Barbara Jordan (1936-96) was a dynamic and forceful African American from Texas who made great strides for American citizens. She exhibited a positive outlook, great intelligence, a good sense of humor, and had an uncanny ability to fully engage an audience.
Her most notable achievements were in politics. After a couple of election defeats in runs for the Texas state senate, she won a seat in 1966 after the law forced states to redistrict. In 1972, she became the first African American from the Deep South elected to the U.S. House of Representatives since the Reconstruction era. Once in Congress, she gained a plum assignment on the Judiciary Committee, and it was there she began to make history.
In 1994 she was honored with a Presidential Medal of Freedom for her many accomplishments.
Barbara Jordan: Growing Up
Barbara Jordan was born in Houston, the youngest of three daughters of Benjamin and Arlyne (Patten) Jordan. Ben Jordan was a minister, but the pay was not enough to support a family, so he also worked for a warehouse company. Her mother, who showed great oratorical skills in church work while she was a teenager, gave up thoughts of a career and opted to marry and be a housewife and mother.
Barbara and her sisters attended segregated public schools in elementary and high school. Later, fellow Texan and newspaper columnist Molly Ivins asked Barbara about those years. Jordan replied: “We were poor, but so was everyone around us, so we did not notice it.”
While she was growing up, her maternal grandfather was an important and loving influence in her life. After Sunday dinner, most of the family returned to church, but Barbara was permitted to stay with Grandfather Patten. He ran a junk business, and he and Barbara often spent Sunday afternoons sorting materials and talking. In her autobiography, Barbara Jordan: A Self-Portrait, Jordan notes that he taught her she could do anything, and that what Jesus wanted from everyone was to love humanity and to use their ingenuity to figure things out for themselves.
African Americans in Houston who were lucky enough to go to college generally attended Texas Southern University. (The school was formerly known as TSU for Negroes; it was still segregated during Jordan’s time despite the name change.) Barbara became interested in oratory and convinced the speech coach to permit her to join the all-male debate team.
Texas Southern University was competitive and among the top debate teams in the nation, frequently meeting up with Ivy League schools. There was one notable championship match against Harvard that was pronounced a “tie.” Many years later Jordan was to make good use of this story when she was Harvard’s commencement speaker.
A Taste of Life in the North
In 1956, Barbara Jordan graduated magna cum laude from TSU and was accepted to the law school at Boston University. The Jordan family’s pride in Barbara’s acceptance made the financial sacrifice of sending her north a little easier.
For Barbara, it was an eye-opening opportunity. While life in Boston was still skewed to favor whites, there were no delineations of places for “white only” and “colored.” Barbara began to see what life should hold—equality for all.
Perhaps her most important take-away from law school, however, was an underlying message. She saw that white law students often had family members who practiced law. Some had interned in these law offices or had benefited from the opportunity of hearing legal cases discussed. They also had other opportunities—museum visits, attendance at cultural performances, European travel—that provided them with greater knowledge of the world. Barbara understood there was no “remedial class” for these types of life experiences. She simply had to work harder.
After Law School
She received her law degree in 1959, and briefly considered staying in Boston where she had a job offer from the legal department of a big insurance company. Ultimately, however, she decided to return to Houston. Operating out of her parents’ living room, she did legal work for the underprivileged.
Among the issues being discussed in Houston in those years was the fact that the school system persisted in ignoring school integration—a ruling that occurred in 1954 with the Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education. This and other matters inspired Jordan to become politically active. In 1960, she volunteered with the Kennedy-Johnson presidential campaign. They recognized her power with audiences, and she soon found herself speaking around Texas, representing the Democratic ticket.
As she participated in the community, she saw that an elected position would be the best place to bring about change.
Barbara Jordan’s first two runs for state representative from Harris County taught her a great deal. Representatives ran “at large,” meaning that all candidates vied for the number of seats that were designated for Harris County, with the seats going to those with the most votes.
Jordan had the support of the local Democratic party, and she was a great campaigner. She read up on Texas government and was well prepared to discuss budgeting and welfare and her vision for reform. In two elections, she saw that she brought out minority voters, but she never became a top vote-getter.
Family members counseled her to settle down, marry, and practice law. As she listened to them, Jordan made the specific decision that governing was of paramount importance to her. She wouldn’t be deterred, no matter the cost.
Barbara Jordan lived through an era when Jim Crow laws affected Texas and the South—and to some extent, other parts of the country. While Brown v. Board of Education established that “separate but equal” wasn’t good enough, other legal cases contested the fact that many states drew their election districts to favor the white vote. Tennessee had not redrawn voting districts since 1901, and in 1962 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Baker v. Carr that Tennessee’s failure to redraw voting districts was unacceptable; federal courts were ordered to develop a judicial remedy.
“One person, one vote” was determined in Georgia in Gray v. Sanders, James Sanders objected to the “county unit” apportionment system that weighted some districts more heavily than others. The Supreme Court sided with Sanders. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote the majority opinion referencing the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment stating: “The concept of political equality…can mean only one thing—one person, one vote.”
A case in Alabama and another in Georgia tested the apportionment for state voting districts. In both states, the legislative districts varied greatly in population, thereby reducing representation in those areas that were heavily populated. In both states, the the Court held that unequal districts were discriminatory. Here is the reasoning behind the decision in Georgia: Because a single congressman had to represent two to three times as many people as were represented by congressmen in other districts, the Georgia statute reduced the value of some votes and expanded the value of others: “…No right is more precious” than that of having a voice in elections. The decision held that “[t]o say that a vote is worth more in one district than in another… run[s] counter to our fundamental ideas of democratic government.'”
Harris County Redistricting
Collectively, these cases affected both northern and southern states that had neglected to adjust voting districts in keeping with changes in state population. Harris County was just one of many districts in Texas where legislative lines needed to be redrawn.
Barbara Jordan found herself in the newly created 11th State Senatorial District, including the 5th Ward. This area was composed of 38 percent blacks, a large block of Chicanos, and white laborers affiliated with the AFL-CIO. These were groups that had shown strong support for Barbara Jordan in the previous elections—they just were outnumbered in the size of the district.
With this new districting, Barbara Jordan was ready to run again in 1966. But this time she campaigned differently. She’d learned that audiences didn’t want to hear about retrenchment and reform. They wanted to hear about her: Could she do a good job of representing them?
She became the first African American woman elected to the Texas state senate. She ushered through the state’s first law on minimum wage and worked to create the Texas Fair Employment Practices Commission.
Running for Congress
In 1972, she ran for Congress and won election to the U.S. House of Representatives. She was the first black elected to Congress from Texas after Reconstruction.
Experience in state government taught her the importance of advocating for herself. Once elected, she called former President Lyndon Johnson for help in getting assigned to a good committee. Lyndon Johnson made the phone call she requested, and Wilbur Mills soon announced the Barbara Jordan would be taking a seat on the Judiciary Committee—an excellent assignment for a freshman in Congress.
Jordan and the Judiciary Committee
The Judiciary Committee of 1974 had an unusually difficult task before them. The country was in the midst of Watergate hearings, and the Judiciary Committee was wrestling with whether President Richard Nixon should be impeached. Impeachment was a dire step for Congress and the country. After much discussion behind closed doors, committee chairperson Peter Rodino decided committee comment should be public. Each committee member—all 35 of them–would be given a 15-minute slot for remarks that would be televised.
Barbara Jordan Makes History
With such a large committee, Barbara Jordan was not certain this was the best use of everyone’s time. Though she generally worked far in advance on her speeches, she didn’t this time. The night before she was to speak found Barbara with a blank sheet of paper. What she wrote that night was so effective that Americans were totally taken in by her intelligence and clear thought. (It remains a speech worth re-reading.)
After a few opening remarks, she began with a reminder of the very recent experiences of African American people under Jim Crow laws:
“Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States: “’We the people’—it is a very eloquent beginning. But when the Constitution of the United States was completed on the 17th of September in 1787, I was not included in that ‘We the people.’ I felt for many years that somehow George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decisions, I have finally been included in ‘We the people.’”
“…My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”
When the government faces a dire issue like presidential impeachment, Jordan notes that the Constitution assigned to Congress different duties: The House was given the job to determine whether the questions surrounding a possible impeachment were valid; the Senate was left to weigh the facts of the case. She proceeded with a well-ordered, evidence-based discussion, juxtaposing what was known to have occurred in the Nixon White House against impeachment criteria from the Framers of the United States Constitution.
“…The Framers confided in the Congress the power if need be, to remove the President in order to strike a delicate balance between a President swollen with power and grown tyrannical, and preservation of the independence of the Executive.”
Working from the Constitution
Jordan continues with words from James Madison, from the Virginia Ratification Convention: “If the President be connected in any suspicious manner with any person and there be grounds to believe that he will shelter him, he may be impeached.”
She adds the impeachment criteria raised at the Carolina Ratification Convention: “Those are impeachable “who behave amiss or betray their public trust.”
The Congresswoman then turned to the current time: “Beginning shortly after the Watergate break-in and continuing to the present time, the President has engaged in a series of public statements and actions designed to thwart the lawful investigation by government prosecutors. Moreover, the President has made public announcements and assertions bearing in the Watergate case which the evidence will show he knew to be false…”
With the pacing and rhythm of an expert speaker, Barbara Jordan returned to James Madison and his words from the Constitutional Convention: “A President is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution.”
“The Constitution charges the President with the task of taking care that the laws be faithfully executed, and yet the President has counseled his aides to commit perjury, willfully disregarded the secrecy of grand jury proceedings, concealed surreptitious entry, attempted to compromise a federal judge while publicly displaying his cooperation with the processes of criminal justice…”
Summing up, she spoke confidently:
“Has the President committed offenses and planned and directed and acquiesced in a course of conduct which the Constitution will not tolerate? That is the question.
We know the question.
We should proceed to answer the question.
It is reason and not passion which must guide our deliberations, guide our debate, and guide our decision.”
With that, Barbara Jordan respectfully yielded her remaining time.
She reached her audience; viewers and listeners took notice.
(Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, before an impeachment trial could begin.)
Barbara Jordan Made Impact Elsewhere
Barbara Jordan had many issues that were important to her in representing her district. Among them were civil rights issues. She worked hard to extend the Voting Rights Act. She wanted to stem the various covert, convoluted ways that were taking the vote away from black people.
The injustices over gender were also on her mind. Shortly after she took her seat in the House of Representatives, the Equal Rights Amendment passed both houses of Congress (1972). As stipulated by law, the proposed amendment needed to be ratified by 38 of the 50 states.
On November 10, 1975, she had occasion to address her disbelief that the Equal Rights Amendment was still four states short of ratification three years into the process: The amendment is so simple, that in all of the negative rhetoric which you have heard about it, some of us who are for the amendment have had to go back and read it and see exactly what it is that it says.
It’s very simple: ‘Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any other state on account of sex.’ To me, that is stated in plain, simple, ordinary English.”
Barbara Jordan had a way of calling out what she saw as stupidity or bigotry.
Keynoted Democratic National Convention
Barbara Jordan will long be remembered for being the first African American woman to give a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. But it wasn’t just her symbolic presence…it was the power embodied in her speech. The speech was given in Madison Square Garden in New York City on the first night of the convention, July 12, 1976.
This press report from columnist Sandy Grady of The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin gives a sense of her impact:
“The Democrats were losing to boredom, 1-0, last night when they had the good sense to bring Barbara Jordan off the bench.
“Miss Jordan, as the ballplayers say, took it downtown. She tore it up. Grand slam.
“Jimmy Carter, watching the Dems’ lovefest on TV in his Americana Hotel suite, could only feel lucky he won’t have to follow Barbara Jordan’s act for three days. Getting on the same podium with Miss Jordan is like trying to sing along with Marian Anderson.”
Change of Course
By the mid- to late 1970s, Barbara Jordan took a fresh look at to her future. She was a national, well-respected figure by this time and knew she now had power to make a difference on her own. She was also showing signs of multiple sclerosis. The physical limitations she faced made her think more about what she wanted to achieve and how.
She furthered her thinking that spring when she heard from Harvard. The first call invited her to campus to receive an honorary degree at graduation. The second call was from the commencement committee: Would she give the commencement address? She was the committee’s first pick.
Of course she would, and it gave her an opportunity to talk about what she viewed as her next calling: Making certain people understood they had a voice. Voting counts, and all citizens need to take part in their communities and the government.
Addressing Harvard Audience
But before her main message, she had some unfinished business with Harvard. When she was on the debate team at TSU, Harvard and TSU were among the final teams for the top award. Ultimately, the judges determined the debate was a tie.
Jordan set the scene and then proceeded with her remarks: “Now it occurs to me today that if Harvard students were so superior –or as superior as we all thought–they should have won. And since the judges said the debate ended in a tie, we must have won.
“So, Mr. President and all of the alumni, I hereby declare that when that debate was held over twenty years ago, we won. And if you have any surplus trophies around anywhere I’ll take one home to the team. And if you should run into two gentlemen—one’s name was Jared Diamond and the other, James Sykes—they were the Harvard debaters at that time, I invite you to offer them my condolences.”
She then turned serious and addressed the importance of public participation, concluding: “The stakes are too high for government to be a spectator sport.”
Final Years Teaching
After her time in Congress, she returned to teach at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin. Students reported that she was never without a copy of the Constitution in her purse.
Commission on Immigration Reform
And her time in Washington was not quite at an end. In 1994, she accepted a position chairing the Commission on Immigration Reform. One of the issues facing the commission concerned children born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants. Barbara Jordan on the matter: “To deny birthright citizenship would derail this engine of American liberty.”
Barbara Jordan received many honors over her lifetime, among them was the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
She died in 1996 and is buried in the State Cemetery of Austin. Her papers are housed at the Barbara Jordan Archives at Texas Southern University. (Many of her papers can also be found online.)
Shortly after her passing, Senator Barbara Boxer (CA) made a speech to the U.S. Senate (January 22, 1996.) “If Barbara Jordan is remembered for just one thing, it will be the power of her words. Her message united people from vastly different walks of life, bringing them together to stand as one and nod their heads in unison and say, ‘Yes, each one of us can make a difference, and together we can make this nation stronger.’”
To read about another woman who fought for civil rights, read about the citizenship schools started by Septima Clark.
And here’s a clip from Barbara Jordan’s 1976 speech to the Democratic National Convention: