Why you should care
Because Barbara Jordan paved the way for women like Kamala Harris and Stacey Abrams.
It’s still considered one of the great American political speeches. “My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total,” Barbara Jordan thundered. “‘We, the people.’ I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”
Jordan, a Black congresswoman in a pink suit and thick glasses, acknowledged that when the Constitution was drafted she wouldn’t have been included in that solemn promise. But on July 25, 1974, she delivered those words on national television, a staunch defense of Congress’ right to seek the impeachment of President Richard Nixon.
The speech pushed Barbara Jordan into the national limelight in the same way that Barack Obama’s keynote address at the Democratic National Convention rocketed him to fame in 2004. Jordan was a rumored candidate to be Jimmy Carter’s running mate and became the first African-American woman to deliver a keynote address at the DNC in 1976. But like many Black women who changed the world, her seemingly overnight success was the product of countless smaller victories. And as women of color rise, from Kamala Harris, the first Indian-American (and Jamaican-American) senator, to Stacey Abrams, who is vying to become the nation’s first elected female African-American governor, lessons can be learned from Jordan’s legacy.
Jordan was born in Houston’s segregated 5th Ward to a close-knit religious family. Raised in the pews of Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church, she witnessed firsthand the power of organizing — among the parishioners was Thurgood Marshall, the crusading NAACP lawyer who would later become a Supreme Court justice. Jordan majored in political science and history at historically Black Texas Southern University, becoming a debate champion and defeating Ivy League opponents from Yale and Brown. At Boston University law school, she struggled with the increased academic rigor and was unable to go home for the holidays on the $40 to $50 her two older sisters scraped up for her each month. “It was very difficult for her,” says Mary Beth Rogers, the chief of staff of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards and author of Barbara Jordan: American Hero.
Jordan remains the only African-American woman to serve as state leader for any amount of time.
Jordan persisted, forming a study group with her few Black classmates, including future Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson. After graduating in 1959, Jordan started a law practice in Texas and waged two unsuccessful campaigns for the Texas House of Representatives, in 1962 and ’64. She broke into the Texas Senate in 1966 and forged friendships with her conservative White male colleagues over bourbon and branch. “She learned to play the inside game,” says Rogers. “By the end of her first legislative session, there was a grudging admiration from these … segregationists that had never had any kind of relationship with a Black person who wasn’t a maid or a yardman.” The results: Jordan won a statewide equal rights amendment and a higher minimum wage for farm workers, all while sponsoring or co-sponsoring around 70 bills in just six years in the Texas Statehouse. Her compromises paid dividends. When redistricting came after the Equal Rights Amendment of 1972, Jordan worked with the moderate Democrat Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes to craft a congressional district to her liking, a mix of majority-Black downtown Houston and her state Senate stomping grounds.
She was so admired that the Texas Statehouse sent her off in style, naming her president pro tempore of the Senate and then having the governor and lieutenant governor leave the state for a day, making her the acting governor in their stead (Jordan remains the only African-American woman to serve as state leader for any amount of time). While icons like Jesse Jackson and Shirley Chisholm were pushing change from the outside, Jordan “was pushing it from the inside, because she was acquiring levels of power,” Rogers says. Her dealmaking drew admirers. President Lyndon B. Johnson took her under his wing when she arrived as the first African-American congresswoman from the Deep South. At his suggestion, Jordan joined the Judiciary Committee, leading to her star turn in the Watergate hearings.
Progressives see some blemishes on her record. In the ’90s, she chaired the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, delivering a report that suggested curtailing immigration by a third and restricting visas for non-skilled workers. “Her concern was about low-income Americans, so she thought unfettered immigration was deeply problematic,” says Jay Kumar Aiyer, an assistant professor at Texas Southern University’s Barbara Jordan–Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs. And she never took on the oil and gas interests that provided jobs to much of her Houston constituency.
Her cause was justice for those working men and women who came out of that segregated system in Houston, the South, the nation.
Mary Beth Rogers, author of Barbara Jordan: American Hero
But Jordan also led on important legislation, including the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 that established fairer bank lending policies for minorities and poor communities and the renewal of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that extended protection to Hispanics — a measure opposed by many Texan politicos at the time. “Many people wanted her to take on every single issue,” Rogers says, but “that was not her cause. Her cause was justice for those working men and women who came out of that segregated system in Houston, the South, the nation.”
There was another way that Jordan served as a trailblazer. After retiring from the House in 1979, she moved to Austin with Nancy Earl, her partner, and occasional speechwriter and caregiver, of more than two decades. “She couldn’t be who she was in Congress,” says Aiyer, a student of Jordan’s at the University of Texas at Austin in 1991. Once, he asked if she ever planned to return to Houston. “She said that her life started in Houston, but that her real life began in Austin,” Aiyer says. All those years spent in politics while hiding her sexuality was just another of the many quiet sacrifices Jordan had made in service of her country.