Jordan, Barbara 1936–

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Barbara Jordan 1936

Politician, attorney, educator

At a Glance

Rebounded from Losses to Be Elected State Senator

Became First Black Congresswoman from the South

Left Politics for Professorship


With spellbinding oratory, political savvy, and a self-sufficiency that raised her above petty partisanship, former U.S. congresswoman and celebrated black leader Barbara Jordan blazed a trail up the electoral ranks in the 1970s, overcoming institutional bias to become one of the most respected representatives of the downtrodden in the United States. Having enjoyed as many political firsts as any other officeholder in the twentieth century, Jordan was catapulted to national fame during the presidential impeachment hearings of 1974 and seemed poised to take on the highest elected and appointed posts in the land. But in 1978, to the surprise of admirers and critics alike, Jordan retired from the insulated world of Washington D.C., believing that bureaucracy and partisan dogfights would forever hinder the forward-thinking activism that had drawn her to politics in the first place.

Barbara Charline Jordan was born February 21, 1936, in the largest black ghetto in Houston, Texas. Her father, Ben, a Baptist preacher and warehouse laborer, instilled in his three daughters an expectation for academic success and discipline that would later fuel Barbaras legendary studiousness and thirst for knowledge. Her mother, Arlyne, a dazzling church speaker herself, impressed upon her children the raw power of rhetoric. Perhaps the dominant early influence on Barbara Jordan was her grandfather John, who encouraged her burgeoning streak of independence, and, by reading to her from a pronunciation dictionary, reinforced her mothers lessons. It was his own maddening experience of being railroaded by the Houston legal systemhe was convicted of trumped-up charges of assault and intent to murderthat first illuminated for Jordan the flagrant double standards applied to whites and blacks in a country gripped by segregation.

While at the Phillis Wheatley High School, Jordan racked up several debating and oratory awards but recognized that talk alone would never conquer the injustices heaped upon blacks. I did not think it right for blacks to be in one place and whites in another place and never the two shall meet, she wrote in her autobiography Barbara Jordan: A Self-Portrait, coauthored by Shelby Hearon. There was just something about that that didnt feel right to me. And I wanted that to change, but I also had those feelings that it was going to be this way for a long, long time, and that nobody was going to be able to do anything to change it. She had at first intended to be a pharmacist but soon saw

At a Glance

Born Barbara Charline Jordan, February 21, 1936, in Houston, TX; daughter of Ben (a preacher and warehouse Worker) and Arlyne (Patten) Jordan. Education ; Texas Southern University, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1956; Boston University, J.D., 1959.

Admitted to the Bar of the States of Massachusetts and Texas, 1959; attorney, 1959 elected to Texas state Senate, 1966, reelected to four-year term, 1968; U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC, congressional representative from the 18th district of Texas, 1972-76; served on Judiciary Committee during President Richard M. Nixons impeachment hearings, 1974; speaker at Democratic National Conventions, 1976 and 1992; University of Texas, Austin, professor, 1979. Author, With Shelby Hearon, of Barbara Jordan: A Self Portrait, Doubleday, 1979; host of voices of the Electorate: The African-American Voter, PBS, 1992.

Awards: Named One of the 10 Most Influential Women in Texas and One of 100 Women in Touch with Our Time by Harpers Bazaar ; elected Outstanding Freshman Senator by the Texas Senate; named Democratic Woman of the Year by the Womens National Democratic Club and Woman of the Year in Politics by Ladies Home Journal ; Eleanor Roosevelt Humanities Award, 1984; charles Evans Hughes Gold Medal, National Conference of Christians and Jews; Spingarn Medal, National Association for the Advancement of colored People, 1992. Received honorary degrees from numerous institutions, including Harvard University, Howard University, and Tufts University.

Addresses: Office University of Texas, Lyndon B. Johnson School of public Affairs, Drawer y, University Station, Austin, TX 78713-7450.

that such a professional path would never enable her to right the social wrongs of a segregated world. After hearing a black woman lawyer speak at a school career-day event, Jordan decided to enter the arena of law.

While at Texas Southern University, a school created for blacks who were not allowed to attend the prestigious University of Texas, Jordan excelled on the debating club, often arguing with sober, analytical logic and fiery emotional appeals for integration. Touring with the club, Jordan frequently bested white debaters but was consistently put down by the rampant discrimination of Jim Crow laws that relegated blacks to the backs of buses and restaurants. She had wanted to attend Harvard Law Schoolin her view the best such institution in the countrybut was told by her debating coach that this pillar of higher education would not welcome a black girl from an obscure southern school. Eager to leave the world of segregated education, Jordan enrolled at Boston University Law School, becoming one of two black women in the freshman class. She knew she had entered a more enlightened world when she met her roommate, a wealthy white woman whose father was chairman of the National Democratic Committee, an organization, ironically, that would later court her.

After graduation, Jordan returned to Houston, where she set up a makeshift office in her parents house and practiced law, focusing mainly on domestic relations. Her interest in politics had been growing since the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, which found segregation in public education unconstitutional and rejected the separate but equal defense offered by segregated school districts. Jordan, who was deeply resentful of the inequitable educational opportunities available to blacks and whites, was frustrated that the Brown decision had not translated into the immediate integration of schools. She recognized politics as the singular vehicle of change. Campaigning for the Democratic partys presidential ticket of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnsonthe latter would eventually become a beloved political mentorJordan delivered impassioned speeches throughout her Houston district, making a name for herself as an orator and getting to know the movers and shakers of the local democratic machine.

Rebounded from Losses to Be Elected State Senator

In 1962, ambitious and confident, Jordan ran for the Texas House of Representatives. She adopted the political buzzwords reform and retrenchment to characterize her campaign, spoke eloquently on the moral necessity of welfare, and read textbooks, that, she felt, taught the rules of the game of Texas politics. She didnt realize at the time that many of the unwritten rules favored white, conservative men (like her opponent), over liberal, black women. I felt that the black and the woman stuff were just side issues, and that people were going to ignore that, she wrote in her autobiography. She lost the election, garnering the black vote in her district but failing to attract the white voters who constituted the majoritya condition that also held true for her second unsuccessful stab at state representative in 1964.

Disheartened by the losses and worried that gender and race would forever restrict her political future, Jordan was given a third chance in 1966, after a Supreme Court decision affirmed the one man, one vote principle of participatory democracy. As a result of that ruling, a Texas State Senate seat covered a newly redistricted area including blacks, migrant workers, and pro-labor whites groups that Jordan had won handily during her previous campaigns. Jordan faced the vexing decision of running against a respected white incumbent who boasted a strong liberal record and whose views jibed with her own. But she believed that her gender and race, once viewed as liabilities, offered a welcome new vision and perspective. She won the election by a margin of two to one, made national news as the first black woman in the Texas legislature, and became one of a small group of the first blacks elected in the South since the late nineteenth century.

Taking advantage of a growing political acuity and maximizing her chances of accomplishing her goals while working within the system, Jordan entered the Texas Senate as an open-minded and conciliatory freshman, not as a dissenting rebel waving the banner of black power. She quickly earned the respect of conservatives and liberals alike by not only tackling issues fairly, but by mastering the rough-and-tumble world of Texas politics. A former editorial writer for the Houston Chronicle was quoted in Ebony magazine as saying: If one wanted to think up the three handicaps with which one could enter a know-nothing, reactionary state senate of those days, it would be a person of liberal persuasion, a woman, and a black. Yet her intelligence and her commanding personality got her to the point where she had the senate eating out of her hand.

In her six-year tenure as state senatorshe was reelected in 1968Jordan used hard work and political know-how so expertly that half the bills she submitted were enacted into law, including the Texas Fair Employment Practices Commission, an improved workmans compensation act, and the expansion of minimum wage provisions to cover domestics, farm laborers, and laundry workers. She was elected Outstanding Freshman Senator by her colleagues and, in 1972, was given the honor of Governor for a Day, making her, albeit temporarily, the first black woman governor of any state. By this point, she had already been discovered by the National Democratic party, having participated in a much-ballyhooed White House meeting with president Johnson on his proposed Fair Housing legislation and having been invited to attend a gala fundraiser in Miami.

Became First Black Congresswoman from the South

In 1972, after a census had given Texas an additional U.S. House of Representatives seat covering Houston, Jordan became the first black woman elected to Congress from the South. She recalled in her autobiography the glowing endorsement that fellow-Texan and former President Lyndon Johnson had given her at a 1971 campaign fundraiser. Barbara Jordan proved to us that black is beautiful before we knew what that meant. In her three congressional terms, as in her tenure in the Texas Senate, Jordan demonstrated her independence, forging alliances with conservatives who others might have viewed as her ideological opponents and always following her conscience rather than the narrow dictum of any political party. And again, as in Texas, she was able to succeed, pushing through legislation that eliminated price-fixing, expanded voting rights to non-English-speaking residents, and prohibited discrimination in industries that received public funding.

Although Jordan considered herself a politician first, a black person second, and a woman third, she spiritedly championed womens causes, arguing forcefully for the Equal Rights Amendment, the availability of abortion services, and the entitlement of homemakers to receive social security benefits. Few members in the long history of the House have so quickly impressed themselves upon the consciousness of the country, Irwin Ross wrote in Readers Digest in 1977.

This moral authority was showcased for the world in 1974 during the impeachment hearings of President Richard Nixon. As a member of the powerful Judiciary Committee, Jordan was entitled to deliver a 15-minute televised speech concerning the Watergate scandal that had brought shame and ruin to the Nixon presidency. (The Watergate affair centered on the Nixon re-election campaign committees break-in at Democratic party officesan incident that ultimately led to the presidents resignation.) In keeping with her view that the hearings were a somber, painful moment in American politics, Jordan delivered an eloquent, melancholic ode to the Constitution, the document which, she felt, had been sullied by the administrations crimes. My faith in the Constitution is whole, she said, as recalled in her autobiography. 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.

Left Politics for Professorship

After this emotional monologue, and later, after an impassioned keynote address at the 1976 Democratic Convention, Americans of all political bents pinned hopes on Jordans assuming the highest offices in the country. Although President Jimmy Carter, for whom she campaigned, made several overtures about appointed positions, Jordan stated that she only would be interested in that of attorney general, a post that had been filled. In 1978, frustrated by the inherent slowness of government action and convinced that the quest for a position of greater political powernamely, the office of the presidentwas beyond her reach, Jordan did not seek reelection to the House of Representatives. In Congress, one chips away, one does not make bold strokes, she was quoted as saying in Ms. magazine in 1985. After six years I had wearied of the little chips that I could put on a woodpile.

Jordan returned to Texas as a full professor at the University of Texas in Austin, teaching political values and ethics at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Her classes, emphasizing public service as the highest purpose of government work, became so popular that a lottery was needed to handle the legion of students who wanted to attend them. Ultimately she became a special counsel on ethics to Texas governor Ann Richards, charged with screening the moral strength and sensitivity of political appointees.

When asked in a Time magazine interview about the cynicism staining many Americans views of politics and those who seek elected office, Jordan commented: I am very disheartened by the public perception of politicians not having the public welfare at heart because I absolutely believe politics is an honorable profession. I wish more people would see politicians as public servants, because thats what they are. During the 1992 Democratic National Convention, she urged the Democratic party to sharpen its vision of the future and help the U.S. economy progress from a philosophy of taxing and spending to one of investment and growth. That same year, Jordan received the prestigious Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.



Jordan, Barbara, and Shelby Hearon, Barbara Jordan: A Self-Portrait, Doubleday, 1979.


Atlantic, March 1975.

Ebony, February 1975.

Good Housekeeping, June 1978.

Jet, August 17, 1992.

Ms., April 1985.

Readers Digest, February 1977.

Time, June 3, 1991.

Additional information for this profile was taken from Democratic National Convention highlights broadcast on ABC-TV during the week of July 13, 1992.

Isaac Rosen

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Jordan, Barbara 1936–

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