"We are legislators, and we ought to remember that this is our role.... It is not a very sexy way to proceed in civil rights, but it is now an accepted, legitimate way to achieve gains for black people."
At the House Judiciary Committee hearings in 1974, one of the most articulate voices was that of Barbara Jordan. Her clear, firm statements and her precise assessments of the situation were watched with admiration by television viewers throughout the nation.
This was a difficult time for the United States and especially for the thirty-eight members of the committee. They had to decide whether or not President Richard M. Nixon had committed impeachable offenses in connection with the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. All were aware of the seriousness of the occasion and the importance of weighing every detail.
Although Jordan had not been long in Congress, she was already known for her clear thinking and straight talk—qualities that were evident in her speech to the committee. Summarizing her position, she staunchly declared her belief in the principles of the Constitution, and she roundly condemned Nixon's behavior as a breach of these principles. "My faith in the Constitution is whole.... I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator in the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution." With this speech, the black congresswoman from Texas became a national heroine.
Chose the law
Barbara Charline Jordan was born on February 21, 1936, in Houston, Texas. As a child she never imagined that one day she would be a politician, let alone a national heroine. She did not even know what a politician was. Like so many African Americans of her generation, she was born into a very poor home, where she and her two sisters were brought up strictly. Their father, Benjamin Jordan, was a Baptist minister who demanded that they get top marks at school and would not allow them to go to dances or parties. Since they were also forbidden to go to the movies and did not have a television, Jordan assumed that all women spent their lives as her mother did.
Jordan's mother, Arlyne (Patten) Jordan, had been trained as an orator at the Baptist church, and Jordan showed a talent for public speaking too. She was the star of the debating team at Phillis Wheatley High School in Houston. By the time she entered high school, Jordan realized women could do other things besides keeping house, and she thought she might become a pharmacist. But she changed her mind when black lawyer Edith Sampson gave a talk to the school during Career Day. Although Jordan was not entirely sure what a lawyer did, she decided that she, too, would become one.
As a first step toward her career in law, Jordan enrolled at all-black Texas Southern University in Houston in 1952, majoring in political science and history. As usual, she shone as an orator, leading the university's debating team. After graduating with a B.A., magna cum laude, in 1956, she entered Boston University Law School. There she had a difficult time at first, for she found that her education in an all-black environment had put her behind the white students. "I was doing sixteen years of remedial work in thinking," she later noted.
Sought political office
On earning her LL.B. in 1959, Jordan returned to Houston to practice law, though at first she could not afford an office. She ran her practice out of her parents' home, using the dining room table as her desk. In addition Jordan worked as administrative assistant to the county judge and became involved in politics, working for Harris County's Democratic party.
In 1962 and again in 1964 Jordan ran for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives. Although she failed each time, she took heart from the number of people who had voted for her. Success eventually came in 1966, when she ran for a seat in the state senate and was elected by a huge majority. Jordan was the first black woman to serve in the Texas Senate, though she had not based her campaign on being a woman or on being black. "It feels good to know that people recognize a qualified candidate when they see one," she commented.
Jordan served for six years in the Texas Senate, and during those years she more than justified the voters' confidence in her abilities. Much of the legislation she supported was aimed at making conditions better for the poor. For instance, she helped create the state's first law establishing minimum wages. Her work brought her such respect that in 1972 the Senate honored her by choosing her as the traditional "governor for a day." As such, Jordan became the first black executive in the United States.
Served on House Judiciary Committee during Watergate
In 1971 Jordan turned her sights on the U.S. Congress, and the following year she was elected to the House of Representatives. On taking office in 1973 she disappointed some black politicians, because she did not take a militant position on civil rights. "We are legislators, and we ought to remember that this is our role.... It is not a very sexy way to proceed in civil rights, but it is now an accepted, legitimate way to achieve gains for black people." As she often said, she was "into brain power, not black power."
Shortly after taking her seat, Jordan was assigned to the House Judiciary Committee and thus found herself at the center of one of the major political dramas of this century. Although she did not like the idea of impeaching a president of the United States, she felt that the principles laid down in the Constitution must be upheld, and she said so fearlessly in her speech: "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 that. We should now forthwith proceed to answer the question. It is reason and not passion which must guide our decision."
Sought to help all those in need
Reason remained Jordan's watchword throughout her time in Congress as she worked to improve the conditions for the American people, and especially for those in need. She supported such social reforms as providing free legal aid for the poor, increasing minimum wage, and raising the amount of benefits received by the sick and elderly. As she said in her keynote speech at the 1976 Democratic Convention, she hoped to build a "national community" in which everyone would be able to share in the American dream.
This speech confirmed, yet once again, Jordan's brilliance as an orator, and it racked up another "first" for her, since it made her the first black woman to give a keynote speech at a party convention. Jordan had been the first African American woman in the Texas senate, the first black woman from the South to serve in Congress, and there had been talk that she might become the first black woman to be vice president. However, she pushed the idea aside, saying, "It's not my turn." In 1978 she decided not to run for Congress again.
Awarded Medal of Freedom
In 1979 Jordan launched a new career as a teacher, taking the post of professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas to teach political ethics. She felt the time had come to contribute in a different way, concentrating on the younger generation and instilling a set of sound principles in her students. "They are my future," she said, "and the future of this country." At the same time, she kept in touch with politics, and in 1992 she was again the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention. In August 1994, Jordan and eight other Americans were awarded the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, by President Bill Clinton.
For the last five years of her life, Jordan suffered from multiple sclerosis. Even though she was forced to move about with the aid of a walker or a wheelchair, she remained active in academia and politics. In 1995 Jordan appeared before Congress as chairwoman of the independent U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform. Diagnosed with leukemia that same year, she eventually succumbed to viral pneumonia as a complication of leukemia, and died on January 17, 1996, in Austin, Texas.
- Blue, Rose, and Corinne Naden, Barbara Jordan, Chelsea House, 1992.
- Brown, Ray B., ed., Contemporary Heroes and Heroines, Gale, 1990, pp. 225-29.
- Ebony, February 1975, pp. 136-42.
- Jeffrey, Laura S., Barbara Jordan: Congresswoman, Lawyer, Educator, Enslow, 1997.
- Jet, August 17, 1992.
- Jordan, Barbara, and Shelby Hearon, Barbara Jordan: A Self-Portrait, Doubleday, 1979.
- New York Times, January 18, 1996, pp. A1, B10; January 21, 1996, p. A10.
- Patrick-Wexler, Diane, Barbara Jordan, Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1996.
- Reader's Digest, February 1977.
- Time, June 3, 1991, pp. 9-10.
- Washington Post, July 22, 1994, p. C1.