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With an unshakeable belief in honesty in life and government, Texas legislator Barbara Jordan worked tirelessly to promote justice and democracy. Her skill as a stirring orator resulted in legendary speeches, both on and off the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Born into a Hostile World
Barbara Charline Jordan was born in Houston, Texas, at home, on February 21, 1936, to Benjamin Meredith and Arlyne Patten Jordan. Her father, a Baptist minister, immediately took notice of her dark skin—a trait that Jordan would not allow to become her currency, even as the degree of darkness was seen by many in her community, and beyond, as a measure of personal worth. The lighter one’s skin was, the easier time one had at school, with family, and with the law. Partly because of this, her father was very upset when she announced, at age eleven, that she would no longer take piano lessons. He was concerned that the only employment available to her would be teaching music, but she assured him she would find suitable employment in another field.
Jordan attended school only with other black children. She took it upon herself to study exceedingly hard and take comfort and inspiration from such individuals as Frederick Douglass, whom she quoted frequently. At Phyllis Wheatley High School, Jordan was a star debater and a member of the honor society, and she graduated in 1952 in the top five percent of her class. Her family did not have any money, but because that was the case with every student in her class, Jordan did not take much notice.
Education and Independence
As a youngster, Jordan was very close to her maternal grandfather, John Ed Patten, who encouraged her to choose her company wisely and who fostered her independent streak. After graduation, she decided to study political science at the University of Texas at Austin—but she became irreconcilably deterred because the school was still racially segregated. instead, she matriculated at Texas Southern University, where once again she excelled at debate. Her father Benjamin, still disappointed in his daughter’s refusal to learn the piano, hedged his bet and took a night job to help her pay for college. in 1956 she graduated magna cum laude with a double major in political science and history. Continuing her academic career, she graduated from Boston University Law School in 1959. She was the only woman, black or white, in her class of 128.
After law school, Jordan accepted a position teaching political science at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, but after a year she returned to Texas to study for the bar. She began her law practice at her family’s dining room table, and moved to an office near her family’s home a bit later.
Jordan decided to try for public office not long after setting up her law practice. She ran for the Texas House of Representatives in 1962 and was defeated. She tried again in 1964, and lost again. However, in 1966, with the civil-rights movement changing public attitudes to matters of race, she was elected to a Texas Senate seat. She was the first and only black woman in the Texas State Senate. She was also the first black state senator to serve in that legislative body since the Reconstruction era (1865-77). After six years, she became the Speaker pro tem.
U.S. House of Representatives
Jordan was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1972, as representative from the eighteenth congressional district in Houston. She was a consummate Southern politician and used her friendship with former U.S. president Lyndon Johnson to secure a position on the House Judiciary Committee. It was from this post, in 1974, that she delivered her affecting and astounding speech during the impeachment hearings against President Richard M. Nixon; she did in fact vote to impeach. Her words spoke to an unwavering belief in the Constitution and her commitment to upholding the laws and virtues contained therein.
In her time as an elected official, Barbara Jordan sponsored and supported bills that protected poor, disadvantaged, and minority individuals. Notable among these are the Workman’s Compensation Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. She was asked to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 1976, and had she not become ill, it is possible that Democratic presidential nominee Jimmy Carter would have selected her as his running mate.
In 1978 Jordan became a public affairs professor at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin. Though technically no longer a public servant, Jordan continued to advocate causes close to her heart. She was a passionate, vocal opponent of controversial Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987. She also served on President Bill Clinton’s committee on immigration reform, and she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994.
Barbara Jordan had not been in good health for some time—she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the early 1970s—and she died in 1996 from complications due to pneumonia. Former presidents and first ladies, and politicians of all parties and stripes, mourned her passing.
Works in Literary Context
The United States boasts an extraordinary number of moving and groundbreaking speeches by politicians—as befits a country with a complex and groundbreaking republic. From Daniel Webster to Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama, the tradition of passionate oratory as a critical component of democracy is alive and well. Jordan belongs in this tradition. She showed that the power of honest words, delivered sincerely and with passion, have the undeniable ability to change hearts and minds. Jordan also belongs squarely in the tradition of African-American orators who have used their speechmaking skills in the cause of freedom and civil rights. This tradition includes such outstanding figures as W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Marian Edelman, Marcus Gar-vey, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson, Malcolm X, and Thurgood Marshall.
After Jordan’s death, Barbara Boxer said this about her on January 22, 1996, in the U.S. Senate: ”Throughout her life Barbara Jordan was a voice for common ground, for the ties that bind. Hers were powerful, healing, uplifting words that challenged and inspired women and minorities, indeed all Americans, to reach for something higher and to believe in themselves and their own ability to change the world and make it a better place.”
Works in Critical Context
Because they were primarily oral addresses, Barbara Jordan’s works do not have a solid base of criticism from which to cull a general opinion. However, her keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in 1976, in which she said that she hoped to build a ”national community” in which everyone would be able to share in the American dream, was placed fifth in a list of the top one hundred speeches in America in the twentieth century. The list was compiled by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Texas A & M University in 1999, and reflects the opinions of 137 leading scholars. That speech was placed below only speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, and two by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Jordan’s televised speech before the House Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment hearings in 1974 was placed thirteenth on the same list. That speech too, made on July 25, 1974, made a huge impression at the time. ”In a powerful, ringing voice, each word precisely articulated, she expressed the outrage of many Americans over the Watergate scandal and captured the turbulent emotions of a nation watching history unfold,” the Detroit Free Press noted. The nation heard Jordan intone: ”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.” The Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment; Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. Democratic strategist Ann Lewis told USA Today that ”when Barbara Jordan spoke those sorts of wonderful, rolling phrases, you knew they hadn’t been written by some speechwriter. She was the voice of moral authority.”
Jordan’s speeches are almost uniformly described as stirring and deeply patriotic, but they were not until recently subjected to the critical rigor of published literature. The columnist Molly Ivins did once liken interviewing Jordan to grilling God—her words were always carefully chosen and there was evidentiary support for every statement she put forth. Bill Clinton called her ”the most outspoken moral voice in the American political system.” It is likely that Jordan’s speeches will continue to live in the collective memory of the nation because many of them have been collected in Barbara Jordan: Speaking the Truth with Eloquent Thunder, published by the University of Texas Press in 2007. The book, which is edited by Jordan’s friend and colleague of twenty-five years, Senator Max Sherman, also includes a DVD of many of her most memorable speeches.
- Bryant, Ira Babington. Barbara Charline Jordan: From the Ghetto to the Capitol. Houston, Tex.: D.Armstrong, 1977.
- Jordan, Barbara, and Shelby Hearon. Barbara Jordan: A Self-Portrait. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979.
- Rogers, Mary Beth. Barbara Jordan: American Hero. New York: Bantam Books, 1998.
- ”Barbara Jordan’s Ideals.” New York Times (January 19, 1996).
- Verhovek, Sam. ”At Funeral, Praise for Barbara Jordan” New York Times (January 21, 1996).
- Boxer, Barbara. Life of Barbara Jordan. Retrieved December 16, 2008, from http://www.elf.net/bjordan/boxer.html.
- Barbara Jordan. Retrieved December 14, 2008, from http://www.beejae.com/bjordan.htm.
- Barbara Jordan: Speaking the Truth. Retrieved December 14, 2008, from http://books.google.com/books?id=684Qqf1CTL4C&dq=barbara+jordan&source=gbs_summary_s&cad=0.
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