Politics

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 489

This is the grave of Barbara Jordan.

Born in 1936 in Houston, Jordan’s father was a Baptist minister and her mother a teacher in the church. A gifted student, she graduated from Phyllis Wheatley High School in Houston with honors in 1952. She wanted to be attorney. The best school in Texas was of course the University of Texas. But it was also segregated. So she ended up at Texas Southern, an all-black school. She majored in political science and history, thus already making her a favorite of the LGM community. She was heavily involved in the debate team and proved herself a master, routinely defeating opponents from Ivy League schools. She then went to Boston University’s School of Law, graduating in 1959.

Jordan took a job at the Tuskegee Institute, teaching political science. But she wanted to practice law and get involved in politics, so she headed back to Houston. She started a private practice there in 1960 and ran unsuccessful campaigns for the Texas legislature in 1962 and 1964. This was hardly surprising, given that Texas was desperately trying to keep its state legislature as lily white as a social gathering of one of her contemporary rising Houston-based politicians, George Bush.

But in 1966, she won election to the state Senate, making her the first black senator in Texas since 1883. She was a total rock star in the body, even as her appearance caused no small bit of resentment among a populace that would quickly embrace the Republicans as the White Man’s Party. She was a very active lawmaker, constantly pushing for new legislation; the state’s first minimum wage law was very much her baby. She stayed in the state Senate through 1972, became president pro tem, and even served as acting governor for one day in 1972. What is amazing is that even to this day, Barbara Jordan’s one day as acting governor is the total time black women have spent as governor of any state in this nation.

In 1972, Jordan was elected to Congress, becoming not only the first black woman, but the first woman period, elected to Congress from Texas. Lyndon Johnson had become a huge fan of hers and even though he was out of power, he still held a lot of sway in the party. He had invited her to the White House in 1967 and gave her a preview of his civil rights message that year, for instance. So he lobbied for her to get a prime spot on the House Judiciary Committee. As it turned out, that gave her a prime spot for Watergate. Her speech for impeachment was one of the most important in swaying public opinion and forcing Nixon to resign. Some have called it one of the best speeches given by an American in the twentieth century, one in which she did not call for impeachment per se, but laid out the checks and balances of the Constitution with amazing force and power and claiming that Watergate would permanently stain the relationship Americans have with their government, which I think is undoubtedly true, as we have never had much reason to have faith in presidents again. Maybe we shouldn’t have had that faith before 1974, but the cynicism of Nixon is now more than matched by the semi-human in the White House today. Her famous line, “I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution,” is one that should serve as an inspiration for us today.

Jordan was now a superstar, the most prominent black female elected official in American history, and while this was not exactly a publicized relationship then, almost certainly the most prominent lesbian elected official in American history to the present, as she had started a relationship with Nancy Earl, a psychologist, in 1968. In 1975, she received another plum appointment, to the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. She was talked about as a potential VP candidate for Jimmy Carter in 1976 and although that went to Walter Mondale, Jordan got to give the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. She probably wanted to be named attorney general, but Carter did not reward her with this either, one of many missed opportunities by that tragically disappointing presidency. Jordan played a critical role in the passage of the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, requiring banks to provide lending services to minority and otherwise underserved communities. She was also a big player in the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, which did much more to protect Latinos in Texas, who traditionally had their votes stolen and manipulated, especially in south Texas, which was run more like a feudal kingdom than just about any part of the country.

Unfortunately, while still a very young woman for the political realm, Jordan’s health was already in decline. In 1973, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. This forced her out of politics in 1979. She was an important senior (though not really that senior) Democratic Party figure and inspiration for all who are decent after this, but was never really in the public spotlight again. She taught on occasion at the University of Texas. She had to give her speech to the 1992 Democratic National Convention from her wheelchair. In 1994, President Bill Clinton gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Unfortunately, her amazing life work is somewhat lessened by her chairing the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, beginning in 1994. The sad thing is that even otherwise very liberal Americans have often been highly skeptical of immigrants based on spurious beliefs about stealing American jobs. This includes Cesar Chavez, who also supported harsh crackdowns on undocumented Americans, even though they were often the relatives of his own members. The CIR wanted to cut legal immigration to 1/3 of its current levels and ended the immigration of unskilled workers except for refugees, which it also wanted to reduce. It used rhetoric to make it sound like it supported immigrant rights, but it’s a bad thing.

Jordan’s late life health was pretty rough. In 1988, she nearly drowned while doing physical therapy in her backyard swimming pool. Earl saved her. She had to fight off leukemia and of course the MS just got worse. Bill Clinton later said he wanted to name her to the Supreme Court, but that her health just wouldn’t allow it. She died of pneumonia in 1996, only 59 years old.

Barbara Jordan is buried in Texas State Cemetery, Austin, Texas.

If you would like this series to visit other of the nation’s most important African-American women, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Harriet Tubman is in Auburn, New York and Sister Rosetta Tharpe is in Philadelphia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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