A Texas representative, Barbara Jordan (1936-1996) became a public defender of the United States Constitution and a dominant figure in Democratic Party politics for two decades. She moved to the national stage from Houston’s African American Fifth Ward.
She was the first Black woman elected to the Texas state senate and was later elected to Congress. As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, she delivered the pivotal opening address in Richard Nixon’s impeachment proceedings in 1974. After three terms in Congress, she left to become a professor and policy activist.
Barbara Jordan’s Family, Childhood and Education
In her parents’ house in Houston, Barbara Charline Jordan was born on February 21, 1936. Her father (Benjamin Jordan) was a Baptist minister and warehouse clerk and her mother (Arlyne), was a domestic, housewife and church instructor.
Did you know? Edward Patton, the great-grandfather of Texas congressman Barbara Jordan, was one of the several Black members who sat in the Texas assembly during Reconstruction.
A career day speech by Black lawyer Edith Sampson motivated her to pursue a legal career when Jordan was attending Phillis Wheatley High School. Jordan was a member of the inaugural class of Texas Southern University, a Black college formed by the Texas government to escape the University of Texas’ integration. Jordan accepted the debate team and assisted it in achieving national prominence.
Jordan graduated magna cum laude from Texas Southern University in 1956 and was enrolled into the law school at Boston University.
Jordan graduated from law school and was one of just two African American women in her class.
She got into Massachusetts and Texas bars but later returned to Houston to start law practice in the Fifth Ward.
Texas State Senator
She ran unsuccessfully twice for the Texas House, before winning the 1966 election for a newly constituted Texas State Senate district.
By working to enact a state minimum wage legislation that included farmworkers, she earned the respect of her colleagues in Austin. Jordan’s colleagues elected her president in her final year in the state senate, allowing her to serve as governor for a day (June 10, 1972) in accordance with state custom.
Barbara Jordan’s Time in Congress
Jordan ran for Congress five months later as the Democratic nominee for Houston’s 18th Congressional District. She was elected, making her the first African American woman from a Southern state to serve in the United States House of Representatives. With the help of her close advisor Lyndon B. Johnson, Jordan was assigned to critical positions, including the House Judiciary Committee.
On July 25 1974, Jordan made a 15-minute opening address to the Judiciary Committee’s impeachment hearing for Richard Nixon. Her address was a passionate defense of the United States Constitution (which, she pointed out, did not initially include African Americans in its “We, the People”) and the checks and balances it contains to prevent abuse of power. “I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, subversion and destruction of the Constitution,” she declared.
The impeachment speech helped Nixon resign as a result of the Watergate scandal, and it gained Jordan global acclaim for her passion, knowledge and honesty. Two years later she was asked to deliver the keynote message at the 1976 Democratic National Convention; this was another first for an African American woman.
Jordan worked in Congress on women’s rights legislation, supported the Equal Rights Amendment and co-sponsored a plan that would have rewarded housewives with Social Security payments based on their household responsibilities.
1976 Democratic National Convention Keynote Address
“Thank you ladies and gentlemen for a very warm reception.
It was one hundred and forty-four years ago that members of the Democratic Party first met in convention to select a Presidential candidate. Since that time, Democrats have continued to convene once every four years and draft a party platform and nominate a Presidential candidate. And our meeting this week is a continuation of that tradition. But there is something different about tonight. There is something special about tonight. What is different? What is special?
I, Barbara Jordan, am a keynote speaker.
When — A lot of years passed since 1832, and during that time it would have been most unusual for any national political party to ask Barbara Jordan to deliver a keynote address. But tonight, here I am. And I feel — I feel that notwithstanding the past that my presence here is one additional bit of evidence that the American Dream need not forever be deferred.
Now — Now that I have this grand distinction, what in the world am I supposed to say? I could easily spend this time praising the accomplishments of this party and attacking the Republicans — but I don’t choose to do that. I could list the many problems which Americans have. I could list the problems which cause people to feel cynical, angry, frustrated: problems which include lack of integrity in government; the feeling that the individual no longer counts; the reality of material and spiritual poverty; the feeling that the grand American experiment is failing or has failed. I could recite these problems, and then I could sit down and offer no solutions. But I don’t choose to do that either. The citizens of America expect more. They deserve and they want more than a recital of problems.
We are a people in a quandary about the present. We are a people in search of our future. We are a people in search of a national community. We are a people trying not only to solve the problems of the present, unemployment, inflation, but we are attempting on a larger scale to fulfill the promise of America. We are attempting to fulfill our national purpose, to create and sustain a society in which all of us are equal.
Throughout — Throughout our history, when people have looked for new ways to solve their problems and to uphold the principles of this nation, many times they have turned to political parties. They have often turned to the Democratic Party. What is it? What is it about the Democratic Party that makes it the instrument the people use when they search for ways to shape their future? Well, I believe the answer to that question lies in our concept of governing. Our concept of governing is derived from our view of people. It is a concept deeply rooted in a set of beliefs firmly etched in the national conscience of all of us.
Now, what are these beliefs? First, we believe in equality for all and privileges for none. This is a belief — This is a belief that each American, regardless of background, has equal standing in the public forum — all of us. Because — Because we believe this idea so firmly, we are an inclusive rather than an exclusive party. Let everybody come.
I think it is no accident that most of those immigrating to America in the 19th century identified with the Democratic Party. We are a heterogeneous party made up of Americans of diverse backgrounds. We believe that the people are the source of all governmental power; that the authority of the people is to be extended, not restricted.
This — This can be accomplished only by providing each citizen with every opportunity to participate in the management of the government. They must have that, we believe. We believe that the government which represents the authority of all the people, not just one interest group, but all the people, has an obligation to actively — underscore actively — seek to remove those obstacles which would block individual achievement — obstacles emanating from the race, sex, economic condition. The government must remove them, seek to remove them.
We — We are a party — We are a party of innovation. We do not reject our traditions, but we are willing to adapt to changing circumstances when change we must. We are willing to suffer the discomfort of change in order to achieve a better future. We have a positive vision of the future founded on the belief that the gap between the promise and reality of America can one day be finally closed. We believe that.
This, my friends, is the bedrock of our concept of governing. This is a part of the reason why Americans have turned to the Democratic Party. These are the foundations upon which a national community can be built. Let all understand that these guiding principles cannot be discarded for short-term political gains. They represent what this country is all about. They are indigenous to the American idea. And these are principles that are not negotiable.
In other times — In other times, I could stand here and give this kind of exposition on the beliefs of the Democratic Party and that would be enough. But today that is not enough. People want more. That is not sufficient reason for the majority of the people of this country to decide to vote Democratic. We have made mistakes. We realize that. We admit our mistakes. In our haste to do all things for all people, we did not foresee the full consequences of our actions. And when the people raised their voices, we didn’t hear. But our deafness was only a temporary condition and not an irreversible condition.
Even as I stand here and admit that we have made mistakes, I still believe that as the people of America sit in judgment on each party, they will recognize that our mistakes were mistakes of the heart. They’ll recognize that.
And now — now we must look to the future. Let us heed the voice of the people and recognize their common sense. If we do not, we not only blaspheme our political heritage, we ignore the common ties that bind all Americans. Many fear the future. Many are distrustful of their leaders and believe that their voices are never heard. Many seek only to satisfy their private work — wants; to satisfy their private interests. But this is the great danger America faces — that we will cease to be one nation and become instead a collection of interest groups: city against suburb, region against region, individual against individual; each seeking to satisfy private wants. If that happens, who then will speak for America? Who then will speak for the common good?
This is the question which must be answered in 1976: Are we to be one people bound together by a common spirit, sharing in a common endeavor; or will we become a divided nation? For all of its uncertainty, we cannot flee the future. We must not become the “New Puritans” and reject our society. We must address and master the future together. It can be done if we restore the belief that we share a sense of national community, that we share a common national endeavor. It can be done.
There is no executive order; there is no law that can require the American people to form a national community. This we must do as individuals, and if we do it as individuals, there is no President of the United States who can veto that decision.
As a first step — As a first step, we must restore our belief in ourselves. We are a generous people, so why can’t we be generous with each other? We need to take to heart the words spoken by Thomas Jefferson:
Let us restore the social intercourse — Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and that affection without which liberty and even life are but dreary things.
A nation is formed by the willingness of each of us to share in the responsibility for upholding the common good. A government is invigorated when each one of us is willing to participate in shaping the future of this nation. In this election year, we must define the “common good“ and begin again to shape a common future. Let each person do his or her part. If one citizen is unwilling to participate, all of us are going to suffer. The American idea, though it is shared by all of us, is realized in each one of us.
And now, what are those of us who are elected public officials supposed to do? We call ourselves “public servants” but I’ll tell you this: We as public servants must set an example for the rest of the nation. It is hypocritical for the public official to admonish and exhort the people to uphold the common good if we are derelict in upholding the common good. More is required — More is required of public officials than slogans and handshakes and press releases. More is required. We must hold ourselves strictly accountable. We must provide the people with a vision of the future.
If we promise as public officials, we must deliver. If — If we as public officials propose, we must produce. If we say to the American people, “It is time for you to be sacrificial” — sacrifice. If the public official says that, we [public officials] must be the first to give. We must be. And again, if we make mistakes, we must be willing to admit them. We have to do that. What we have to do is strike a balance between the idea that government should do everything and the idea, the belief, that the government ought to do nothing. Strike a balance.
Let there be no illusions about the difficulty of forming this kind of a national community. It’s tough, difficult, not easy. But a spirit of harmony will survive in America only if each of us remembers that we share a common destiny; if each of us remembers when self-interest and bitterness seem to prevail, that we share a common destiny.
I have confidence that we can form this kind of national community.
I have confidence that the Democratic Party can lead the way.
I have that confidence.
We cannot improve on the system of government handed down to us by the founders of the Republic. There is no way to improve upon that. But what we can do is to find new ways to implement that system and realize our destiny.
Now I began this speech by commenting to you on the uniqueness of a Barbara Jordan making a keynote address. Well I am going to close my speech by quoting a Republican President and I ask you that as you listen to these words of Abraham Lincoln, relate them to the concept of a national community in which every last one of us participates:
“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” This — This — This expresses my idea of Democracy. Whatever differs from this to the extent of the difference, is no Democracy.
Barbara Jordan Quotes
- “A nation is formed by the willingness of each of us to share in the responsibility for upholding the common good.” — Barbara Jordan
- “It is a reason, and not passion, which must guide our deliberations, guide our debate, and guide our decision.” — Barbara Jordan
- “More is required of public officials than slogans and handshakes and press releases. More is required. We must hold ourselves strictly accountable. We must provide the people with a vision of the future.”
— Barbara Jordan
- “We, as human beings, must be willing to accept people who are different from ourselves.”
— Barbara Jordan
- “Education remains the key to both economic and political empowerment.”
— Barbara Jordan
- “Think what a better world it would be if we all, the whole world, had cookies and milk about three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down on our blankets for a nap.”
— Barbara Jordan
Barbara Jordan: Retirement, Health Issues, and Last Honors
Jordan left Congress in 1979 to become a lecturer at University of Texas Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs. She rose to prominence as a public speaker and advocate, obtaining 25 honorary doctorates along the way. Her passionate opposition to George Bush’s appointment of Robert Bork to the United States Supreme Court (who had previously opposed many civil rights issues) is recognized as one of her more powerful testimonies.
Jordan was wheelchair-bound by the time she was chosen to deliver the Democratic National Convention keynote message for the second time in 1992. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1973. Until her death she kept her illnesses private, which eventually included diabetes and cancer.
In 1994, Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. Jordan died of leukemia-related pneumonia on January 17, 1996. She made history even during her funeral by being the first African American to be buried with presidents, senators and congressmen at the Texas State Cemetery.
Interesting Barbara C Jordan Facts
- Jordan taught law and established her own firm in Houston, Texas after graduating from law school.
- Jordan worked within the system to effect change and was a supporter of progressive issue
- Jordan subscribed to the legal school of thought that the United States Constitution is a “living” text that evolves with the times.
- Becoming the state’s first Black senator since Reconstruction and the chamber’s first Black woman, she was appointed to the Texas Senate in 1966.
- Jordan served as acting governor of Texas for one day while in the Texas Senate.
- In 1972, Jordan became the first woman from Texas to be elected to the United States Congress.
- She was a member of the House of Representatives for three terms before retiring.
- Jordan delivered a fifteen-minute opening speech to President Richard Nixon’s impeachment proceedings, on July 25, 1974, while serving her first term in Congress.
- During her time in the House, Jordan sponsored over 300 bills, the most important of which was the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977. The Act required banks to make greater loans to minorities.
- After leaving politics to teach law, Jordan returned to her home state of Texas.
- Although Jordan agreed that legal immigration was generally beneficial to the United States, she called for a one-third reduction in legal immigration in the Immigration Commission report.
- Jordan was vociferous in her opposition to illegal immigration, claiming that it harmed the typical Black American worker the most.
- Later in life, she struggled with a variety of health issues, including leukemia and respiratory issues.
- Jordan received around twenty honorary degrees during her lifetime.
- As a result of pneumonia complications, she died on January 17, 1996, in Austin, Texas.
- Many schools have been named after Jordan after her death.
Who is Barbara Jordan?
Barbara Charline Jordan (February 21, 1936 – January 17, 1996) was an American civil rights activist, lawyer, educator, and politician. She was the very first African-American woman to be elected to the Texas Senate following Reconstruction and was also the first Southern African-American woman elected to the United States House of Representatives as a Democrat.
What is Barbara Jordan famous for?
Jordan is well remembered for her impressive opening remarks at the House Judiciary Committee meetings during Richard Nixon’s impeachment. She was the first African-American woman to deliver a keynote speech at a Democratic National Convention in 1976.
What did Barbara Jordan do to change the world?
Barbara Jordan changed public sentiment during Richard Nixon’s impeachment hearing.