Saturday, February 21, 2015

Barbara Jordan Remembered

by Nomad

Today, February 21, marks the birthday of Texas Congresswoman Barbara Charline Jordan, arguably one of the most influential black women in American political history.

Representative Jordan from Texas was the first in many categories: the first African American to serve in the Texas Senate since Reconstruction, the first black woman elected to Congress from the South. Additionally, in, July 1976, she became the first African American woman to deliver a keynote speech at a Democratic National Convention.

In fact, on an individual level, it's hard to find, in one person of this period who symbolized the breadth of American diversity. She was an African American, she was a woman and, although it was an aspect of her life she preferred to remain undisclosed, she was most likely a lesbian.

On that basis alone, she had a right to speak on behalf of many people. She once said of the first words of the preamble of the Constitution:
It is a very eloquent beginning. But when the document was completed on the seventeenth of September 1787 I was not included in that “We, the people.” I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision I have finally been included in “We, the people.”:

The World is Not Your Playground
Born in 1936, Barbara Jordan's early life in Depression-era Houston was centered around family, community and church, namely the Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church.

Her dominating father, Ben, was laborer and Baptist pastor. In a time of great economic hardship- especially for minorities- the Jordans were, for that time and that race, firmly middle-class. (A brick house on a paved street, a family car and indoor plumbing was all it took to classify in that time.)

Her biographer, Mary Beth Rogers stresses that for her father the notion of respectability was paramount. It was considered "one way to break  racial barrier and dislodge the superiority/inferiority ideology that permeated social economic and political life" and which was "so painfully damaging to young African American."
 Coupled with this desire to be respected was Ben Jordan's focus on education.
Ben Jordan had attended the Tuskegee Institute until hardship and lack of money forced him to drop out.
Her father instilled in his three daughters the idea that education was the liberator as well as the provider of respectability.(Years later, Jordan would, in fact, teach at Tuskege for a year.)
Meanwhile her mother worked as a wife, mother and a maid, or "a domestic worker."  As one source points out, Jordan's mother,  Arlyne, was so eloquent that, it was said, "if she hadn't been a woman, she would have been a preacher."
From her grandfather, she inherited his life philosophy:
Just remember the world is not a playground, but a school room. Life is not a holiday but an education. One eternal lesson for us all: to teach how better we should love."
In her high school years, Jordan encountered a woman who would change her life. The famous African American lawyer, Edith S. Sampson of Chicago spoke at career day at  Phillis Wheatley High School.  Sampson toured the country giving speeches to young African Americans, encouraging them to pursue law as a career. As one student would later remark, 
"It wasn't so much what she said... She had done done all these wonderful things, and she was a very eloquent speaker, with such poise and self-assurance."
For honors student Jordan, she had discovered her direction in life. Sampson offered hope for a better future for African Americans. It came to be one of Jordan's key principles. One Sampson quote must surely have inspired the teenager.
"I would rather be a Negro in America than a citizen in any other land."
Barbara Jordan was about to put that idea to the test.

Before Her Time
Eventually however, Jordan found Sampson's inspirational ideas would be tested by the hard reality. In 1952, the Old South still followed the doctrine of "separate but equal" which allowed for segregation.
Because of this, Jordan was unable to attend The University of Texas at Austin but chose instead Texas Southern University where she majored in political science and history. There she also developed her oratory shills and became a national champion debater.
Later she would move to Boston to attend Boston University School of Law, graduating in 1959. (That was only two years before a baby named Barack Obama was born in Hawaii.)

After a year teaching political science at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, she returned to Houston and began a private law practice. But Jordan soon had new more ambitious plans. She had decided to enter the rough and tumble world of Texas politics.

Starting in 1962- the year the Supreme Court ruled that the University of Mississippi had to admit African-American student and veteran James Meredith as a student- Jordan was already campaigning for the Texas House of Representatives.
 Her first - and indeed her second 1964 campaign- ended in failure. But in 1966, she won her seat in the Texas Senate, a position she served until 1972. 
As a state senator, she became . the first African American state senator since 1883 and the first black woman of that state legislator.

Incidentally, here's a bit of interesting trivia. Jordon had the  distinction of being the first black female governor of Texas. That's correct. As a legislative procedural act, Jordan held the gubernatorial potion for a single day- June 10, 1972- when both Governor Preston Smith and Lt. Governor Ben Barnes were out of state.

Watergate and the Care Giver
To his credit, former President Lyndon B. Johnson used his considerable influence to help her secure a position on the the House Judiciary Committee. According to a New York Times article, Johnson said of Jordan:
"She proved that black is beautiful before we knew what it meant.
On July 25, 1974, Congresswoman Jordan, in a televised speech, went over in painstaking detail the exact grounds for the impeachment case against Richard Nixon. 
She also warned that impeachment was a serious matter, not something any politician should take lightly:
Common sense would be revolted if we engaged upon this process for petty reasons. Congress has a lot to do: Appropriations, tax reform, health insurance, campaign finance reform, housing, environmental protection, energy sufficiency, mass transportation. Pettiness cannot be allowed to stand in the face of such overwhelming problems. So today we are not being petty. We are trying to be big, because the task we have before us is a big one.
Many were impressed by both her eloquence and her common sense. The power of the speech launched Jordan into the national spotlight as more than just a freshman member of Congress.

Alas, it was not to be. The onset of health problems cut short the further advancement of her political career. Though she had managed to keep the details out of the public discussion, Jordan had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

There were other considerations that may have limited her political career. Specifically, her sexual orientation and the nature of her 30-year relationship with her partner, Nancy Earl. Upon Jordan's death in 1996 , her Houston Chronicle obituary mentioned her longtime companion which is generally a euphemism for a lover. 
Whatever the truth, Earl became co-owner of their home, executor of her estate, as Jordan's health began to decline, her primary care giver.

Being an extremely private person, Jordan kept the details of her sexual orientation to herself.   neither confirming nor denying rumors. 
Today it is hardly worth noting at all but back then, things were very different for gay and lesbian people. For a politician, questions about sexual orientation would have been a decided liability, even in liberal circles. 

Being the first African American woman was more than enough of a breakthrough.

The Convention of Unity and Compromise
Some would reasonably argue that the finest moment of Jordan's career came when she stepped up to the podium at the 1976 Democratic Convention in Madison Square Garden in New York City. Her timing certainly could not have been any better.As one source reminds us, women were definitely in ascendance, with the Equal Rights Amendment within reach.
The 1976 Democratic Convention was the first in many decades in which women and women’s issues played an important role.
Why? Simply because women had made it clear to the Democratic party that they were not going to be ignored. They were ready to fight for their rights.
It was also due to the maturing of the political arm of the women’s movement. Feminists had been present in large numbers at the 1972 national nominating conventions, but were ignored when political considerations conflicted with the feminist agenda. At the 1976 Democratic National Convention feminists were taken seriously as political players.
There was no doubt who the Democrats would be nominating that year. The American public was sick and tired of the Republican lawlessness. The manner in which Gerald Ford- America's first unelected president- had allowed Richard Nixon to escape justice with a presidential pardon left a bitter aftertaste in their mouths. They sought out a new kind of leader, one who was untainted by Washington corruption, a stranger to the establishment, and most of all, a moral man. 
The man the Democrats found was  Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia. By the time the convention opened, Carter already had more than enough delegate votes.

Nevertheless, the Democratic leadership demanded from its delegates one thing: Cohesion and a display of unity. Any disagreement on the floor would be the one disaster that could destroy any chance of a Democratic win. The lessons of the 1968 and 1972 conventions had been learned and the mistake of discord could not be allowed to repeat itself.

In one of history's "what-ifs" there was even talk of Jordan being Carter's running mate. Although that position eventually went to Walter Mondale, it is tempting to imagine that ticket. 
We can judge- at least to some degree- what the reaction from women would have been by the reception she received on the opening night of the Democratic Convention.   

The Key Note Speech
The crowds jumped to their feet and roared. The band played "Deep in the Heart of Texas" as Barbara Jordan stepped before the convention delegates. At that moment, they broke out in a standing ovation. 

Even at the time, the news reporters noted that it was the first time the convention had "really come alive" on that first night. Indeed, the chairman repeatedly had to call the delegates to order so that Jordan could begin. 

In her speech she attempted to capture that moment in American politics. The aftermath of an unsuccessful and pointless war followed by a Republican administration that had been steepted in corruption had left the American people in disgust and lost. 

We are, she told the crowd, in "a quandary about the present."
We are a people in search of our future. We are a people in search of a national community. We are a people trying not only to solve the problems of the present, unemployment, inflation, but we are attempting on a larger scale to fulfill the promise of America. We are attempting to fulfill our national purpose, to create and sustain a society in which all of us are equal.
Only the Democratic Party, Jordan said, was serious about representing all American people.
We are a heterogeneous party made up of Americans of diverse backgrounds. We believe that the people are the source of all governmental power; that the authority of the people is to be extended, not restricted.
But how exactly could the authority of the people be enlarged? In two words: active participation.
This can be accomplished only by providing each citizen with every opportunity to participate in the management of the government. ... We believe that the government which represents the authority of all the people, not just one interest group, but all the people, has an obligation to actively -- underscore actively -- seek to remove those obstacles which would block individual achievement -- obstacles emanating from race, sex, economic condition. The government must remove them, seek to remove them.
The Democratic Party, she said, did not fear change. It was not trapped in the past, offering the same failed solutions instead of real change.
We are a party -- We are a party of innovation. We do not reject our traditions, but we are willing to adapt to changing circumstances, when change we must. We are willing to suffer the discomfort of change in order to achieve a better future. We have a positive vision of the future founded on the belief that the gap between the promise and reality of America can one day be finally closed. We believe that.
The key, she implied, to the success of the American nation was not division, but unity. To ignore that was to "blaspheme our political heritage, to "ignore the common ties that bind all Americans."
Many fear the future. Many are distrustful of their leaders, and believe that their voices are never heard. Many seek only to satisfy their private wants; to satisfy their private interests.
Selfishness of this kind, she noted, presented a genuine threat to America.
But this is the great danger America faces -- that we will cease to be one nation and become instead a collection of interest groups: city against suburb, region against region, individual against individual; each seeking to satisfy private wants. If that happens, who then will speak for America? Who then will speak for the common good?
The people had to speak not as a collection of self-interested groups or private individuals bent of extracting as much as possible from government. We had to form a national community, sharing in a common vision, working towards a common national endeavor.
A nation is formed by the willingness of each of us to share in the responsibility for upholding the common good. A government is invigorated when each one of us is willing to participate in shaping the future of this nation.
We must not allow self-doubt  and division to undermine our efforts. The first step she said is to restore our belief in ourselves. Americans had always been a generous people, but why couldn't it be generous with each other?
She closed her speech with a quote by Lincoln.
"As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master."
To this Barbara Jordan added,
"This expresses my idea of Democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no Democracy."

When Jordan died in January 1996 of viral pneumonia (a complication of leukemia) she was, at 59.  still relatively young age,
It was a loss for the nation.

At one point, President Bill Clinton had considered nominating Jordan for the United States Supreme Court. She would have made a fine choice and it is a pity that her increasingly serious health problems cut short her career.

Ironically, Barbara Jordan achieved yet another first, even after her death. In an honor reserved for heroes of the Lone Star State, she was buried at the Texas State Cemetery, becoming its first African-American woman to be buried there.