Jordan, Barbara (1936–1996)

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Jordan, Barbara (1936–1996)

Noted attorney and legal scholar, member of the Texas legislature, and first Southern African-American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, who was a member of the House Judiciary Committee during impeachment hearings on President Richard M. Nixon. Born Barbara Charline Jordan on February 21, 1936, in Houston, Texas; died of pneumonia believed to be a complication of leukemia on January 17, 1996; youngest of three daughters of Benjamin M. Jordan (a Baptist minister and warehouse clerk) and Arlyne Jordan; attended public elementary and secondary schools in Houston; enrolled and graduated magna cum laude from Texas Southern University, an all-black college in Houston, where she was a spellbinding debater, 1956; Boston University, LL.B., 1959; admitted to the bar in both Texas and Massachusetts; never married; no children.

Raised in Houston; after completing law school in Boston, returned to Houston and practiced general civil law; also worked as an administrative assistant toa county judge; became active in Democratic Party politics, and worked to turn out the black vote for the Kennedy-Johnson presidential ticket (1960); ran for the Texas House of Representatives unsuccessfully (1962 and 1964); elected to the Texas State Senate (1966), the first black woman in that body; after a successful career in the Texas Senate, ran for the U.S. House of Representatives (1972), winning handily; pursued many domestic policies to aid the disadvantaged, and was an outspoken critic of increased military expenditures; served on the House Judiciary Committee during the hearings on the impeachment of President Nixon, during which she first came to national prominence for her skilled oratory and fine legal reasoning; was keynote speaker at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, the first African-American woman so honored; retired from the U.S. House (1978), due in part to illness; pursued a distinguished career of public speaking and teaching at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, at the University of Texas; was recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1994).

In the first day of public hearings by the House Judiciary Committee into the possible impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon, each member of the committee was allotted time for opening remarks. For weeks, the committee had struggled with the definition and understanding of its own responsibilities in the matter; many members were unsure of the meaning of impeachment, the significance of a vote to impeach, and the constitutionality of a variety of proposals, both about how the committee should proceed and the substance it should review.

In the midst of this uncertainty and confusion, Representative Barbara Jordan, Democrat of Texas, in unprepared remarks, delivered a remarkably moving and clear explanation of the nature of impeachment, the charge of the committee, and the Constitutional meaning of a vote to impeach. Having reviewed these matters, and the behavior of President Nixon which prompted the hearings, Rep. Jordan concluded:

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. 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 know the question. We should now forthwith proceed to answer the question. It is reason and not passion which must guide our deliberations, guide our debate, and guide our decision.

Biographer Shelby Hearon reports that Jordan's audience that day in Washington sat stunned. This was "the first time she had reached them with no one in between. The first time they had seen and heard her with their own eyes and ears." A Houston resident the next day paid for 25 billboards that said: "Thank you, Barbara Jordan, for explaining the Constitution to us." At this first moment of national prominence, the skills and oratorical ability developed early in her life, and her fine legal training, had served Jordan well indeed, allowing her to do what she had always done—to communicate logically, and yet with deep conviction and passion, complex and significant issues facing the nation.

The story of this African-American leader begins in Houston, Texas, where she would spend much of her life. Born to Benjamin Jordan, a Baptist minister, and Arlyne Jordan in 1936, Barbara was the youngest of three daughters. Her father supplemented his income with work as a warehouse clerk. "We were poor," Barbara Jordan told an interviewer in 1972, "but so was everyone around us, so we did not notice it. We were never hungry and we always had a place to stay."

Jordan attended Houston public schools. Reportedly a strict disciplinarian, her father expected her to maintain a straight "A" average in school; she expected the same of herself. She stated later that she always wanted to be something unusual; "I never intended to be a run-of the-mill person." After hearing Edith Sampson , a black lawyer from Chicago, speak at a school event, Jordan decided to become a lawyer.

Graduating from Phillis Wheatley High School in 1952, ranked in the top 5% of her class, Jordan enrolled at Texas Southern University, an all-black college in Houston; while there, she majored in political science and history, traveling back and forth to school on segregated buses, relegated to the seats labeled "colored." Though her first attempt at elected office, a run for the presidency of the Texas Southern student body, failed, she became known as a spellbinding orator, and led the Texas Southern debate team to a series of championships. She graduated in 1956, magna cum laude, and subsequently attended and graduated from law school at Boston University (1959).

Jordan returned to her native Houston, lived with her parents, and conducted a general civil-law practice from their home, using the dining-room table as her office. (Three years later, she finally had sufficient funds to open an office.) In addition to her law practice, she worked for a county judge and became active in the county's Democratic Party organization. During the 1960 presidential campaign, she was in charge of the first black "one-person-per-block" drive to recruit votes for the Kennedy-Johnson Democratic ticket.

Jordan first ran for public office herself in 1962, seeking election to the Texas House of Representatives. She was defeated, but received 6,000 votes, prompting her to conclude that "anybody who could get 6,000 people to vote for them for any office should keep on trying." However, she was again defeated in 1964, so in 1966 she sought a seat in the Texas Senate. In this race, she became the first black woman elected to the state senate as well as the first black elected since 1883. She ran unopposed for the same office in 1968 and was reelected to a four-year term.

I am neither a black politician, nor a woman politician. Just a politician, a professional politician.

—Barbara Jordan

Jordan was extremely effective at legislating in the Texas Senate, and about half of the bills she introduced eventually became law, an extraordinarily high percentage. Her legislation included the establishment of the Texas Fair Employment Practices Commission, an improved workmen's compensation act, and the state's first ever minimum wage law which covered workers not protected by federal minimum wage standards—"the really poor people, laundry workers, domestics and farm workers." She also compelled the state to include non-discriminatory practices as part of its own hiring and contracting procedures. To protect minorities' political rights, she helped to block a restrictive voting rights act.

During her first term, Jordan was voted the outstanding freshman senator. Having earned the respect of her legislative peers, she was also elected president pro tempore of the senate in March 1972, the nomination having been seconded by every Texas senator. "I had to get inside of the club," she commented, "not just inside of the chamber." Her service as chair of the Labor and Management Relations Committee, and her outstanding service on that committee, also earned her the recognition and support of organized labor groups.

Late in 1971, Jordan decided to run for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. House of Representatives from the newly drawn 18th Congressional District, located in a heavily populated and ethnically mixed section of Houston. A black man, Curtis Graves, her main Democratic opponent in a contested primary, accused her of "Uncle Tomism," and "selling out to the white establishment," by teaming up with white politicians to create a safe black senate seat for herself. Jordan countered this attack by arguing that she could get things done in Congress, and stressing her legislative achievements in the Texas Senate. She scored an astounding victory in the primary, gaining 80% of the votes cast. "If I got 80 percent of the total votes cast, lots of white people voted for me," she said, "and it was because they felt their interest would be included." In the general election in November 1972, while the Republicans were recording a landslide at the top of the presidential ticket, Jordan trounced her Republican opponent Paul Merritt, with a plurality of 66,000 votes.

Shortly after her election to Congress, she announced that she intended to focus on lawmaking, rather than be a spokesperson for civil rights. "We are legislators, and we ought to remember that is our role," she declared, surprising many. This did not mean abandonment of civil-rights issues, but, rather, using the legislative role to advance those issues. For example, she joined forces with other Democrats and attempted to block the nomination of Gerald Ford as vice president, charging that he lacked commitment to civil rights. (Her attitude softened, however, after hearing Ford's inaugural speech, and she exhorted Americans to give him a chance.) She questioned the reliance on busing to achieve racial integration of schools, but supported the letter and spirit of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education requiring school integration. When the Voting Rights Act of 1965 came up for renewal, Jordan sponsored an amendment to include Hispanic-Americans, Native Americans, and Asian-Americans. Because of the high number of Mexican-Americans in Texas, Jordan's stance was in direct opposition to the majority of her Texas delegation.

In addition to supporting civil-rights objectives, Congresswoman Jordan also backed many measures designed to raise the standard of living of poor Americans. She supported many of the War on Poverty programs of the mid-1960s, including free legal services to the poor. She voted for increases in the minimum wage and supported a proposal to extend Social Security coverage to American housewives. Committed also to programs designed to promote long-range health planning, she favored measures to create

federally funded programs for treatment and prevention of cancer, alcoholism, and diabetes. She also supported a variety of programs to assist the aged. In all these areas, she typified the concern of other women legislators of her era for the needs of racial minorities, women, children, and the elderly. Other domestic policies she favored included environmental protection, increased funding for law-enforcement efforts, federal aid to elementary and secondary schools, and urban problems.

In foreign policy, Jordan—again in common with several other prominent congresswomen—was an outspoken critic of increasing military expenditures. She voted to reduce the number of U.S. troops stationed abroad in favor of a ceiling on military aid to South Vietnam, and to override President Nixon's veto of the historic War Powers Act, which limits presidential warmaking authority. Her overall voting record was decidedly liberal; she received a rating of 88% Democratic Party support in her first year in office. The liberal Americans for Democratic Action rated her at 92% in support of their positions, and the conservative Americans for Constitutional Action gave her a 4% approval rating.

In 1974, during the hearings on the impeachment of President Nixon, Americans came to respect Jordan as one of the most knowledgeable and articulate members of the House Judiciary Committee. Her acute understanding of the Constitutional provisions related to impeachment, the appropriate limits and boundaries of presidential action, and her ability to express these matters in a cogent way, earned her wide respect throughout the country. Partly as a result of that respect, she was occasionally mentioned as a potential vice-presidential candidate and was selected as keynote speaker for two Democratic National Conventions, in 1976 and again in 1992. She was the first woman, as well as the first black, so designated. "There is something different and special about this opening night," she said as she addressed the 1976 delegates. "I, Barbara Jordan, am a keynote speaker and, notwithstanding the past, my presence here before you is one additional bit of evidence that the American Dream need not forever be deferred."

As keynote speaker for the Democratic National Convention in 1992, her topic was "Change: From What to What."

One overdue change already underway is the number of women challenging the councils of political power dominated by whitemale policy makers. That horizon is limitless. What we see today is simply a dress rehearsal for the day and time we meet in convention to nominate … Madame President. This country can ill afford to continue to function using less than half of its human resources, brain power and kinetic energy. Our 19th century visitor from France, de Tocqueville, observed in his work Democracy in America, "If I were asked to what singular substance do I mainly attribute the prosperity and growing strength of the American people, I should reply: To the superiority of their women." The 20th century will not close without our presence being keenly felt.

Jordan left the Congress in 1978, partially due to health considerations, and accepted a position as Professor of Public Service at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, a post she held until her death. In 1975, she was voted one of Time magazine's ten outstanding women of the year and was also selected as the Democratic Woman of the Year by the Women's National Democratic Club. She received 15 honorary doctoral degrees and was widely respected as an articulate spokesperson for the disadvantaged, a legal scholar, and fine public servant. "When Barbara spoke with that deep, booming voice, it was as though she was speaking in stone," said former Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen. "She had a presence as few people do." For the next several years, she battled multiple sclerosis, using a wheelchair and walker. In 1988, she came close to drowning when she lost consciousness in her swimming pool.

When Jordan died in 1996, age 59, 1,500 attended her memorial service in Houston, including President Bill Clinton. There were eulogies on editorial pages across the nation. Said Ann Richards , former governor of Texas, "There was simply something about her that made you proud to be a part of the country that produced her."


Barber, James David, and Barbara Kellerman, eds. Women Leaders in American Politics. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986.

Crawford, Ann Fears, and Crystal Sasse Ragsdale. Women in Texas. Austin, TX: State House Press, 1992.

Ivins, Molly. The Washington Post. October 22, 1972.

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

suggested reading:

Bryant, Ira B. Barbara Charline Jordan—From the Ghetto to the Capitol. NY: D. Armstrong, 1977.

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

Weddington, Sarah, et al. Texas Women in Politics. Austin, TX: Foundation for Women's Resources, 1977.

Jacqueline DeLaat , McCoy Professor of Political Science, Marietta College, Marietta, Ohio