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Barbara Jordan: A Legacy for Our Time

Updated: Apr 18, 2023

Her message of unity and love is needed today.

Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives, Photographer Unknown

In celebrating Women’s History month, I read Barbara Jordan An American Hero (1), the biography by Mary Beth Rogers. I had already considered Barbara Jordan a hero, remembering her impressive address at the Watergate hearings in 1974. I didn’t know much about the details of her life, however.

Barbara was born in 1936, the daughter of a Teamsters union steward who was also a Baptist preacher, and a maid. They lived in the Fifth Ward of Houston, a densely populated and economically deprived area of the city. Active in her church, Barbara and her sisters sang there, and she became comfortable speaking in public there as well. These experiences began to develop her tremendous gift of speaking with a deep, harmonic, and dramatic rhythm, which would lead to her recognition as one of America’s greatest orators.

Barbara grew this talent further in the all-black high school she attended, where she participated on the debate team and in speech contests; her team won at state and national levels. She attended Texas Southern University, an historically black university, and excelled on the debate team where she and her team were competitive against white teams at the national level, winning against many of them and coming to a tie with the Harvard debate team.

This success added to her confidence beyond her previously black world confined to the Fifth Ward. During these travels, she became more aware of racism and the cruelty of Jim Crow laws. She decided to go to law school and realized she needed an experience outside of the black community in Texas. .

. . .

“Texas must be a state where love overrides hate. . . . We must try to see whether it’s humanly possible for man to love his fellow man anymore.” (2)

. . .

“My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.” (3)

These remarks led the American people to recognize Barbara as a moral and inspirational leader. She received many honorary degrees, including one from Harvard when she gave the commencement address. In a 1976 Gallup poll of the 20 women most admired by the American people, she ranked fourth. She was selected as one of Time magazine’s “Ten Women of the Year” that same year.

. . .

Barbara Jordan’s legacy is remarkable for her rise from the Fifth Ward in Houston to national politics in a time when civil rights were just becoming recognized. Her talent as an impassioned and persuasive speaker is legend. I believe her most important legacy, however, is her message of national unity and of love for fellow man. Our politics, and our nation could use this message today.

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