Jordan, Barbara

views updated

Jordan, Barbara

February 21, 1936
January 17, 1996

Congresswoman and professor Barbara Charline Jordan was born in Houston, Texas, the daughter of Arlyne Jordan and Benjamin M. Jordan, a Baptist minister. She spent her childhood in Houston and graduated from Texas Southern University in Houston in 1956. After receiving a law degree from Boston University in 1959, she was engaged briefly in private practice in Houston before becoming the administrative assistant for the county judge of Harris County, Texas, a post she held until 1966.

In 1962 and again in 1964, Jordan ran unsuccessfully for the Texas State Senate. In 1966, helped by the marked increase in African-American registered voters, she became the first black since 1883 elected to the Texas State Senate. The following year she became the first woman president of the Texas Senate. That year, redistricting opened a new district in Houston with a black majority. Jordan ran a strong campaign, and in 1972 she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from the district, becoming the first African-American woman elected to Congress from the South.

Jordan's short career as a high-profile congresswoman took her to a leadership role on the national level. In her first term she received an appointment to the House Judiciary Committee, where she achieved national recognition during the Watergate scandal, when in 1974 she voted for articles of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon. A powerful public speaker, Jordan eloquently conveyed to the country the serious constitutional nature of the charges and the gravity with which the Judiciary Committee was duty-bound to address the issues. "My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total," she declared. "I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution."

Jordan spent six years in Congress, where she spoke out against the Vietnam War and high military expenditures, particularly those earmarked for support of the war. She supported environmental reform as well as measures to aid blacks, the poor, the elderly, and other groups on the margins of society. Jordan was a passionate campaigner for the Equal Rights Amendment and for grassroots citizen political action. Central to all of her concerns was a commitment to realizing the ideals of the Constitution.

Public recognition of her integrity, her legislative ability, and her oratorical excellence came from several quarters. Beginning in 1974 and for ten consecutive years, the World Almanac named her one of the twenty-five most influential women in America. Time magazine named her one of the Women of the Year in 1976. Her electrifying keynote address at the Democratic National Convention that year helped to solidify her stature as a national figure.

In 1978, feeling she needed a wider forum for her views than her congressional district, Jordan chose not to seek reelection. Returning to her native Texas, she accepted a professorship in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin in 1979, and beginning in 1982 she held the Lyndon B. Johnson Centennial Chair in Public Policy. Reflecting her interest in minority rights, in 1985 Jordan was appointed by the secretary-general of the United Nations to serve on an eleven-member commission charged with investigating the role of transnational corporations in South Africa and Namibia. In 1991 Texas governor Ann Richards appointed her "ethics guru," charged with monitoring ethics in the state's government. In 1992, although confined to a wheelchair by a degenerative disease, Jordan gave a keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, again displaying the passion, eloquence, and integrity that had first brought her to public attention nearly two decades earlier.

In January 1996, two years after she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Jordan died. Her obituaries explained much that she had kept private during her lifetime, confirming that she had suffered from multiple sclerosis. They named her longtime companion and discussed her lesbianism.

After her death, a terminal at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Austin was dedicated to Jordan, and in 2002 a seven-foot statue of Jordan was placed in the terminal.

See also Politics in the United States


Haskins, James. Barbara Jordan. New York: Dial, 1977.

Rogers, Mary Beth. Barbara Jordan: American Hero. New York: Bantam, 1998.

christine a. lunardini (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005