 2, 1986—the Sesquicentennial of Texas Independence—the state held a Texas-sized party on the Houston bayous. Under the shadow of the San Jacinto Monument, Jordan recounted the historic events, through vivid and emotive language, of the battle which secured independence for the Republic of Texas. Her speech can be captured in one simple, powerful word—Freedom.
On the morning of April 21, 1836, a ragged-tagged group of Texans, led by Sam Houston, had gathered on a pastoral plain along the blanks of the San Jacinto River. (Houston’s men formed to the Irish love song, “Will You Come to the Bower,” played either on fifes and drums or on the fiddles of Daniel and George Washington Davis, in an effort to fool the Mexicans into thinking the Texans were merely drilling.) Just a month before—March 2—the Texans declared independence from Mexico at Washington-on-the Brazos. The first test of their rebellion was on the dusty ground of an abandoned mission-fort in the small Tejano town of San Antonio de Béxar. The church was known as Mission San Antonio de Valero. The fort was known as the Alamo. On February 24, 1836, the Mexican dictator, Antonio López de Santa Anna began laying siege to the Alamo with a blistering, but ineffective, cannonade. In the early dawn of March 6 the cannonade ceased . . . and an eerie silence fell over the mission . . . until the Texans inside the fort saw shadowy figures, out of the predawn darkness, approach from all four sides. Small arms fire and cannon was heard within the walls of the Alamo. In a few brief, but murderous, hours the Mexicans breached the walls and all the defenders who were not already dead were either shot or put to the bayonet. All were burned. Among those who fell that morning were the famous—David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barret Travis—and the non-famous, included my kin: Jesse B. Bowman. Four days after declaring independence, Texas received its first crushing blow, causing the citizens of many Texas towns to flee for their lives in what became known as the Runaway Scrape. The second blow came twenty-one days later when Santa Anna ordered the execution of Colonel James Fannin’s surrendered troops near Goliad. It seemed that freedom would be killed in the cradle . . . then the morning of April 21, 1836, dawned to awaken a new day . . . and a new nation.
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Freedom. That was what it was all about. Freedom. Low clouds riding a south wind in from the Gulf of Mexico brought an ominous grayness to the morning. Spanish moss drooping from ancient oaks like strands of witches’ hair added to the somberness of the place. The mockingbirds were silent. Even the frogs in the nearby bayou were hushed, as if waiting . . . waiting. The bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes seemed faded by the dullness of the morning. There was a chill left over from a persistent winter. A group of men lay waiting in the large grove of oaks. They spoke in whispers, if they spoke at all. They were as gray as the day. They were waiting . . . waiting. And freedom . . . that was what it was all about . . . freedom.
Toward noon, the clouds gave way to a warming sun. The sun. It was to be a weapon in the battle that would follow. It can blind. When it dropped low enough on the horizon Sam Houston ordered his troops into action. One long line of infantry and 38 mounted cavalrymen set out towards the camp to General Antonio López de Santa Anna, president of Mexico and the self-styled Napoleon of the West. They marched to the tune of “Will You Come to the Bower” . . . not really a battle song . . . but the only tune two fifers and a drummer could agree upon. Seven hundred fifty troops under Sam Houston. One thousand two hundred troops under Santa Anna. They fought. In 18 minutes the Mexican dictator had been defeated. Freedom . . . that was what it was all about. Freedom.
The Battle of San Jacinto was not a battle against the Mexican people. Three signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence were Mexican Texans. The Texan Army was made up of many native-born Mexicans, some of whom were killed at the Alamo. Three Mexican states joined Texas in the revolt against the dictatorship of Santa Anna. And freedom . . . that was what it was all about.
The Battle of San Jacinto was an ending and a beginning. The ending of an era of repression. The beginning of a new republic. And the beginning of a new friendship between Texans and Mexicans. You cannot separate Texas from Mexico or Mexico from Texas. In many ways we remain one. Our cultures are indelibly intertwined. Can you imagine San Antonio without the influence of Mexico? Mayor Henry Cisneros can’t. Can you imagine El Paso or Brownsville without the music of mariachis? Or Cancún, Acapulco, or Tasco without the music of Texas twang? Friends . . . amigos. People make friendships . . . governments test them. We must not forget these words from the first Texas constitution: “All political power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their benefit.”
We are revolutionaries, we Texans . . . we Americans, born of revolution. Born of a desire for the God-given right of the individual . . . be he brown, white, yellow . . . to live his own life as he chooses. Or, as she chooses. Here at San Jacinto, we won that right for Texas and eventually for Mexico by defeating a dictator. On this 150th Anniversary of that battle, let us publicly state our respect for the dignity of Mary and Maria . . . Juan and John . . . Richard and Ricardo . . . and for their inherent right to choose their own destiny . . . and to enjoy freedom . . . for that was what San Jacinto was all about . . . freedom!
[1] Mary Beth Rogers, Barbara Jordan: American Hero (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), 40.
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