Barbara Jordan was one of the United States’ most eloquent spokespersons on issues of racial, economic, and social justice from the 1970s through the 1990s. Elected to the U.S House of Representatives in 1972, Jordan served three terms as congressperson from Texas’s 18th District and became nationally recognized for her integrity and moral eloquence.
Jordan was born February 21, 1936, in Houston. Her formidable oratorical skills were displayed early, as Jordan was an award-winning debater at Phyllis Wheatley High School and later at Texas Southern University. After graduating from Texas Southern, she entered Boston University Law School in 1956. She returned to Houston after graduating law school and established her own practice.
Jordan worked for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960. She attended to her own practice, ran two losing campaigns for the Texas House, and served as administrative assistant to a Harris County (Texas) judge before winning election to the Texas Senate in 1966. She was committed to rectifying economic injustice, but she was also a pragmatist, and worked with both liberals and conservatives. As a state legislator, Jordan helped establish the first Texas minimum-wage law and pushed through legislation that raised workers’ compensation payments.
In 1972 Jordan was elected to the U.S. House from Houston’s 18th congressional district. Jordan became a champion of labor and the working class. She was also a member of the judiciary committee. Her July 25, 1974, speech on Watergate combined mastery of the Constitution with moral indignation and made her a nationally recognized name.
While in Congress Jordan advocated successfully for the addition of a civil rights stipulation to the Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, the funding arm of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. She also fought successfully in 1975 for a more comprehensive version of the Voting Rights Act. Jordan cemented her national stature with a riveting keynote address at the 1976 Democratic National Convention. Jordan at times frustrated members of the Congressional Black Caucus with her support of issues important to Texas, but she always considered herself a professional politician first and was loathe to be typecast.
Just as Jordan’s national status was at its apex, however, she retired from politics in 1979. She had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1973 and constantly battled poor health. In the 1980s and 1990s she taught law at the University of Texas and was a staunch critic of the Reagan presidency. She provided key opposition testimony to the nomination of conservative judge Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987.
Jordan gave a keynote address at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1994. She died on January 17, 1996, at the age of 59.
Carter, James Earl; Civil Rights Acts
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