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“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. It is reason and not passion which must guide our deliberations, guide our debate, and guide our decision.” – Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (D-TX) speaking during the House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearings on President Richard Nixon, July 25, 1974.
Barbara Jordan is recognized as one of the most eloquent, powerful speakers and a spirited advocate for democratic principles and humanitarian ideals in the long history of the U.S. House of Representatives. Among the first African American women elected to Congress and the first black Congresswoman ever from Texas, Jordan became a forceful presence whose influence extended well beyond our nation’s capital. Her fame and prestige rose as people throughout the nation heard her speak for the first time during the nationally televised impeachment investigation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.
“People always want you to be born where you are. They want you to have leaped from the womb a public figure. It just doesn’t go that way. I am the composite of my experience and all the people who had something to do with it.” – Barbara Jordan
Barbara Charline Jordan was born in Houston, Texas, on February 21, 1936. She was one of three daughters of Benjamin M. Jordan and Arlyne Patten Jordan. A graduate of Tuskegee Institute, Benjamin Jordan became the pastor of Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church. Arlyne Jordan was an accomplished public speaker. Barbara Jordan attended Houston public schools during the era of Jim Crow segregation. She graduated from the all black Phyllis Wheatley High School in 1952. She obtained her B.A. from Texas Southern University in 1956 and her law degree from Boston University in 1959. She then moved back to Houston and began her law practice in 1960.
Growing up in Houston during the era of segregation, Jordan lived with her family in the Fifth Ward near downtown. The area at that time was termed a “Negro district.” Jordan recalled that her maternal grandfather John Ed Patten provided important lessons and education beyond what she learned in the classroom. Patten read to the young Barbara by kerosene light while sitting in an old stuffed chair in his simple frame house. Readings included verses from the King James Bible and Webster’s Pronouncing Dictionary. Grandfather Patten was her idol as a child and an inspiration for her to pursue her education and to break many barriers during her adult years. From her childhood through the remainder of her life, Jordan followed her grandfather’s advice.
Barbara Jordan ran two unsuccessful races in the Democratic Primary in the early 1960’s for the Texas House of Representatives in her home district in Houston. In 1966 she ran for the Texas Senate following a court ordered redistricting case that created a Houston senate district composed of mainly minority voters. Jordan’s gamble succeeded. She won the Senate contest and became the first African–American state senator in the nation since 1883. She was the first black woman ever elected to the Texas Senate. On March 28, 1972, Jordan’s peers elected her president pro tempore of the Texas Senate, making her the first black woman in America to preside over a legislative body. One of Jordan’s responsibilities as president pro tempore was to serve as acting governor when the governor and lieutenant governor were out of the state. When Jordan filled that largely ceremonial role on June 10, 1972, she became the first black chief executive in the nation.
As a State Senator, Jordan gained a reputation for her ability to befriend officials regardless of their political beliefs and party. She was known for her work ethic, to be approachable and to compromise on legislation, and socialize with the “good old boys” of the Texas Legislature. East Texas Senator Charles Wilson, who would later become famous after he was elected to Congress, invited Jordan to his annual quail hunt – the first woman elected official to receive an invitation into the traditional male bastion of hunting. She was admired for her oratory, knowledge of the law, and her sense of fairness and compassion. All of these were traits that would carry her forward in her political career in the U.S. House of Representatives. Some critics believed she was too friendly with established politicians and too eager to compromise. Nevertheless, she continued on her path that would lead her from Austin, Texas to Washington D.C.
Following the congressional redistricting plan after the 1970 census, the state legislature created a new congressional district in downtown Houston. The district contained many of the voting precincts in Senator Jordan’s district, thus making her the likely candidate for the new congressional seat. However, during the 1971 legislative session, Senator Jordan served as Vice Chair of the Redistricting Committee. Critics charged, including incumbent African American legislators, that she had acted out of self-interest and neglected efforts to create more state legislative seats where minorities would have a chance to compete and win elections. Acknowledging this criticism, Jordan filed to run in the Democratic Primary for the Eleventh Congressional District. During a campaign fund raising dinner for Jordan, former President Lyndon B. Johnson attended the Houston event. Johnson told the audience he admired Jordan as a “woman of keen intellect and unusual legislative ability.”
She is a symbol proving that We Can Overcome – President Lyndon B. Johnson on Barbara Jordan
Jordan won the congressional campaign and easily defeated her Republican opponent in the 1972 election. She became the first African American woman from the American South to be elected as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. She also won in the same election where President Richard Nixon overwhelmed his opponent, Democratic Senator George McGovern, to win reelection to a second term. The paths of Congressman Jordan and President Nixon would soon cross with dramatic consequences.
Taking office in 1973 as a freshman representative, Jordan worked to establish relationships with older, more senior members of Congress. With assistance from her friends and from former President Johnson, she obtained a highly coveted position on the House Judiciary Committee. The timing was important for in the coming year the committee would take on issues relating to illegal actions conducted by the Nixon Administration that became known as the Watergate Scandal. The 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters offices in the Watergate Building resulted in a criminal investigation by special prosecutor Leon Jaworski. The trail of evidence led to the White House and President Nixon along with attempts to conceal the act and obstruct justice. As the case moved forward in the federal courts, the House Judiciary Committee began debate on whether President Nixon could be impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors” as stated in the U.S. Constitution.
“’We the people’ – is a very eloquent beginning. But when the constitution of the United States was completed . . . I was not included.” – Barbara Jordan at the 1974 House Judiciary Impeachment Hearing on President Richard Nixon.
After hearing the impeachment case behind closed doors for several months in 1974, the House Judiciary Committee began its debate in open session. Judiciary Chairman Peter Rodino provided each of the 38 members of the committee a fifteen-minute presentation on the impeachment investigation. The statements received extensive coverage by television and the print media. Jordan did not prepare her remarks until a few hours before her timed appearance.
On the evening of July 25, 1974, Jordan delivered her remarks during prime time on live television. Her statement would make her a household name throughout the nation. Her discussion centered on the Constitution, the responsibilities of the Congress, and the rule of law. The tone of her voice, the power of her rationale, and her ability to explain the Constitution impressed people throughout the country. She had expressed her feelings in words that people could easily understand on a very difficult and controversial topic. “Thank you Barbara for explaining the Constitution to us,” was among many of the thousands of congratulatory messages that poured into her Congressional office.
The House Judiciary Committee did not vote on the articles of impeachment as President Nixon announced his resignation a few weeks later on August 8, 1974. For her remaining years in Congress in the 1970’s, Barbara Jordan worked on legislation to support civil and voting rights for all Americans and to end discrimination in the workplace and throughout the nation. In a controversial move, she defended former Nixon Treasury Secretary and Texas Governor John Connally in the bribery case known as the “milk fund scandal.” Many people criticized her for being a character witness for Connally, but Jordan replied, “I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t feel it was the right thing to do.”
At the 1976 Democratic National Convention, Jordan became the first African American woman to provide a keynote address at a national political convention. During the nation’s bicentennial, she called for better equality and more opportunity for all Americans. “We cannot improve on the system of government, handed down to us by the founders of the Republic, but we can find new ways to implement that system and to realize our destiny,” she said in her highly acclaimed speech. She reminded Americans in the prime-time speech that her appearance was “one additional bit of evidence that the American Dream need not be deferred.” Although she was considered a strong contender for appointment to a national office by President Carter in 1977, she decided to stay in Congress. She delivered the 1977 commencement speech at Harvard University. But she did not stay long as she announced after three terms in Congress that she would not run for reelection in 1978.
Ethical behavior means being honest, telling the truth, and doing what you said you would do. – Barbara Jordan interview in 1995 shortly before her death.
From 1979 until her death at age 59 in 1996, Jordan held the Lyndon B. Johnson Centennial Chair in National Policy at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. As a professor, her classes were very popular and she had an excellent reputation as an educator. In fact, “Teacher” is part of her epitaph. Her long list of awards and accolades is as impressive as her career. In 1991 Texas Governor Ann Richards appointed her to the newly established ethics commission. President Bill Clinton presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Jordan in 1994. Texas Monthly magazine in 1999 named her the “Role Model of the Century.” She received thirty-one honorary doctorates and many national awards that include: Time Magazine’s “Woman of the Year,” the Distinguished Alumnus Award of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and selection to the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Jordan’s health deteriorated in the 1990’s and she was confined to a wheel chair due to her long fight with multiple sclerosis. Although she reduced her public appearances, Jordan remained in great demand. Jordan passed away at her Austin home on January 17, 1996, a month shy of her sixtieth birthday from a combination of pneumonia, leukemia and multiple sclerosis.
Barbara Jordan was a humanitarian and believer in democracy. She provided many firsts and a legacy of service, integrity, honesty, grace and a vision of a better America. At her memorial service at the University of Texas on January 28, 1996, author and commentator Bill Moyers said, “She heard the voice of the people, and she gave the people a voice.”
Author’s Note –
As a young student in Houston in the 1960’s, my first involvement in a political campaign was to serve as a volunteer on Barbara Jordan’s successful Texas Senate campaign in 1966. I have always enjoyed saying that she won her first political race in spite of my assistance. Years later, after she had retired from politics and was a Distinguished Professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs in Austin, she very graciously volunteered to serve as a member on my history dissertation committee at the University of Texas at Austin. Following her death in 1996, I joined in the university’s endeavors to assist with her archives and records so that they are preserved for posterity.
Dr. Patrick Cox of Wimberley, Texas in an award-winning and acclaimed historian, author and conservationist. A sixth generation Texan, he resides in Wimberley, Texas and is President of Patrick Cox Consultants, LLC. His firm specializes in historical research, writing projects and oral histories for individuals, corporations, public agencies and nonprofit organizations.
For further reading:
Jordan, Barbara and Shelby Hearon. Barbara Jordan, A Self-Portrait. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company Incorporated, 1979.
Rogers, Mary Beth. Barbara Jordan: American Hero. New York: Bantam Books, 1998.
Sherman, Max, editor. Speaking the Truth with Eloquent Thunder. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2007.
McCroskey, Vista. “Barbara Jordan” in Profiles in Power, Twentieth Century Texans in Washington, Kenneth E. Hendrickson, Jr., Michael L. Collins, and Patrick Cox, editors. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2004.
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