Setting the pace: how Barbara Jordan revolutionized legal practice for African-Americans

BY afrobeatsplus September 12, 2023 2:06 PM EDT
Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. Photo courtesy of AP

Born just a few years after the ratification of the 13th Amendment, Barbara Jordan embarked on an extraordinary journey that would etch her name as a monumental figure in American history. Hailing from a humble rural Texas village, Jordan shattered formidable barriers, assuming roles that had been largely unattainable for African Americans for decades.

She earned the distinction of becoming the first African-American state senator in the U.S. since 1883, marking a significant milestone in her career. But Barbara Jordan’s impact extended further, as she became the inaugural African American woman to represent the Deep South in the United States House of Representatives since 1898. Her historic accomplishments continued as she scripted a new chapter by becoming the first woman and African-American to deliver the keynote address at a Democratic National Convention.

Jordan’s life stood as a testament to setting the pace, not just for herself, but for an entire generation. Her pursuit of education at Boston University Law School exemplified her resolute spirit, as she was one of only two women in her class. Moreover, she stood as one of just three Black women to pass the bar and practice law in Texas.

Beyond her personal achievements, Barbara Jordan was a tireless champion for the underprivileged. She diligently worked to institute crucial measures, including a Fair Employment Practices Commission, anti-discrimination clauses in contracts, and a minimum wage law. Her support for the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, which mandated banks to extend services to the poor and minorities, showcased her commitment to equity. She also advocated for the expansion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to protect language minorities and was a staunch supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment.

However, the pinnacle of Jordan’s illustrious career came during her service on the House Judiciary Committee. It was there that she delivered one of the most monumental speeches of the 20th Century. Serving as the voice of integrity and upholding the checks and balances safeguarding the Constitution, Jordan’s opening remarks at the Watergate impeachment hearings became an indelible moment in American history.

Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States: “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.”

Today I am an inquisitor. An hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. 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.

Her skillful orchestration, while never explicitly calling for Nixon’s impeachment, remains an enduring testament to her statesmanship.

Excerpt from Barbara Johnson’s remarks at the Watergate impeachment hearings.

Yet, Jordan’s remarkable journey was not devoid of setbacks. In the early 1960s, she faced political defeats in her bids for the Texas House of Representatives in 1962 and 1964. Even as she delivered her historic keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, Jordan did so from a wheelchair due to her battle with multiple sclerosis. These moments of perceived hardship only added depth to her story, showcasing the resilience that defined her extraordinary path.

Barbara Jordan’s story is one of courageously overcoming adversity. Through her numerous legal achievements and the passage of inclusive legislation, she paved the way for countless African Americans. Her life and career serve as an inspirational example for everyone, illustrating the power of determination and unwavering commitment to a just and inclusive society.