TXi Presents Innovator Spotlight: Barbara Jordan

As we close out Black History Month, we look to a trailblazer for Texans and Black women in politics.

Barbara Jordan; Congress; Black History Month;
Barbara Charline Jordan // Credit: Texas State Historical Association, Mark Odintz & Mary Beth Rogers. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

Barbara Jordan (1936 – 1996) was a politician and educator born in Houston on February 21, 1936. Ms. Jordan grew up in the Fifth Ward, a musically rich neighborhood located east of downtown. Ms. Jordan's father was a warehouse clerk and a Baptist minister and helped her attend Texas Southern University, where she graduated magna cum laude in 1956. Ms. Jordan received a law degree from Boston University in 1959, passing the bar in both Massachusetts and her home state of Texas.

After graduating from law school, Ms. Jordan taught at the Tuskegee Institute for a year before she returned to Houston in 1960 to open a law practice. In the beginning, she worked from her parent's home until she saved enough to open an office after three years.

Barbara Jordan's Path to the Texas Legislature

Barbara Jordan later became politically involved by registering Black voters for the 1960 presidential election and later running twice unsuccessfully for state office in the early 1960s.

In 1965 came the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act resulting in redistricting of congressional and legislative voting districts in Texas, increasing the registration rate of Black voters. The subsequent increase allowed Ms. Jordan to win an election as a Democrat to the Texas Senate in 1966.

Her election made her the first Black Senator since Walter Moses Burton left office in 1883 and the first black legislator elected to office since Robert Lloyd Smith was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1896.

Barbara Jordan; Jimmy Carter
Barbara Jordan and Jimmy Carter, 1976. // Credit: The University of Texas at Austin. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

During her tenure in the Texas state legislative, Ms. Jordan focused on minimum-wage laws, voter registration, and chaired the Labor and Management Relations Committee. The Texas State Historical Association notes that Texas Senator Jordan "developed a reputation as a master of detail and as an effective pragmatist, [gained] the respect of her thirty White male colleagues."

In 1969 the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed and sent to the states for ratification. Ms. Jordan in the Texas Senate and Frances "Sissy" Farenthold in the Texas House cosponsored its successful ratification by the Texas state legislator. In taking the legislation a step further, the duo proposed an amendment to the Texas Constitution guaranteeing equal rights for women, which quickly gained the blessing of Texas voters.

Following her achievements, Ms. Jordan was unanimously elected as president pro tempore of the Texas Senate in 1972.

Barbara Jordan Catches the Eye of LBJ

Impressed by the leadership of Ms. Jordan, President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) took an interest in her career. He opened the floodgates of support by key donors and political leaders to facilitate her rise to Congress in 1972. Representative Jordan became the first Black woman from a Southern state to serve in Congress.

Not but a few years later would Representative Jordan gain prominence as a national leader through her role in the 1974 Watergate hearings as a member of the House Judiciary Committee and her delivery of what many consider to be the best speech of the hearings:

"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 recognition to follow laid a path to the Democratic party choosing Representative Jordan to deliver the keynote address at the 1976 Democratic national convention, making her the first woman and the first African American to do so.

According to the Texas State Historical Association, Representative Jordan's most significant accomplishment in Congress was her success in including Hispanics in the extension of the 1975 Voting Rights Act. Representative Jordan "felt that the 1965 Voting Rights Act was the most significant and effective civil rights legislation ever passed because it opened the doors for millions of African Americans in the South to fully participate in the political system."

During the extension, Representative Jordan felt that the same rights granted to African Americans in 1965 should extend to Hispanics in Texas and throughout the Southwest. After overcoming significant opposition from conservative members of the Texas Congressional delegation and the Texas Governor and Attorney General, her leadership in the passage of the extension opened the doors for a new generation of Hispanic leaders in local, state, and national office.

After three terms in Congress, Representative Jordan retired from politics and accepted the Lyndon Baines Johnson Public Service Professorship at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin in 1979. She taught courses on intergovernmental relations, political values, and ethics. Later that year, she published an autobiography, "Barbara Jordan: A Self Portrait."

A Legacy of Honor

In the years to follow, Ms. Jordan received many honors. She was inducted into the Texas Women's Hall of Fame in 1984 and the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1990. Later, she received the great honor of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994.

Barbara Jordan Statue; Austin; Austin-Bergstrom International Airport
Statue of Barbara Jordan at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. // Credit: The Texas State Historical Association, artist Bruce Wolf, and the City of Austin.

Regardless of her political retirement in 1979, she served in several official capacities in the following years. Ms. Jordan served as an ethics advisor to Texas Governor Ann Richards in the early 1990s, delivered the keynote address at the Democratic national convention in 1992, and served as the Chairwoman of the United States Commission on Immigration reform under President Bill Clinton in 1994.

After a life of public service and advocating for the voting rights of minority communities, Barbara Jordan succumbed to pneumonia and leukemia in Austin on January 17, 1996. Ms. Jordan was survived by her longtime companion, Nancy Earl, with whom she lived in Austin, her mother, Arlyne Patten Jordan, and her two sisters, Rosemary McGowan and Bernie Creswell. Barbara Jordan is buried in the State Cemetery in Austin.


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This post would not have been made possible without the work of the Texas State Historical Association, Mark Odintz, and Mary Beth Rogers.