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Barbara Jordan, 1936-1996: A Powerful Voice for Justice and Social Change

Barbara Jordan's smile during "Governor for a Day" ceremonies in 1972.
Barbara Jordan's smile during "Governor for a Day" ceremonies in 1972.

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STEVE EMBER: I’m Steve Ember.

SARAH LONG: And I’m Sarah Long with People in America in VOA Special English. Today, we tell about a woman who worked to make a difference in people’s lives, Barbara Jordan.


STEVE EMBER: Barbara Jordan was a lawyer, educator and member of Congress. She was well known for her powerful, thoughtful speeches. During her long political career, Barbara Jordan worked for social change. She sought to use her political influence to make a difference for all Americans.

Barbara Jordan became the first African-American woman to be elected to the United States Congress to represent Texas. In nineteen seventy-four, she gained national recognition as a member of the congressional committee investigating President Richard Nixon.


SARAH LONG: Barbara Charline Jordan was born in the southern city of Houston, Texas in nineteen thirty-six. She was the youngest of three daughters. Her father was a Baptist minister. He taught her a love of family, faith, music and language. As a child, Barbara’s parents pushed her to succeed.

Barbara Jordan said her parents would criticize her for not speaking correct English. They urged her to become a music teacher, because they said that was the only good job for a black woman at that time.

Her sisters did become music teachers. Barbara Jordan, however, explained later that she wanted to be something unusual. At first she thought about being a pharmacist, a scientist who is an expert in medicines. But, she noted, she never heard of an important pharmacist.

STEVE EMBER: In high school, Barbara heard a black woman lawyer speak. Miss Jordan decided to become a lawyer. She attended the all-black college, Texas Southern University in Houston. She led a championship debating team and became known for her speaking skills. She finished at the top of her class. Then she went onto Boston University law school in Boston, Massachusetts.

After she finished law school, Miss Jordan returned to Texas. She began to work as a lawyer. She also discovered she was interested in politics. Her interest began when she helped in a presidential campaign. She worked to help get Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kennedy elected in nineteen sixty.

SARAH LONG: Soon, Miss Jordan decided to become a politician herself. She first campaigned for public office in nineteen-sixty-two. She wanted to become a member of the Texas House of Representatives. She lost that election, and another election two years later.

In nineteen sixty-six, she decided to seek a seat in the Texas Senate. She won. Barbara Jordan became the first black person to serve in the Texas Senate since eighteen eighty-three.

During her years as a Texas lawmaker, Miss Jordan proposed and helped pass legislation dealing with social change. She helped reform public assistance programs and protect workers' wages. She also opposed legislation that would have made it harder for blacks and Latin Americans to vote.

STEVE EMBER: After eight years in the Texas Senate, Miss Jordan campaigned for a seat in the United States House of Representatives. She won easily. She was the first woman and first black to be elected to Congress to represent Texas.

In Congress, Miss Jordan spoke for the poor, for women, for African-Americans and Latin Americans. She believed strongly, however, in being loyal to her state and her political party. She considered the interests of the people of Texas before those of any other group.


SARAH LONG: In nineteen seventy-four, Congresswoman Jordan was a member of the House Judiciary committee. The committee was investigating evidence of wrongdoing by then President Richard Nixon. The Congressional hearings into the situation known as Watergate were broadcast on national television.

During the Watergate hearings, Miss Jordan declared her strong belief in the United States Constitution. She denounced President Nixon for violating it. She is remembered still for her commanding presentation at the hearing and deep knowledge of constitutional issues. The Watergate hearings that led to President Nixon’s resignation made Barbara Jordan known around the nation.

STEVE EMBER: Following the Watergate hearings, Barbara Jordan went on to other firsts. In nineteen seventy-six, she was asked to speak at the Democratic National Convention which nominated Jimmy Carter. Miss Jordan was the first black woman to give an opening speech at the Democratic Convention. She said members of the Democratic Party believe that the people are the basis of all governmental power. Democrats believe, she continued, that the power of the people is to be extended, not restricted. In her speech, Miss Jordan also urged Americans to work for the common good:

BARBARA JORDAN:"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. But this is the great danger America faces -- that we will cease to be one nation and become instead a collection of interest groups, each seeking to satisfy private wants. If that happens, who then will speak for America? Who then will speak for the common good?"

VOICE TWO: The fact she was black and a woman did not seem to slow Barbara Jordan's rise. Her future seemed limitless. Then, in nineteen seventy-seven, Miss Jordan suddenly announced she was retiring from Congress and returning to Texas. She later said she felt she was not making enough difference.

BARBARA JORDAN:"If I felt that I could have been increasingly effective in that job, I suppose I would have continued to do it. But politics is (takes) a long, long time to make any significant, long-lasting difference."

STEVE EMBER: After returning to Texas, Barbara Jordan began teaching about political values at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin. Her two classes were so popular, students had to be chosen from a long list.

At the time that Miss Jordan left Congress, there were widespread reports that failing health was the cause for her decision. Later, it was announced that she had the disease called multiple sclerosis that affects the muscles. She had to move about in a wheelchair. But, she said, the disease did not lessen her thinking or the quality of her mind. Nor did it affect her ability to speak.


SARAH LONG: In the years after she retired from Congress, Miss Jordan made two more appearances at Democratic National Conventions. She announced her support for the vice-presidential nomination of Lloyd Bentsen at the nineteen eighty-eight convention in Atlanta. She spoke from a wheelchair. Her powerful voice was heard once again at the nineteen ninety-two Democratic convention, which nominated Bill Clinton for president. In her speech, she called for national unity:

BARBARA JORDAN:"We are one, we Americans, we're one, and we reject any intruder who seeks to divide us on the basis of race and color. We honor cultural identity--we always have, we always will. But, separatism is not allowed (applause)--separatism is not the American way. We must not allow ideas like political correctness to divide us and cause us to reverse hard-won achievements in human rights and civil rights."

STEVE EMBER: Barbara Jordan considered herself a teacher first, above all else. By her example, she taught all Americans about the importance of one's beliefs and the power of truth. She developed pneumonia caused by the blood cancer, leukemia, and died January eighteenth, nineteen ninety-six. She was fifty-nine.

VOICE TWO: Barbara Jordan was buried wearing the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It is the highest non-military honor given to Americans. President Clinton presented it to her in nineteen ninety-four. At the funeral ceremony, former Texas Governor Ann Richards said: "There was simply something about her that made you proud to be part of the country that produced her."


STEVE EMBER: This Special English program was written by Cynthia Kirk and produced by Paul Thompson. I'm Steve Ember.

SARAH LONG: And I'm Sarah Long. Join us again next week for another People in America program in VOA Special English.