The Honorable Barbara Jordan
Lawyer • Orator • Stateswoman • Teacher
“What the people want is simple. They want
an America as good as its promise.”
About Barbara Jordan
Born and raised in Houston, Jordan was the daughter of a Baptist minister and a domestic worker. Segregation prevented her from attending UT, so she attended Texas Southern University, where she was a national champion debater. She graduated from Boston University Law School in 1959, one of only two women in her class.
She taught political science at the Tuskegee Institute for a year before returning to Houston to practice law. She ran twice for the Texas House before winning a seat in the Texas Senate in 1966, the first black person to do so since Reconstruction and the first black woman ever to do so. She served two terms, earning the respect of her colleagues, serving as president pro tem of the Senate and, for one day, as acting governor of Texas. She championed legislation protecting the environment and advocating for the rights of people of color and poor people.
Jordan was elected to the US House in 1974, the first woman to serve Texas in Congress in her own right. She served on the Judiciary Committee and vaulted to national prominence during the Watergate hearings. She fought for the renewal of the Voting Rights Act and for the inclusion of Mexican-Americans in that law, which forbids racial discrimination in electoral processes. She also pushed for the Community Reinvestment Act, which reduced discriminatory credit practices in low-income communities (“redlining”). In 1976, she gave a Democratic National Convention keynote widely regarded as one of the best speeches of the 20th century.
Sadly, Jordan was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1973, and by 1979 her health forced her to retire from politics. She moved to Austin and taught ethics at UT’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, where a yearly forum honoring her legacy is still held. She was well enough to give another lauded and influential DNC keynote in 1992. But her health continued to deteriorate. Weakened by a near-drowning in 1988, she also suffered from leukemia. Jordan died in 1996 at age 59.
Among her many awards and honors are the Presidential Medal of Freedom, election to both the Texas and National Women’s Halls of Fame, and the US Military Academy’s Sylvanus Thayer Award. There is a statue of her on the UT campus and another at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, where the main terminal is named for her.
President Clinton asked Jordan to chair the US Commission on Immigration Reform. Jordan argued for legal penalties for employers of undocumented immigrants, strict border security, no amnesty or other paths to citizenship, and broad grounds for deportation. Jordan’s stature (and her status as a woman of color) gave Clinton political cover for supporting these controversial recommendations.
Jordan was also a closeted lesbian who was partnered with Nancy Earl, an educational psychologist and sometime speechwriter for Jordan, for over 30 years. Many say that Jordan chose not to disclose her orientation because she feared political repercussions from her core constituency of socially conservative black churchgoers.
“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 diminuation, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution…. It is reason and not passion which must guide our deliberations, guide our debate, and guide our decision.”
- Testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, July 25, 1974
“A spirit of harmony can only survive if each of us remembers, when bitterness and self-interest seem to prevail, that we share a common destiny.”
“This country can ill afford to continue to function using less than half of its human resources, brain power, and kinetic energy.”
- Keynote Address, Democratic National Convention, July 12, 1976
“The imperative is to define what is right and do it.”
- Remarks at “The Great Society: A Twenty Year Critique,” a symposium sponsored by the LBJ Library and the LBJ School of Public Affairs, April 1985
“If the society today allows wrongs to go unchallenged, the impression is created that those wrongs have the approval of the majority.”
- Remarks at “The Johnson Years: LBJ: The Differences He Made,” a symposium sponsored by UT and the LBJ Library, May 3-5, 1990
“I have faith in young people because I know the strongest emotions which prevail are those of love and caring and belief and tolerance.”
- Article in On Campus, February 14, 1994
“How do we create a harmonious society out of so many kinds of people? The key is tolerance — the one value that is indispensable in creating community…One thing is clear to me: We, as human beings, must be willing to accept people who are different from ourselves.”
– From “All Together Now” in Sesame Street Parents, July/August, 1994
“Think what a better world it would be if we all, the whole world, had cookies and milk about three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down on our blankets for a nap.”
- Agreeing with Robert Fulghum in an address at Middlebury College, 1987