Barbara Charline JordanJul 30th, 2014 | By BHS | Category: Politics, Social Sciences
1936-1996 Barbara Charline Jordan devoted her life to politics by using her exceptional oratory abilities to address issues that affected the poor, the disadvantaged, and black communities. As both a Texas State Senator and a U.S. Congresswoman, Jordan fought for civil and human tights, including changes to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
From Poverty to Prominence
Barbara Jordan was born in Houston, Texas, to Benjamin and Arlyene Jordan on February 21, 1936. The youngest of three daughters, she was raised in a Baptist household that prized discipline, honor, and self- motivation. Her father was a warehouse worker and a minister, and her maternal grandfather was a minister and businessman who pushed Jordan to be strong-willed. Her family warned her that she would always face challenges as a black woman.
Jordan demonstrated impressive academic achievement when she graduated from Houston’s Phillis Wheatley High School in 1952 in the top five percent of her class, and as a member of the honor society. She excelled in debate and hoped to study political science at the University of Texas in Austin, but the school was still segregated, so she chose instead to attend Texas Southern University. Jordan majored in political science and history, and became active in campus life. She joined the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and became a national champion debater, defeating Yale opponents and tying a Harvard University team. Jordan graduated magna cum laude in 1956 and secured admission to Boston University Law School. On receiving her law degree, she returned to Texas and worked as an administrative assistant for the county judge of Harris County She was the first black woman to hold this position. Jordan volunteered her services to the Kennedy-Johnson presidential campaign in her region, and helped promote the largest voter turnout in the history of Harris County up to that time. In 1960, Jordan opened her own law practice, and encouraged by her work on the Democratic campaign, set her sights on politics.
Her first attempt at public office came in 1962 when she ran for a seat in the Texas State Senate. She was defeated then, and again in a 1964 attempt. But she increased her recognition—and her votes—significantly in each attempt. Finally, in 1966, at age 30, Jordan became the first African American Texas State Senator since 1883. Her time in the state legislature was an era of landmark events for black women. Jordan herself became the first black senator to chair a major committee, the committee on Labor and Management Relations. When she earned the distinction of “outstanding freshman senator,” President Lyndon B. Johnson took note of her exemplary work, and after leaving the White House, frequently supported her efforts and offered his counsel.
In 1968, Jordan won a second term in the Texas Senate and held that position until 1972. During her tenure, she won the loyalty and respect of her constituency by establishing minimum wage standards and increasing benefits paid to injured workers under the Workman’s Compensation Act.
Additionally, she fought against discriminatory business contracts. During a special Texas legislative session in 1972, Jordan was elected president pro tem of the senate, becoming the first black woman to preside over any legislative body in the United States. The 18th Congressional District of Texas urged her to seek an appointment in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1972, at age 37, the most pivotal moment of Jordan’s career arrived when she became the first African American from Texas to serve in the U.S. Congress.
A Leader with Conviction
Jordan’s reputation in the House of Representatives was that of a skilled orator and dynamic leader. She served on numerous committees including the House Judiciary Committee, the Ways and Means Committee, the House Committee on Government Operations, and the Steering and Policy Committee of the Democratic Caucus. Jordan continued in her efforts to help the underprivileged, sponsoring legislation to expand the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to include Mexican Americans in Texas. She lobbied to extend the Act’s effectiveness for minorities that had been denied the right to vote or had their voting rights restricted. Bills addressing civil rights, criminal business activity, and free competition were all introduced by Jordan during her time as a representative. She also proposed a plan that would provide remuneration to housewives for their domestic work.
Another hallmark of Jordan’s career came in 1974 during the Watergate scandal. She gave a speech in favor of former president Richard Nixon’s impeachment that was noted for its oratory brilliance. Jordan’s televised address garnered significant media attention. She famously stated, “If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here, then perhaps the 18th century Constitution should be abandoned to a 20th century paper shredder.” Jordan’s eloquence led to increased popularity, and in 1976, she was selected to be a keynote speaker for the Democratic National Convention, making her the first African American to open a major political convention.
Jordan retired from office in 1979 at age 43, and became a professor at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. She continued to receive prominent recognition including honorary doctorates from Princeton and Harvard, and election to the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame. President Bill Clinton appointed Jordan to chair the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform in 1993 and a year later, at age 58, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor awarded to a civilian.
Jordan spoke again at the National Democratic Convention in 1988 in support of Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s nomination. Having been struck with multiple sclerosis, she delivered her speech from a wheelchair. She died on January 17, 1996, suffering from pneumonia. Jordan is best remembered for her riveting orations, pioneering social justice for minorities, and for outstanding political leadership. She transcended gender and social barriers, and became an inspirational figure in American politics.