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Barbara Charline Jordan

Barbara Charline Jordan

Attorney Barbara Charline Jordan (1936-1996), who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1972 to 1976, was a prominent member of the House Judiciary Committee when it held President Richard M. Nixon's impeachment hearings.

Barbara Jordan was born in Houston, Texas, to parents with strong convictions about the behavior of their three daughters. Jordan's father, a Baptist preacher, was probably the most important influence in her life. He valued God, the Bible, his family, good music, and the spoken and written word. Although the Jordans were poor, their lot was not very different from that of other African Americans in the Houston area. Jordan's parents made every effort to provide adequately for her and her sisters and to shield them from the detrimental effects of the racially segregated society in which they lived by regularly exposing them to the most positive aspects of their own African American community. They attended schools and churches led by prominent members of the African American community and conducted their business with African American-owned establishments. It was Jordan's parents who made contact with the white world when it was necessary.

All of the Jordan girls played musical instruments, and two of them decided that they wanted to become music teachers. Barbara, however, was more ambitious. She was not sure what she wanted to do, but she knew she wanted to achieve something great. Her father had taught her that race and poverty had nothing to do with her brain power or her ability to achieve lofty goals if she had the drive to work for them.

Young Jordan Decides To Become a Lawyer

At first Jordan thought about being a pharmacist, but as she researched that profession, she noted that she had never heard of a famous pharmacist and, consequently, she decided to abandon that field. When a African American female lawyer from Chicago, Edith Sampson (who later became a judge), visited Jordan's high school on "career day," Jordan was so impressed with her that she made a definite decision about her life work. That evening she announced to her parents that she wanted to be a lawyer. Jordan's mother was reluctant about her daughter's choice—after all, African American women lawyers were a rarity in the South—but her father supported her, reassuring her that she could excel in any endeavor.

Money was certainly an important consideration when Jordan was choosing a college. After many family conferences, she decided to enroll at Texas Southern University (TSU), an inexpensive school for African American students, in order to save money for law school. At TSU Jordan, already a skilled orator, joined the debating team. In a bout with Harvard University debators, the TSU team, with Jordan at the helm, was jubilant when the match ended in a tie. After Jordan graduated magna cum laude from TSU in 1956 she went to Boston University Law School. She was an excellent and extremely disciplined student who often worked long into the night. Because her family made tremendous financial sacrifices to pay for her education, Jordan did not want to disappoint them in any way. She graduated in 1959 and in the same year passed both the Massachusetts and Texas bar examinations.

Early Practice and Senate Years

After she returned to Houston in 1959 Jordan began her law practice on her parents' dining room table. When she was finally able to convince friends and neighbors that she was indeed a competent attorney her clientele grew, enabling her to open an office downtown. Since the civil rights movement was in full swing by the time Jordan had established herself, she decided that she might be able to do her part in the unweaving of the web of segregation laws by becoming a member of the Texas State House of Representatives. She waged two unsuccessful campaigns, one in 1962 and another in 1964, on a shoestring budget. Although she lost both elections, she was gaining popularity. When the lines of Houston's voting districts were redrawn, Jordan found that most of those who had voted for her were united in a single district. She decided to run for the Texas Senate in 1966 and won. She was the first African American woman ever to be elected to the Texas Senate and the first African American person to serve since the Reconstruction period. In 1972, after six years in the Texas Senate, where she sponsored important labor legislation, Jordan decided to run for the U.S. House of Representatives. She was not the first African American woman to be seated in the U.S. Congress; that honor went to Shirley Chisholm of New York, who had been elected in 1968. She was, however, the first African American woman from the South.

Service as Member of House Judiciary Committee

Jordan was particularly interested in becoming a member of the House Judiciary Committee. A word from a man she admired—former President Lyndon B. Johnson— helped to bring that desire to fruition. Thus, when the difficult question of President Richard M. Nixon's collusion in the Watergate Hotel burglary in an effort to secure his 1972 election victory was brought before the Judiciary Committee, Jordan was among its members.

The committee, seeking evidence to determine whether Nixon had committed an impeachable offense, commanded so much public attention that its hearings were televised. The viewing audience was interested in the questions raised by all of the committee members, but it was Barbara Jordan, who riveted the attention of the viewers with her oratorical ability, clarity of presentation, and thorough knowledge of constitutional issues. As more and more damaging information was uncovered, it seemed that President Nixon's impeachment was inevitable. Before the committee made its final decision, Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, the first president in U. S. history to do so. The televised impeachment hearings catapulted Jordan to national fame.

Jordan As Teacher and Orator

Jordan did not seek reelection after her second term. Part of her reason for leaving politics was that she was suffering poor health due to leukemia and multiple sclerosis, which eventually caused her to rely on a wheelchair or a walker. Her ill health did not keep her from many honorable accomplishments in her later years, however. She held several teaching positions, including professor at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs in Houston, Texas, where her ethics course was so popular that students entered a lottery to enroll. In 1976, she became the first African American selected to deliver the keynote address at a national convention of the Democratic Party. She was the keynote speaker again in 1992 for the Democratic Convention which nominated Bill Clinton. Jordan was such a skilled and respected lecturer and speaker that in 1985 she was named Best Living Orator.

President Clinton appointed her to the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform in 1994. Here Jordan denounced hostility toward immigrants, and opposed a plan which would deny automatic citizenship to children of immigrants born in this country. That same year she received the Medal of Freedom from President Clinton. Jordan died on January 17, 1996 in Austin, Texas from viral pnemonia caused by complications from leukemia. President Johnson's widow, Lady Bird Johnson was quoted in Jet in February 1996, saying, "I feel a stabbing sense of loss at the passing of a good friend."

Further Reading

There are several biographies of Jordan available, including her own Barbara Jordan, A Self Portrait (1979); James Haskins, Barbara Jordan (1977); Ira Bryant, Barbara Charline Jordan (1977); Linda Jacobs, Barbara Jordan (1978); and Naurice Roberts, Barbara Jordan, the Great Lady from Texas (1984); also, "Barbara Jordan, former congresswoman and educator dies at 59 in Austin, Texas," Jet, February 5, 1996; and "Jordan's rules," from The New Republic, February 12, 1996, vol. 214, no. 7. □

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Jordan, Barbara Charline

JORDAN, BARBARA CHARLINE

Barbara Charline Jordan, attorney, legislator, and educator, was the first African-American woman from a Southern state to win election to the U.S. Congress.

Jordan was born on February 21, 1936, in Houston, Texas, the third and youngest daughter of the Reverend Benjamin Jordan and Arlyne Jordan. In 1952, she graduated at the top of her class from Phyllis Wheatley High School and enrolled in Texas Southern University (TSU), an all-black college, where she joined the debate team and traveled to competitions throughout the United States. The team was restricted to blacks-only motels and restaurants in many of the states bordering Texas.

In 1956, Jordan graduated magna cum laude from TSU with a bachelor's degree in history and political science. She enrolled in Boston University, in Massachusetts—one of six women, including two black women, in the law school's first-year class. During her first year of law school, Jordan realized how inadequate her prior education in Houston had been. But she was successful at Boston, and, she returned to Houston and opened a law practice after her graduation in 1959.

Jordan was also drawn to politics. She became involved in the 1960 presidential campaign and went to work for john f. kennedy and for fellow Texan lyndon b. johnson, both democratic party nominees. In 1962 she made her first unsuccessful bid for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives, running from Harris County. She ran again in 1964, and again was defeated. Jordan decided to make a third attempt at winning public office and in 1966 she was elected to the Texas Senate. She was the first black state senator elected in Texas since 1883.

"What people want is very simple. They want an America as good as its promise."
—Barbara Jordan

Shortly after her election, Jordan was invited to the White House by President Johnson to discuss his upcoming civil rights legislation. In 1972 she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the first black woman from a Southern state to serve in Congress. She immediately enlisted former president Johnson's assistance in winning an appointment to the House Judiciary Committee, where she gained national recognition for her remarks at the impeachment proceedings against President richard nixon.

Jordan gained additional prominence in July 1976 when she gave a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. Her speech about the Democratic Party and the meaning of democracy in the United States brought her a standing ovation. A movement to put Jordan on the ticket as vice president gained tremendous support, but Jordan held a press conference to announce that she did not wish to be nominated.

Jordan served three terms in the House of Representatives and sponsored landmark legislation to expand the voting rights act,42 U.S.C.A. § 1973 et seq., to require printing of bilingual ballots, and to toughen enforcement of civil rights laws. She resigned from Congress in 1972 and became a professor at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. In 1982, she was appointed to the university's Lyndon B. Johnson Centennial Chair in National Policy, where she taught courses on ethics and national policy issues.

In December 1990, Texas Governor Ann W. Richards appointed Jordan as a special adviser to her administration on ethics in government. Richards had made ethics a primary focus of her campaign, and she asked Jordan to author ethics legislation and work with gubernatorial appointees on guidelines for ethical behavior in their public service.

Jordan died in Austin, Texas on January 17, 1996.

further readings

Holmes, Barbara Ann. A Private Woman in Public Spaces: Barbara Jordan's Speeches on Ethics, Public Religion, and Law. 2000. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press Universal.

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

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

cross-references

Apportionment; Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas; School Desegregation.

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Jordan, Barbara Charline

Barbara Charline Jordan, 1936–96, African-American lawyer, public official, and educator, b. Houston. After graduating from Boston Univ. Law School (1959), she practiced law in Houston. In 1966 she became the first African American to be elected to the Texas senate, and six years later, the first to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from the South since Reconstruction. As a Democratic member of Congress, she achieved national renown on the House Judiciary Committee when it investigated (1974) the Watergate affair. Her keynote address at the 1976 Democratic national convention further enhanced her stature, but she decided to retire from politics the following year. From 1979 until her death, she taught at the Univ. of Texas.

See biography by M. B. Rogers (1998).

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Jordan, Barbara Charline

Jordan, Barbara Charline

(b. 21 February 1936 in Houston, Texas; d. 17 January 1996 in Austin, Texas), first black southern woman in the United States Congress.

Jordan was the third of three daughters of Arlyne Patten Jordan and Benjamin Jordan. Her mother cleaned houses, and her father was a laborer and Baptist preacher. Both were well-known orators in the Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Houston. The year she was born, the church’s minister helped found the Texas branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). A Good Hope church member was plaintiff in the 1944 Supreme Court decision that forced Texas Democrats to allow black voters to participate in party primaries. Jordan’s great-grandfather, Edward Patton, served as the only black member of the Texas House of Representatives from 1891 to 1893 and was one of the last black Republicans elected after Reconstruction in that state. Jordan’s cousin, Dr. Thelma Patten, the first black female physician in Houston, presided at her birth. Her grandfather, John Ed Patten, used to read to her as they rode on his mule cart collecting junk for resale, and encouraged her to “travel up from segregation.”

Jordan attended segregated schools in Houston. She was a champion debater for Phillis Wheatley High School and for Texas Southern University, which debated both black and white teams and once tied in competition with Harvard University. She became president of Delta Sigma Theta sorority and graduated magna cum laude in 1956 with a B.A. in political science. Her first experience in integrated classrooms was at Boston University Law School, where only six students in her class were black. One of her first white friends was the daughter of the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. She received her LL.B. in 1959 and passed the bar in both Massachusetts and Texas.

From 1960 to 1966 Jordan conducted a private legal practice from her parents’ home in Houston and served as administrative assistant to a county judge. She worked in John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign, and made speeches in support of white liberal candidates, but lost her own races for the Texas legislature in 1962 and 1964. After the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 enfranchised more black voters and a United States Supreme Court decision forced redistricting in Houston, Jordan was elected to the Texas state senate from the Eleventh District in 1966. She served in the sixtieth through the sixty-second legislative sessions in Austin, from 1967 through 1973, becoming the first black state senator in Texas since 1883, the first African-American female Texas legislator, and the only woman in the state senate during her two terms.

To the surprise of many, the serious-minded Jordan hosted parties, drank whiskey, played poker, traded votes, and quickly became popular with the other legislators. Nearly half the 150 bills Jordan introduced during her three terms in the legislature were signed into law. These included creation of a Texas Fair Employment Practices Commission; the state’s first minimum-wage law; and increased workers’ compensation coverage for on-the-job injuries. She successfully backed the Equal Legal Rights Amendment to the Texas Constitution as well as Texas’s ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. She also called in political favors to block bills that would harm her constituency in areas such as voting rights. Although she often voted with liberal members of the legislature, she did not let their caucus speak for her.

Her success came from studying the rules, learning the art of compromise, and working closely with the insiders who controlled the power structure, regardless of any disagreements on the issues. President Lyndon Johnson was one of her strong supporters, and her reciprocal support for him included withholding criticism regarding his Vietnam policies at the 1968 Democratic Convention, though she herself had come out against the war. Governor John Connally vetoed Jordan’s appointment to the executive committee of the Texas Democratic party in 1964, yet she would eventually serve as a character witness during his trial for bribery and perjury in 1975. Connally’s protégé, Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes, appointed Jordan to fourteen committees in the Texas senate. She chaired the Labor and Management Relations Committee and was vice chair of two others, including the one that drew boundaries for a new Eighteenth U.S. Congressional District in her home county. In 1972 she ran for that seat and won, and before she left the Texas senate, she was elected president pro tempore and governor for a day.

One of President Johnson’s last political acts before his death in 1973 was to advise Jordan to get on the House Judiciary Committee and to secure her appointment. She also served on the House Government Operations Committee. Jordan joined the Black Caucus but did not sit with its members on the floor, choosing instead a seat on the center aisle. She was also one of fourteen women in Congress, the largest number to serve up to that time. She joined other female legislators on several issues, winning an extension of the deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment but losing on federal Medicaid funding for abortions and Social Security benefits for homemakers. One of her first legislative victories in Congress was revising the Omnibus Crime Bill to increase the hiring of women and minorities as police officers. As a Texan she also represented a Mexican-American constituency. Against the will of almost all her old colleagues in Texas, she backed reauthorization of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was due to expire in 1975, and successfully extended its provisions to cover Texas and other states with five percent or more Hispanic population. She was successful in passing a law to protect consumers from price-fixing, and active in the Judiciary Committee’s efforts to curb abuses by the federal intelligence agencies because she had been the target of the U.S. Army’s domestic intelligence program in the 1960s.

Jordan is best known for her role in the confrontation between Congress and President Richard M. Nixon that led to the latter’s resignation. Jordan’s first speech in Congress, on 18 April 1973, analyzed the separation of powers and concluded that Nixon had trampled on the Constitution by refusing to spend money Congress appropriated, by bombing Indochina without consent of Congress, and by forbidding members of his administration to appear before congressional committees.

That summer, Nixon’s illegal campaign activities, including covering up break-ins and spying at the Democratic National Committee office in the Watergate building, came to light. The president defied the special prosecutor, the courts, and later Congress by refusing to turn over subpoenaed evidence. On 31 July 1973 the first impeachment resolution against Nixon for high crimes and misdemeanors was introduced in the House Judiciary Committee, and on 20 October, Nixon fired Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, replacing him with a Houstonian whom Jordan knew and respected, Leon Jaworski. Jaworski gave information to the Judiciary Committee that enabled them to conduct a parallel investigation and learn that transcripts sent to the committee by the president had been distorted.

In July 1974 House Judiciary deliberations on impeachment were televised to the nation. Jordan spoke just before 9 P.M. on 25 July. She had studied the evidence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers to arrive at her decision. “I have finally been included in ‘We, the People.’… My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total,” she said. “I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.” Jordan explained to the public the meaning of impeachment and the ways that Nixon had set himself above the law and the Constitution.

The success of her speech set the stage for a series of votes in committee favoring impeachment on grounds including lying to investigators, subverting justice, paying hush money, and misusing the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency. Jordan also voted with a minority of committee members to impeach Nixon for tax evasion and the illegal bombing of Cambodia.

On 8 August, before the full House could vote on impeachment, Nixon resigned. His successor, President Gerald Ford, pardoned Nixon while Jordan was on a congressional delegation trip to China. As President, Ford vetoed many bills that Jordan considered important to her constituency, including public works jobs and day-care provisions for children.

In 1976 Jordan electrified the public with her televised keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, but she quashed a popular cry to nominate her for vice president and supported Democratic presidential nominee Jimmy Carter in his slim general election victory over Ford. Although Jordan expressed an interest in being appointed Carter’s attorney general, such an offer was never made, and she declined to consider other posts such as United Nations ambassador.

Jordan learned in 1973 that she had multiple sclerosis, a progressive autoimmune disease. In her last session of Congress, she focused on removing racial discrimination from all federal programs and preserving the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which had done much to further civil rights. By the end of the session, Jordan was using a cane. Retiring from Congress in 1978, she returned to Austin to live with her longtime companion, Nancy Earl, and to teach at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. A year later, she had to use a wheelchair.

Over the next seventeen years, she gave many speeches; served on various corporate, nonprofit, and government boards; was ethics adviser to Texas governor Ann Richards from 1991 to 1995; and chaired President Bill Clinton’s Commission on Immigration Reform from 1994 to 1996. She died of leukemia shortly before her sixtieth birthday. She was the first black person to be buried in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.

Jordan was an inspiring orator, a consummate politician, and a champion of the political rights of the disenfranchised. Shortly before her death, she summed up her own motivation: “We cannot stand to have, in a democracy, any significant portion of the people who do not have a voice in what happens to them.… [W]e as a people, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, must keep scratching the surface until we get where we’ve got to be, and that’s all inclusiveness for all people.”

The collection of Barbara Jordan’s papers is at Texas Southern University in Houston. Jordan’s autobiography, written with Shelby Hearon, is Barbara Jordan: A Self Portrait (1979). The major biography of her is Mary Beth Rogers, Barbara Jordan: American Hero (1998). There is a major biographical essay on Jordan in Nancy Baker Jones and Ruthe Winegarten, Capitol Women: Texas Female Legislators, 1923–1999 (2000). One of Jordan’s last recorded interviews is included in a video, Getting Where We’ve Got To Be! Women in the Texas Legislature, 1923–1999 (2000). The complete transcript of the interview is at the Archives for Research on Women and Gender, University of Texas at San Antonio. An obituary is in the Houston Chronicle (17 Jan. 1996).

Ruthe Winegarten

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