OCALA, Fla., April 9, 2014 — Filling the shoes of Barbara Jordan would take the feet of a thousand men, to say the least.
Born on February 21, 1936 to a family headed by a Baptist minister, Barbara Jordan grew up in Houston’s Fifth Ward, one of America’s most well known historically black neighborhoods. A star debater in high school, she attempted to enroll in the University of Texas at Austin but was discouraged due to her race. Opting instead for Texas Southern University, she graduated magna cum laude and enrolled in Boston University for graduate work. Throughout her college career, she continued to hone her debating skills and was victorious in several national championships.
After teaching at the Tuskegee Institute for a year, Jordan returned to her home town and established herself as a lawyer. Politics were not far off, and after two unsuccessful runs for the Texas House of Representatives, she was elected to the state Senate in 1966. As its first black member, she proved herself to be a tireless and effective voice on behalf of her constituents, and was chosen to be president pro tempore.
While both the governor and his lieutenant were out of state for a day, Jordan served as its chief executive. To this very day, she stands as America’s first and only black female governor.
Jordan’s gubernatorial stint helped to boost her name. She successfully ran for Congress in 1972. In Washington, DC, she quickly gained recognition for championing the rights of the underrepresented and downtrodden of all races and ethnicities.
Supporting measures to expand the Voting Rights Act’s parameters to demolish undue barriers for civic participation amongst minorities, she made tsunami-level waves. During the Watergate hearing, she gave a speech which is now considered to be one of the best in American political history. Outlining her loyalties to the Constitution, she eloquently explained her vote to impeach President Richard Nixon.
This remarkable oration led to Jordan delivering keynote addresses to the Democratic National Conventions of 1976 and 1992. Leaving elected office in the late 1970s due to increasing health concerns, she continued to strive for sociopolitical excellence as a professor. During the early 1990s, she led one of the most wide reaching and influential commissions on illegal immigration, which revealed how dire this problem truly was and still is.
While trying to raise awareness about her findings, she was struck with pneumonia and died on January 17, 1996.
Remembered as one who not only broke barriers but set standards for public service, Barbara Jordan was truly in a league of her own. We should all aspire to share even a fraction of her success and clarity of purpose.
Much of this article was first published as Barbara Jordan; A Lady of Firsts: An American Story in Blogcritics Magazine.