Talking while riding with my friend Jim Wright

Jim Wright speaks in Fort Worth on Nov. 22, 1963. President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson are in the background.
Jim Wright speaks in Fort Worth on Nov. 22, 1963. President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson are in the background. Star-Telegram

As the sun rose above the nation’s capital that winter morning in 1986, the car carrying Jim Wright approached the Tidal Basin just as the sunlight cast an immaculate glow over the Jefferson Memorial.

Wright, then the House majority leader who was about to become speaker, began to speak of one of his heroes as the tall statue of Thomas Jefferson came into view.

There was deep emotion in his voice as he began to quote from memory the inscription under the memorial dome: “… I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

When I looked over at him, I saw tears rolling down his cheeks.

Not that I didn’t already know of Wright’s deep love and devotion for his country, but in that moment I saw it. I felt it.

Two other memorable car rides with the congressman who had become my friend gave me even more insight into a leader who had built a reputation of not just serving people, but fighting for those he cared about.

While working on a documentary for PBS about Wright’s ascendancy to the speakership, I rode with him and Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., when they went to the White House to meet with President Reagan about an omnibus drug bill.

The two men talked about a number of things, including how they needed to make the president understand that Congress was an equal branch of the government.

It was an issue that was even more relevant when I was back in D.C. the next year to do a follow-up report on the speaker, and Reagan and his advisers were very upset with Wright for having met with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega about trying to settle the conflict in Central America.

The speaker and I had talked earlier about that meeting with Ortega. Wright pointed to where I was sitting and said, “Yes, we met in this office and he sat right there on the couch where you’re sitting.”

Wright believed that true dialogue was much better than constant threats and aiding rebels, and his diplomacy proved to be successful.

Then there was the time just a few years ago when the NAACP chapter in Parker County called Wright to say the organization was honoring me and asked if he would come to Weatherford and say a few words about me at the event. He agreed immediately, and I agreed to drive him there.

On the way, we reminisced about a lot of things, and he asked me a question to which he already knew the answer. But it was a way for him to tell a story that I’d heard before, and he was compelled to tell it again.

“You went to I.M. Terrell High School, didn’t you?”

I quickly said yes, proud of that all-black school that produced some of Fort Worth’s finest citizens.

Then he spoke of the days of segregation, when people from as far away as Weatherford and at least 16 other cities sent their black kids to Terrell because they had no other high school for them.

“Before I was mayor of Weatherford, the black youngsters had to get to the school the best way they could,” he said. “But after I became mayor, I fought to get a school bus to take them to Terrell.”

He paused, looked out the window, turned back and said, “Of course, if I had done the right thing, I would have fought to make sure those kids were able to go to school in their home town.”

What Wright didn’t know that night, until I interrupted his speech and took the microphone, was that the NAACP was not honoring me. The group was honoring Wright for his contributions to the area.

Needless to say the ride back to Fort Worth was emotional. He was teary-eyed for the surprise honor from the people of Weatherford; my eyes watered knowing I had such a trusted friend, willing to make a sacrifice for me.

Oh, how I loved him so.

No doubt I’ll shed more tears as my friend takes his final ride back to Weatherford on Monday afternoon.

Bob Ray Sanders’ column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7775

Twitter: @BobRaySanders

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