1. Archive

Barbara Jordan // 1936-1996

Barbara Jordan, whose soaring oratory and moral certitude led many to hail her as the nation's conscience, has died. She was 59.

Ms. Jordan, born a preacher's daughter in Houston, possessed a poise and confidence that vaulted her from the Texas Legislature to Congress and on to speculation that she could be Jimmy Carter's nominee for vice president in 1976.

Her rich voice and stirring words _ first at the Watergate hearings, then at the 1976 Democratic National Convention _ made her a role model for all Americans.

"I thought I heard God speaking, and it turned out to be Barbara Jordan," said Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro, recalling her from his days as a Senate clerk.

When Ms. Jordan spoke, hers was a message of justice for all.

"Barbara's words . . . challenged us as a nation to confront our weaknesses and live peacefully together as equals," President Clinton said Wednesday.

Ms. Jordan was chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform at the time of her death.

Her life was a series of firsts: In 1966, Ms. Jordan, a Democrat, was elected to the state Senate, the first black since 1883 and the first black woman ever elected to the Texas Legislature. In 1972, she became the first black woman elected to Congress from the South.

Andrew Young of Georgia also won office that year. They were the first blacks sent to Congress from the South since the aftermath of the Civil War.

In her second term in Congress, Ms. Jordan had to vote on the impeachment of a president of the United States. On the night of July 25, 1974, the second night of the Judiciary Committee's proceedings, her turn to speak came.

She called for impeachment.

In that speech she said, " "We, the people.' It is a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed on the 17th of September in 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.' "

She went on to say, "My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total, and I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution."

An audience member said it sounded as if the gates of heaven had opened.

Ms. Jordan went on to give a stirring keynote address at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, which nominated Carter. She repeated her keynote role in 1992, challenging delegates:

"As we undergo that change, we must be prepared to answer Rodney King's haunting question "Can we all get along?' I say we answer that question with a resounding yes."

Most recently, her rich, impassioned voice was heard once more in Congress when, in her role with the immigration commission, she spoke out against a proposal to deny automatic citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants born in this country.

"To deny birthright citizenship would derail this engine of American liberty," she warned.

Ms. Jordan left politics in 1979 after three terms in the House, choosing to teach at the University of Texas.

Her students fondly called her "B. J." and recalled Ms. Jordan as never being without a copy of the Constitution in her purse.

Barbara Charline Jordan was born in Houston on Feb. 21, 1936. Her father was a Baptist preacher and a warehouse clerk who taught her a love of family, faith and language. Her parents pushed her to excel, and they would criticize her for imprecise diction.

She went to the all-black Texas Southern University in Houston, where she led a championship debate team and graduated magna cum laude. Ms. Jordan later proudly recalled maneuvering Harvard' debate team to a draw.

"When an all-black team ties Harvard, it wins," she said.

Ms. Jordan graduated from Boston University law school in 1959, where she was the only woman in her class, then returned to Houston and began to practice, using the family kitchen table as her desk.

Ms. Jordan got her start in politics in the Kennedy-Johnson campaign of 1960.

"They put me to work licking stamps and addressing envelopes," she said. "One night we went out to a church to enlist Negro voters and the woman who was supposed to speak didn't show up. I volunteered to speak in her place and right after that, they took me off licking and addressing."

_ Information from the Washington Post, New York Times, Dallas Morning News and Associated Press was used in this report.