Nearing the blessed close of what has been an absurd Presidential election cycle, one thing is clear: Barbara Jordan would not be here for any of this. Unfortunately, we could surely use her.
The “voice of God” before Morgan Freeman was a flicker on a screen,1 Barbara Jordan was one of the most well-known and respected people in all of politics in a time when her race and her gender — as well as her sexual orientation and medical status — seemingly precluded both. When few in the populace respected politics anyway, when people felt that Nixon’s lowest point was a collective shame for the nation, Ms. Jordan went to Washington and told us to become a more perfect union. All we had to do was raise our voice. She was happy to show us how.
Born in 1936 to parents both renowned for their oratory but limited by the circumstances of prejudice and poverty in their own educations, Jordan was an incredibly gifted student, despite frequently experiencing overt racism and colorism. Her mindset? “Well, those are stupid people, and I don’t have time to deal with them.”2 Yes, really. Barbara Jordan honed her incredible skill for rhetoric at Texas Southern University,3 graduating in 1956 before heading to Boston University School of Law.4 In 1959, she returned to her native Houston to start her own law practice.5
It wasn’t long before Jordan delved into politics. She felt, in a time before Audre Lorde,6 that the master’s tools must certainly be good for something.7 Unbeknownst to her, her great-grandfather, Edward A. Patton, was one of the last black representatives to serve in the Texas State Legislature at the end of Reconstruction, when he was quite literally run out of the state for fighting the poll tax and the ongoing disenfranchisement of voters of color. In 1966, after two unsuccessful bids for the Texas House of Representatives and one federal court-ordered reapportionment in Texas, Barbara Jordan’s savvy and oratorical gifts would enable her to be the first black person to serve in the Texas Senate since 1883, and the first black woman ever to do so.
By 1967 — Barbara Jordan did not waste time — she’d caught the eye of the nation’s most influential Texan: President Lyndon Johnson. Arguably one of the most pure politicians our nation has ever known,8 LBJ was keen to find ways to bring Jordan into greater national prominence.9 Big, black, and better at politics than just about everyone, Jordan had quickly become a legendary figure in the Texas legislature, no mean feat in a crowd of outsized personalities, many of whom had spent their time post-Brown attempting to enact as many segregation policies as possible.10
She was incredibly facile at political strategizing, at negotiating halls of power, at knowing who in the legislature mattered and why; she made sure to befriend these men, liberal and conservative alike, while allowing no one to speak for her. She felt “office holders [had] a moral imperative to be effective.” By that rubric, by the end of the 60s, Barbara Jordan’s morality was unimpeachable. Unfortunately, she had become such an insider that some felt her dealmaking and renowned practicality was becoming a detriment to her ideological purity. It was not, however, a detriment to her ambitions, and when a new congressional seat became available in Texas in 1972,11 Barbara Jordan, a consummate politician who had worked her proverbial ass off, pulled out a victory against a name-calling opponent in a vicious race.
After election, Jordan entered Congress (with the largest class of black representatives since Reconstruction), using LBJ’s influence to land her on the House Judiciary Committee, a placement that would soon prove extremely fortuitous. The onset of multiple sclerosis was not. Too soon, it would put an end to Barbara Jordan’s political career — but not yet. There was the small matter of Watergate. Though she disagreed with members of the committee presenting individual statements at the impeachment hearings, she was voted down, and at prime time, millions of Americans not privy to Texas politics met Barbara Jordan. A large black woman wearing no makeup came into their homes, having exhaustively researched every aspect of impeachment, and in all her eloquence, solemnity, and glory, read a sitting president for filth.
It was the mic drop heard ‘round the country. Barbara Jordan became beloved overnight. Then, during the Voting Rights Act’s renewal process, she convinced Texas to bring itself under the scrutiny of legislation which previously applied only to the Deep South, and successfully fought for the inclusion of all citizens of color. Barbara Jordan became a miracle worker. She was unequivocally a fast-rising star — her name even appeared, briefly, on Carter’s vice presidential shortlist — but when the Democratic National Convention rolled around in 1976, she was asked instead to be one of two keynote speakers – the DNC was hesitant about a black woman having the stage to herself and asked that she speak after John Glenn.
The day of, Glenn’s speech didn’t go over particularly well, the DNC chair was having kittens, and Jordan had had about enough. An entrance through the crowd had been precluded due to MS she still kept hidden — she claimed a bad knee — so as she stood waiting to go on, she made her feelings plain: “If you can get me up the damn steps, I can make the damn speech!”12
You know what happened next. She slayed.
Suddenly Barbara Jordan’s name was again being bandied about for VP, but she was uninterested in being a figurehead, saying, “It is improbable that Carter would take the bold, daring, unconventional and un-southern move of naming a black or a woman as his running mate. Certainly not both at once.”13 Nonetheless, at the convention she received precisely one delegate vote for the presidential nomination, reaffirming her stature as a trailblazer (and assuring her place in this series).
It was, ironically, the beginning of the end. Jordan campaigned heavily for Carter, but when it came to allocate cabinet posts she was further disillusioned — she wanted to be Attorney General, yet the administration refused to consider her for anything more than a relatively minor position they planned to give to “a black” anyway (a position they didn’t ever actually offer), and leaks from Carter aides precipitated additional attacks on her character and ambition. Barbara Jordan was still black, still a woman, and she had made a lot of enemies in the name of influence, compromise, and practicality.14
With her health deteriorating and her interest in the gamesmanship of politics fading (but not before near-singlehandedly saving the 5th Circuit from gerrymandering, because Barbara Jordan), Jordan announced in 1977 that she would not seek reelection the next year. She became a well-respected professor at UT-Austin and soon published a book, Barbara Jordan: A Self-Portrait. Beyond MS, she battled with leukemia, diabetes, and hypertension. She made few speeches over the next few years, though she did deliver the keynote at the Democratic convention one more time — for Bill Clinton in 1992. He in turn awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994, and she briefly served on a committee for immigration reform. By 1996, she was dead, a month shy of her 60th birthday.
Normally the story ends there. And it may have, had the news stuck to her health. Indeed, the public was shocked to discover that Barbara Jordan, larger than life, had lived with a debilitating illness (or several) for decades. That being said, they weren’t quite as shocked as when her obituary in the Houston Chronicle outed her 20+ year relationship with her “longtime companion” Nancy Earl.
Thus the complicated legacy of Barbara Jordan — a large, disabled, black lesbian who wielded more power than almost anyone thought she had the right to. She gave so much of herself to so many causes, but history will always ask her for more. Why didn’t she come out? Why was her work on immigration in the 90s so problematic? Why did she support oil and gas so favorably? (That one’s easy. See Texas.) Did she have to compromise quite so much?
This is an election plagued by the inane minutiae of lady headaches and relative hand size, one where the families and/or pasts of candidates at every level of government spill over each other in successive daily waves of progressively more preposterous headlines. I hope, wherever Barbara Jordan may be, that she can laugh to keep from crying. I truly do. Because Barbara Jordan knew the value of privacy. She valued yours, and she valued hers — vigorously. Zealously. In our time — one dominated by the accessibility of information — it’s hard to imagine how she was, by all accounts, entirely successful in her aim to keep the details of her background and life almost entirely her own. (Being entirely successful, you have probably come to realize, is quintessential Barbara Jordan.)
Indomitable, formidable, brilliant, resolute — all of those things, but she was first and foremost a crusader for the ideals of the Constitution. Ms. Jordan goes to Washington, and at the end she changes the world for the better. For a brief moment in time, Barbara Jordan was everything we want to believe American politics could be. She was, in a word, too many things for just one word — so best left to her words:
- Kevin Diaz, “In a Life of Firsts, Barbara Jordan Won a Lasting Legacy,” Chron, June 7, 2016. Return to text.
- Paula Ancona, “Do Twice as Much, Jordan Tells Dunbar Students,” undated article from Dayton, Ohio, c. 1980, Barbara Jordan Office Files, LBJ School of Public Affairs, now at Barbara Jordan Archives, Texas Southern University, from Mary Beth Rogers, Barbara Jordan: American Hero (Random House, 2000). Return to text.
- Jordan attended Texas Southern in part because UT Austin was still segregated. While there she studied with Dr. Tom Freeman, renowned debate instructor who also taught this other orator you may have heard of, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (among many others). Initially Freeman didn’t want Jordan to travel with the debate team as an unchaperoned woman, and as a result, Jordan apparently deliberately adopted a more androgynous personal style to downplay her femininity. Freeman relented. Return to text.
- On her time at Boston, and learning to adjust to an integrated environment: “I learned that white people love to stop doing whatever they’re doing and go have a cup of coffee. That was always a sure one. You knew you could do that. So I did that in the dorm. Went by and invited people to stop by and have a cup of coffee.” (Barbara Jordan, A Self-Portrait (Doubleday, 1979).) She eventually graduated in the top of the bottom half of her class, so people with middling law school careers, take heart. Return to text.
- She also taught at Tuskegee for a year in 1961. Return to text.
- Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” (1984), in Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 2007), 110-114. Return to text.
- “The Man, as many of our young people call him, writes the books, knows the rules and makes the decisions. And so I decided in order to cope with the world as it is and not as we would like for it to be, in order to cope […] it was necessary to find the door for getting inside just a little bit to find out what The Man is doing and how he acts and how he thinks and how he reaches decisions, and then to try to get a little corner at the decision-making table where you can hang on and maybe get a word in here or there.” (Barbara Jordan) Return to text.
- Seriously, just go read The Path to Power by Robert Caro. LBJ is both appalling and admirable in his genius, but there’s no question it’s genius. Return to text.
- Jordan found herself on the Commission on Income Maintenance with national heavy hitters, undertaking a study of proposals to ensure a minimum income to the impoverished. She also served another term in the Texas Senate, where she passed the state’s first minimum wage law, and co-passed the ERA (in Texas). Return to text.
- Senator Oscar Mauzy was particularly blunt. He “wasn’t going to let no nigger woman tell him what to do.” (Rogers, Barbara Jordan.) Return to text.
- 1972 is also the year Barbara Jordan served as Governor of Texas for one day, in an odd Texas politics ritual wherein the governor and lieutenant governor absent themselves for the day, thereby allowing the newly elected head of the senate the opportunity to be governor. Her father lived to see her sworn in, then died the next day. Return to text.
- Rogers, Barbara Jordan. Return to text.
- Id. Return to text.
- “We have made mistakes. We admit them. In our haste to do all things for all people, we did not foresee the full consequences of our actions. And when the people raised their voices, we did not hear. But our deafness was only a temporary condition and not an irreversible one. Yet, even as I stand here and admit that we have made mistakes, I still believe that as the American people sit in judgment on each party, they will realize that our mistakes were mistakes of the heart. They’ll recognize that.” (Barbara Jordan) Return to text.
- Id. Return to text.