A Houston Icon: Remembering Barbara Jordan
Houstonians and non-Houstonians alike complain that Houston has no distinct character. We lament lacking a unified voice, and wonder what captures the spirit of Houston. There are plenty of popular words, dishes, and activities that unite us, even if these persist in remaining unknown to the rest of the world. When they think of Houston, what comes to mind? Is there a signature Houstonian figure?
For me, that most-Houston Houstonian is lawyer, teacher, Civil Rights activist, and politician Barbara Jordan. She was a champion of the disenfranchised, and an advocate for all Houstonians. Former President Lyndon Johnson was a friend and political mentor, Governor Jimmy Carter considered inviting her to be his running mate, and President Bill Clinton discussed nominating her to the Supreme Court. Anyone who ever heard her knew in their bones that she communicated with authority, authenticity, and the fire of truth. She gave a voice to those without, and spoke truth to power.
Born in 1936 in Houston, she grew up in the Fifth Ward, graduated from Phyllis Wheatly High School, attended Texas Southern University, and Boston University for law school. Following a brief stint as a teacher, lawyer, and Civil Rights activist, Jordan entered politics.
In 1966, Houston elected her to the Texas Senate, where she was the only woman and the only African American. In 1972, she was elected to the US House of Representatives in the newly-drawn 18th District (where Sheila Jackson Lee is today), and was newsworthy before she had even arrived. When Jordan got to DC, there were few African Americans from the South, and of those, none were women. Even though, it was shocking to see a black woman from Texas, former President Lyndon Johnson was especially proud of Congresswoman Jordan from his home state. This is what the Civil Rights Movement had produced. This was the promise of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, and the result of 1965’s Voting Rights Act.
Getting to Congress is difficult, but Jordan instantly stood out among her peers. During the Congressional inquiries into the Watergate scandal in the summer of 1974, she served on the House Judiciary Committee, and was a clear voice in the noisy impeachment hearings of President Richard Nixon.
She famously spoke, “’We, the people.’ It’s a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed on the seventeenth 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.’… 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.”
Suddenly, it was crystal clear that Jordan represented not just Congressional District 18, or Houston, or even Texas. She represented the nation.
In 1976, rising star Jordan was invited to give the Keynote Address at the Democratic National Convention. Hers was the brightest moment that week, when she declared to a wounded country, “Are we to be one people bound together by common spirit, sharing in a common endeavor; or will we become a divided nation? For all of its uncertainty, we cannot flee the future… We must address and master the future together. It can be done if we restore the belief that we share a sense of national community, that we share a common national endeavor. It can be done.”
She left Congress in 1979 and moved to Austin to teach at University of Texas’ Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. The honors continued to pour in. The Barbara Jordan High School for Careers opened in the Fifth Ward, along with others in Texas.
She was even invited back to the Democratic National Convention in 1992 for another Keynote Address, and delivered her message of hope — from a wheel chair. Multiple Sclerosis slowed her… but not by much.
Following her death after a long illness in 1996, President Bill Clinton and Governor Ann Richards spoke at her funeral. She was buried in the Texas State Cemetery — again, the first black woman to be honored so. Austin, a home to her since returning from Congress, erected TWO Barbara Jordan statues (thanks, Austin).
In 2011, the U.S. Postal Service honored the late United States Congresswoman Barbara Jordan with a stamp, the second Houstonian to receive this honor.
Lately, Barbara Jordan’s name has been popping up with increased frequency. Thousands will soon attend the return of Day for Night festival which is being held inside the former Downtown Post Office — named for Houston Congresswoman Barbara Jordan.
Is it selfish for Houston to take credit for Barbara Jordan? Yes. Certainly her achievements are hers alone. So instead, let’s be proud that such a national treasure was also a Houstonian.