Barbara Jordan’s Enduring Political Legacy

My first memories of Barbara Jordan stem from an experience with my father while growing up in a working-class neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland in the mid-1970s. A political junkie, my father insisted that we watch the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. On this particular night, we settled in to watch the keynote address of the Democratic National Convention in New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1976.

Before the speech, he slapped his hands with glee and loudly proclaimed, “That Barbara Jordan is something else.” I turned my head away from my father’s outburst to look at the television and heard thunderous applause as the assembled throng rose to their feet. I saw a stately, dark-skinned African American woman being escorted to the podium. I watched eagerly as my Dad smiled broadly. In the most measured, polished, and stentorian voice I have ever heard, Jordan began her keynote address. She extolled the virtues of the Democratic Party as a party of solutions for the problems of the contemporary moment and as the torchbearer of progress and possibility for the future.

Jordan’s majestic oratory and distinguished presence set her apart from politicians past and present. Her deep erudition and concern about expanding the American democratic experience to include all were the hallmarks of her career.

Barbara Jordan was one of the most influential African American women in twentieth-century American politics. Born in Houston, Texas in 1936 to Benjamin and Arlyne Jordan. Benjamin, a Tuskegee Institute graduate, was a pastor while Arlyne was a distinguished public speaker.

Educated in the Houston Public schools, Jordan graduated from Texas Southern University in 1956 and obtained a law degree at Boston University in 1959. Admitted to the Massachusetts and Texas bars that same year, she joined John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in the Houston area in 1960, where she oversaw a massive get-out-the-vote effort that mobilized voters in the 40 largely Black precincts in Houston. She soon set her sights on political office.

After being defeated twice for seats in the Texas legislature, Jordan ran for the Texas Senate in 1966. She defeated a white liberal and become the first Black person elected to the position of state senator since 1883 and the first Black woman elected to the Texas legislature. Jordan proved to be an effective legislator successfully sponsoring legislation on a range of issues important to her constituents, which included passing the state’s first minimum wage law, the inclusion of anti- discrimination clauses in business contracts, and advocating for the establishment of the Texas Fair Employment Practices Commission. Her efforts earned her election as President pro tempore of the Texas Senate in 1972.

In 1971, while still serving in the Texas Senate, Jordan entered into a race for the US House of Representatives.

The district, which was redrawn as a result of the 1970 census, included downtown Houston and consisted primarily of African American and Latinx residents. Jordan won handily against an African American opponent in the primary election and in the general election against Republican Paul Merritt. Her election made her the first African American elected from the Deep South in the 20th century, an honor she shared with Georgia’s Andrew Young who was also elected that year.

As a Congresswoman, Jordan developed a unique political style that centered on building local ties to the community and she pursued those interests doggedly.

She balanced this philosophy with her commitment to working within the system to effect change. She understood that a visible committee assignment was an important step in heightening her public profile. She achieved this goal by using her connections with Lyndon Johnson to secure an appointment to the Judiciary Committee.

One of the defining moments of Jordan’s political career occurred during the Judiciary Committee’s hearings on President Nixon’s Impeachment in 1974, when Jordan captured the nation’s attention with her knowledge of the law and her forceful and decisive comments about the meaning and intent of the Constitution. She began her remarks by noting the initial exclusion and subsequent inclusion of Blacks and people of color in the Constitution. She continued by affirming,

“My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution.“

She then spoke eloquently about the process of impeachment based on a close reading of the Federalist Papers; the need to transcend partisan concerns and limitations; and the need to focus on whether or not the president had engaged in “high crimes and misdemeanors.” She concluded by posing a question and proposing a solution: “Has the President committed offenses, and planned, and directed, and acquiesced in a course of conduct which the Constitution will not tolerate? That’s the question. We should now forthwith proceed to answer this question. It is not passion, but reason which must guide our deliberations, guide our debate, and guide our decision.”

Jordan’s stature as a lawmaker continued to grow. She opposed the nomination of Gerald Ford as Vice-President due to his weak record on civil rights. Perhaps one of her greatest legislative achievements was the extension in 1975 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to include protections for Latinx Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans. Jordan was selected to give the keynote address at the 1976 Democratic Convention at Madison Square Garden--the first Black person and the first woman to be selected for that role. Her voice, knowledge, and presence made her a larger-than-life personality. In 1976, she campaigned widely for Jimmy Carter.

In 1978, amid reports about her declining health, Jordan decided not to seek re-election for a fourth term. Instead, she was appointed as the Lyndon Johnson Chair in National Policy at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. She taught at the university until the early 1990s.

In 1992, a few years before she passed away, Jordan gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Conventions. She came to the podium in a wheelchair as a result of a long battle with multiple sclerosis. Jordan was proud of the fact that she gave keynote addresses at Democratic conventions when the Democratic nominees went on to win the presidency. President Clinton appointed her to serve as Chair of the US Commission on Immigration Reform from 1994 to 1996. While in this position, Jordan engaged in a bipartisan review of US immigration policy.

Barbara Jordan died in 1996, leaving a remarkable political legacy of working to improve the lives of Black people, and other marginalized groups, in the United States.

About the Author

Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America and is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.