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Congresswoman Barbara Jordan racked up a bunch of firsts: First African-American to serve in the Texas Senate since Reconstruction following the Civil War. First African-American woman from the South to serve in Congress. First woman and first African-American to give the keynote speech at a Democratic National Convention. First African-American woman interred in the Texas State Cemetery.
But in her autobiography, Barbara Jordan: A Self-Portrait, co-written with novelist Shelby Hearon (Doubleday, 1979), Jordan made it clear that firsts were not her goal. Excellence was.
Many of her values were passed down from her maternal grandfather, John Ed Patten, a rag and junk merchant who collected people’s discards all over Houston’s Fifth Ward. The young Jordan would ride along with her grandfather in a wagon pulled by two mules. He would read to her and had her commit this thought to memory, although she never knew its origin: “Just remember the world is not a playground, but a schoolroom. Life is not a holiday but an education. One eternal lesson for us all: to teach us how better we should love.”
Grandpa Patten urged her to be independent and to set her sights high. In the Texas Senate, she voted with the liberals but got invaluable mentoring from Sen. Dorsey Hardeman, the leader of the conservative wing.
Support from President Johnson, who in 1967 invited the Texas senator to the White House to help evaluate his proposed Fair Housing legislation, paved Jordan’s way to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972. Jordan built bridges regardless of political affiliation.
She began her college education at Texas Southern University and ultimately obtained a law degree at Boston University.
Attending an Eastern college challenged her intellectual merit because her Texas education fell short when compared to most of her classmates’. As she stated in her autobiography, “… It occurred to me if I was going to succeed at this strange new adventure, I would have to read longer and more thoroughly than my colleagues at law school had to read.”
But she had the intellectual prowess and commitment to apply herself. And she developed a virtually impregnable dignity that defied trivialization or typecasting. The nation hadn’t really heard of her until July 25, 1974, two years after she came to Congress.
Each member of the House Judiciary Committee was televised live as he or she made a case for or against President Nixon’s impeachment during the Watergate hearings. Jordan’s remarks cast such a clear light on the constitutional issues at play that some TV commentators said she towered above the rest. Her eloquence was unsurpassed as was her majestic presence.
As soon as she uttered a word, viewers knew they were in for something special. First was her flawless elocution. Second was her gravity: “ ‘We the people’—it is a very eloquent beginning. But when the Constitution of the United States was completed on the 17th of September in 1787, I was not included in that ‘We the people.’ I felt for many years that somehow George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decision, I have finally been included ...”
Jordan continued: “… 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.” When Jordan walked out of the hearing room that day, she had entered the national consciousness.
Nixon resigned before a full congressional vote was taken.
A few years later, Presidents Carter and Clinton discussed cabinet positions with Jordan. She later said she would have liked to have been attorney general, but she was battling multiple sclerosis, a disease she would keep private until she was forced to use a wheelchair.
In 1979, she moved back to Texas to teach at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas and inspire a new generation to service. Gov. Ann Richards appointed Jordan to be her “ethics czar,” giving hellfire and brimstone warnings to her appointees about abuse of public office. And so Jordan played out her remaining years in Texas in the role of elder stateswoman. She died at the age of 59 on January 17, 1996.
Kaye Northcott is the retired editor of Texas Co-op Power. As a reporter, she covered Jordan’s years in the Texas Senate and U.S. Congress.