Barbara Jordan was one of the most impressive legislators ever to serve in the United States Congress. Always a trailblazer, she was the first black member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas since Reconstruction, and the first black woman to deliver a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. I recount her story in my book Congressional Lions.
Throughout her life, Jordan was a pioneer. Born in Houston, Texas, in 1936, she came of age in the Jim Crow South. Barred from attending the University of Texas owing to segregation, she enrolled in Texas Southern University, a well-known historically black college, where she became a champion debater. She was graduated magna cum laude from college and attended Boston University School of Law.
She graduated from law school in 1959, one of only two black women in a class of 128. After passing the bar examination in Massachusetts and Texas and mulling over career options, she chose to return to the South. She taught at the famed Tuskegee Institute for a year before moving on to Texas to open a private law practice. In 1960, Jordan entered politics formally for the first time as a supporter of the Kennedy-Johnson presidential ticket. She proved to be a formidable organizer when she developed a program to get black workers in 40 Harris County precincts to the polls. Largely because of her efforts, voter turnout surged to 80 percent in those precincts, an astonishing achievement.
It was her first taste of politics, and she was enthralled. In fact, she threw herself into political life with a zeal that worried her family. “I couldn’t have it both ways,” she later recalled in explaining why she chose to forgo marriage and child-rearing. “I reasoned that this political thing was so total in terms of focus that, if I formed an attachment, this total commitment would become less than total.”
She became a fixture in the Harris County Democratic Party, but her first campaigns for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives did not go well. She suffered losses in 1962 and 1964. In 1966, after officials had reapportioned Harris County the previous year, she won a spot in the state senate, one of two blacks elected to statewide office that year. (A black man and occasional competitor, Curtis Graves, won a seat in the Texas House of Representatives.)
In 1972, Jordan chose not to seek reelection in the state senate. She had made a name for herself in Texas politics, excelling in a venue that had seldom been kind to blacks or women. She had served as president pro tempore, and had even served as governor for a day. It was time to seek a larger stage for her talents. She set her sights on a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. That year, she triumphed at the polls, winning 80 percent of the vote.
She also won a coveted assignment to the House Judiciary Committee, which gave her a front row seat to one of the most important episodes in American history. Richard Nixon was facing the political fight of his life as the House of Representatives investigated whether the president had obstructed justice in attempting to cover up crimes related to the June 1972 burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Building in Washington, D.C. The Judiciary Committee played an integral role in the investigations. As a junior member of the committee, Jordan could have been forgiven if she had watched the proceedings unfold without taking an active role. Yet she chose not to sit on the sidelines.
In a speech that Newsweek magazine heralded as the “most memorable indictment of Richard Nixon to emerge from the House impeachment,” Jordan used her considerable skills as a lawyer and orator to lay out the case against the president. She began by acknowledging that the United States Constitution is not a perfect instrument. “I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake,” she confessed, referring to the exclusion of women and people of color from the citizens referenced in the constitutional preamble. “But through the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision I have finally been included in ‘We, the people.’” Fidelity to the Constitution requires everyone to protect the instrument from destruction, she said. “Today, I am an inquisitor; I believe hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. 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.”
She carefully considered the facts and the law. “A President is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution,” she noted. “If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here, then perhaps that eighteenth century Constitution should be abandoned to a twentieth century paper shredder.” In a simple, eloquent conclusion, she set forth the proper path: “It is reason, and not passion, which must guide our deliberations, guide our debate, and guide our decision.”
Despite her methodical discussion that day, Jordan was not an anti-Nixon critic. She took no pleasure in the president’s resignation in August 1974. Nonetheless, she believed that she had done her duty as a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Today, Jordan is perhaps best remembered for her speech at the 1976 Democratic National Convention delivered in Madison Square Garden in New York City on July 12, 1976. She began her 20-minute oration by observing that “there is something special about tonight.” She, a black woman, was delivering the keynote address at a major party’s presidential nominating convention. Much had changed in the nation since the Founders had penned the Declaration of Independence almost exactly 200 years before she spoke. Slavery had been eradicated, segregation had been abandoned, and the plight of women was improving. The core values of the nation had not changed, imperfect though the nation had been throughout its history. “A nation is formed by the willingness of each of us to share in the responsibility for upholding the common good,” she reminded her listeners. “A government is invigorated when each one of us is willing to participate in shaping the future of this nation. In this election year, we must define the ‘common good’ and begin again to shape a common future. Let each person do his or her part.”
Jordan chose not to dwell on the inequities of the past, but looked to the promise of the future. “And now, what are those of us who are elected public officials supposed to do? We call ourselves ‘public servants’ but I’ll tell you this: We as public servants must set an example for the rest of the nation. It is hypocritical for the public official to admonish and exhort the people to uphold the common good if we are derelict in upholding the common good. More is required—More is required of public officials than slogans and handshakes and press releases. More is required. We must hold ourselves strictly accountable. We must provide the people with a vision of the future.”
She expressed her long-held view that foundational principles will long endure even in the face of a changing America and new problems facing the citizenry. “We cannot improve on the system of government handed down to us by the founders of the Republic. There is no way to improve upon that. But what we can do is to find new ways to implement that system and realize our destiny.”
She concluded with stirring words uttered by the nation’s sixteenth president. “Well, I am going to close my speech by quoting a Republican President and I ask you that as you listen to these words of Abraham Lincoln, relate them to the concept of a national community in which every last one of us participates: ‘As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.’ This—This—This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.”
The 1976 address was the apex of her political career. The congresswoman chose to retire from elective office in 1978 and become a teacher at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. She explained that she left office because she wanted to focus on national affairs and “the country’s needs as I perceived them.”
She spent the remainder of her career in academe, although she occasionally surfaced in a public role. In 1992, she again spoke at the Democratic National Convention. She also earned many awards and accolades. More than 20 institutions of higher learning awarded her honorary degrees. She was inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame in 1984, and the National Women’s Hall of Fame six years later. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) presented her with the prestigious Spingarn Medal, awarded “for the highest or noblest achievement by a living American Negro during the preceding year or years.” In 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded her the presidential medal of freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Jordan’s health began to decline during the 1970s, which might have been another reason why she retired from political life. In 1973, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Her long-time companion Nancy Earl, an educational psychologist, became Jordan’s caregiver as the years passed. In 1988, Jordan almost drowned in a swimming pool. Only Earl’s quick action revived her.
Barbara Jordan died in Austin, Texas, on January 17, 1996, at the age of 59 owing to complications from pneumonia. She left a legacy as one of the true giants in American congressional history, despite her brief tenure in the House of Representatives. Yet for all of her groundbreaking “firsts,” she did not want to be remembered as a pioneering woman of color. “I am neither a black politician nor a female politician,” she remarked many times, “just a politician.” She wore the label “politician” as a badge of honor, the sign of a citizen who pursued the noble calling of public service.