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BARBARA "BJ" JORDAN

Barbara Jordan

Barbara Jordan was born on February 21st 1936 in Houston, Texas to Benjamin and Arlyne Jordan. Her birth name was Barbara Charline. At the time of her birth, America was still suffering from the effects of the 1929 Great Economic Depression. So eventhough they were poor by all imaginable standards, they never quite noticed it. Barbara once said about her childhood poverty, "We were poor, but so was everybody around us, so we didnt notice it." Their home was in one of the largest African-American ghettos in Houston. In their cramped brick house lived 7 people, her parents and grandparents plus her two sisters. They all had to share the same bathroom.

She attended Phillis Wheatley High School, an all-black High School named after a former slave who later became a respected poet. Among her memorable exploits at Phillis Wheatley included chatting. Childhood reports have it that she always got in trouble in school for chatting during class sessions. It is no coincidence that she joined and became the star of the school's debating team. Chatting aside, she also excelled academically at Phillis Wheatley. In 1952 she won the first place in a state-wide speech contest for African-American students. After that she was invited to Chicago, Illinois for the national speech contest which she also won. It was for this reason, plus her excellent grades that in 1952 when she graduated from Phillis Wheatley High School, she was named "Girl of The Year". So in the Fall of 1952, then only 16 years old, Barbara enrolled at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas, a traditionally black university.

Among the first things she did at TSU was to join the debate team, which at that time was exclusively male. After a nasty period of sexism, the team's coach Dr. Tom Freeman let the talented Barbara join the team. The team travelled across the nation competing against other colleges. It was during these travels with the TSU debate team that Barbara witnessed the disastrous effects of segregation, which gave her a new mission in life--to fight for an end to it. While on trips for example, they couldn't eat in certain restaurants or sleep at certain motels simply because they were black. They could not even debate against certain schools for the same reason. This tide however began to change in 1954 with the landmark Brown v Board of Education ruling that outlawed segregation in public schools. This opened up the door for intergration in American schools.

In 1956, Barbara graduated with Honours from Texas Southern University and then proceeded to Boston University to pursue a Law Degree. It was a completely new experience for her at Boston University because for the first time she was away from home on her own. During her years at TSU she had been commuting from home. Her early experiences at Boston University convinced her that the Supreme Court had indeed been right in their Brown v Board of Education ruling because black educational institutions were way inferior to white ones. As a result, eventhough she came out of TSU with Honours, she found herself struggling just to maintain a passing grade during her first year at Boston University. She however slowly but surely got her footing at Boston University and in no time was mixing it up with them.

According to her personal accounts, she never experienced racism at Boston University, only sexism from their chauvinistic professor. It was a struggle for the female students to hang in his class and as a matter of fact, some of her female colleagues caved in under the pressure and dropped out. When Barbara graduated from Boston University in 1959, she was one of only 2 women left in her graduating class. But all in all, she really appreciated her experiences at BU Law School. According to her, it had taught her how to think, read, reason and defend her opinions. She liked the city of Boston so much that she intended to settle there and practice law. This was because Boston, like most other Northwestern cities was intergrated and did not have the kind of blatant racism that you would expect in the southern cities. She even took and passed the Massachusetts Bar exams, but after some serious soul searching, she decided to head back home to Houston where she believed her family and lifelong connections would help boost her career. She passed the Texas Bar exam and set up her practice in her parents' dining room. She supplemented her income by working as an administrative assistant to a County Judge. It took her 3 years to save up enough money to move her practice out of her parents' home.

In 1960 she got politically active and began working as a volunteer to help elect Democratic Presidential Candidate John F. Kennedy who was from Massachusetts, where she had obtained her Law Degree. Barbara helped in Kennedy's Texas campaign. Kennedy had been a strong proponent of stronger civil rights legislation and had huge appeal among African-Americans and other minorities. Little did Barbara know that her miniature job as a volunteer would be the opening to a bright political career. One night when one of the speakers at a Texas Democratic Party Campaign meeting failed to show up, she was called on to substitute for him. Her imposing persona and exemplary oratorical skills that had won her many debates in her younger years caught the gathered Democrats by surprise. After her powerful presentation, most of the gathered Democrats were left not asking who she was, but whether they could use her valuable services elsewhere. Next thing you know, BJ was running all around Houston, urging African-Americans to turn out in large numbers and vote for JFK.

When JFK finally won the U.S. Presidency in 1960, BJ was left thinking that maybe she too needed to run for public office rather than campaigning for others. In 1962 she decided to run for a Texas House of Representatives Seat. Her opponent was a well financed white lawyer called Willis Whatley. Jordan's campaign was nothing compared to Whatley, who crushed her with paid ads. Jordan for example couldn't even afford the $500 filing fee for the election and ended up borrowing it. She ended up losing the election to Whatley by a margin of some 20,000 votes. The loss was obviously a serious blow to her, but even worse was the advice she later got from an experienced politician. He told her, "You've got too much going against you. You're black, you're a woman and you're large. People dont really like that image." The tough BJ however refused to cave in to such defeatist thought and promised to push on with her political career.

In 1964 when she decided to run a second time for a Texas House of Representative seat, she lost again. The prospect of a two-time loser did not settle very well with her, especially given the fact that unlike in her first loss, she had come into this race very prepared. She however took the loss in stride and fell back to her fledging legal practice. Her political career at this stage was in the doldrums and she knew it. Little did she know that the gods were on her side when in 1965 Harris County was subjected to redistricting. This resulted from a Supreme Court ruling in 1962's Baker v Carr, which required state legislatures to be apportioned to provide equal protection for all its citizens. This meant that Americans would now vote for candidates to represent their various districts rather vote for candidates countywide. As a result, Harris County was divided into voting districts(redistricted). Houston which is in Harris County was awarded 10 new legislative seats. One of those seats was in the newly created 11th district where BJ lived. The 11th district was home to a lot of African-American, Latino and white union workers, who had all along formed the backbone of her support. Smelling blood, BJ had no alternative but to throw her hat in the ring again, this time running for Texas State Senator. Her challenger in the Democratic Party primaries was Charles Whitfield, a white liberal. In the Democratic Primaries, BJ convincingly beat Whitfield by a margin of 2 to 1. Since there was no Republican challenger, her Senate seat was all but secured with her primary nomination.

She became the first African-American to be elected to the Texas Senate since the 1880s and needless to say, the first African-American woman in the Texas Senate too. Eventhough it was hard for her not to be overwhelmed by the glory of her unprecedented achievement, she had no illusions as to the difficulty of the task ahead of her. For starters, out of the 31 Texas State Senators, 30 were white males!!! BJ knew coming in that her white colleagues expected quite little of her. She however proved them wrong with her dilligence and hard work that earned her the distinction of Outstanding Freshman Senator. The irony behind all this is that the resolution to give her this honour was sponsored by Senator Dorsey Hardeman of San Angelo, someone who reports have it had wanted nothing whatsoever to do with BJ initially. BJ must have done a very good job to win the respect of such a staunch opponent. By the end of her first year as Texas Senator, she was already being referred to as the most powerful African-American politician in Texas. Her hometown Houston was equally proud of her and proclaimed October 1st 1971 Barbara Jordan Day in Houston.

In March 1972 she was elected president pro tempore of the Texas Legislature. This made her the first African-American woman to preside over a legislative body in the U.S. Among the duties that came with her new gig was to act as Governor when both the Governor and Lieutenant Governor were out of State. It was arranged that June 10th 1972 she became Governor for the day. This was a joyous occasion for her family and friends and was marked with pomp and celebration. Tragedy however hit the Jordan family on this joyous day too. That same day her father suffered a stroke and passed away the day after. Her father had been a very strong influence in her life so his death definitely knocked her back a few steps. The strong Barbara however soon recovered from the grief and resolved to push on with her political career. That same year(1972) she decided to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives(U.S. Congress).

After the 1970 census, Voting Districts in Texas were again redrawn(redistricting). This resulted in the creation of the 18th Congressional District which Barbara decided to contest. Her District comprised some 50% whites, 35% latinos and 15% blacks. She faced 3 other African-Americans in the Democratic Party Primaries. Her campaign was seriously boosted by the endorsement of none other than former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, also a Texas native and a close friend. Johnson like his predecessor JFK, had been a champion of minorities and so his endorsement meant a whole lot to BJ's campaign. In May 1972 during the Democratic Party Primaries, BJ trounced her 2 opponents to win the nomination. In November the same year, she went on to defeat her Republican challenger Paul Merritt to become the first African-American woman from the south elected to the U.S. Congress. In the Presidential race that same year, Richard Nixon was re-elected. He had won his first term in 1968.

Barbara Jordan arrived in Washington, DC for her new gig in 1973 and was immediately assigned to the much coveted House Judiciary Committee(HJC), thanks again to some string-pulling by her good friend and former President LBJ. In 1974, the House Judiciary Committee hit the national limelight during the now infamous Watergate Scandal. In this scandal, 5 people working for Nixon's re-election had broken into the offices of the Democratic National Committee located at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC. The story did not catch much steam at the beginning but after now famous reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward began revealing juicy details about the break-in, the scandal gripped the whole nation. The scandal caused a lot of anger and resentment at politicians and politics in general and has been blamed for the lack of interest in politics by most Americans in the recent past(mid 70's to early 90's). The scandal led to calls for impeachment against President Nixon. An impeachment by the way is just a formal charge of wrongdoing against a public official. The House votes on whether or not to impeach, but its the Senate that actually tries the case.

The House Judiciary Committee began formal impeachment hearings against President Nixon in May 1974. BJ and her colleagues at the HJC had their work cut out for them as they had to gather evidence pertinent to the case. She later said about her role in the impeachment proceedings, "I lived the impeachment matter,....it was a 24-hr-a-day engagement where I was concerned." She however also confessed at the unease this whole impeachment drama caused her. She, like a majority of Americans, held the Office of the President in very high regard. It was only natural then that she be apprehensive when dealing with issues that might force a sitting President to step down before his/her time expired. In fact this was one of the things that endeared BJ to Americans across the political spectrum. She was not just a blinded liberal, out to kick a Republican President out of office, because trust me, there were those!!

BJ's time to address the committee and explain her vote came on July 25th 1974. In this nationally televised speech, she voted to impeach President Nixon, saying in part, "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 dimunition, the subversion, the destruction of the constitution. She also went on to say that the evidence the House Judiciary Committee had gathered on Nixon was so strong that if they did not vote to impeach, "then perhaps the eighteenth century constitution should be abandoned to a twentieth century paper shredder." America was stunned by the powerful presentation from the Texas iron lady!!! After her speech, The New York Times went on to say, "The words had rolled from her lips in that formal speaking voice of hers, like a Shakespearean actor." She starred during the impeachment proceedings with her powerful prescence and strong messages, making her an American political icon.

Following the impeachment vote, Nixon decided to resign from office on August 8th 1974, making him the first U.S. President to do so. BJ on the other hand, was now a huge star and media darling. When she ran for re-election in November 1974, she won bigtime, running off with about 85% of the vote. In fact she became so popular that there was even talk within Democratic Party circles for a Vice-Presidential slot for her in the upcoming 1976 Presidential elections, or a future Supreme Court appointment. As a star in the Democratic Party, she was rewarded with a position in the party's "Steering & Policy Committee" also known as "Power Committee". It is this committee that makes committee assignments to the Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives. It usually takes a lot of years before a congressperson can ascend to such a position. BJ had only been in town for 2 years!!!

In 1976, BJ delivered a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in New York City. She had been chosen as one of 2 keynote speakers at the convention. The other speaker was Senator John Glenn, the famous Astronaut and leading contender for the Democratic Party Vice-Presidential nomination in 1976. Glenn's speech turned out to be less than impressive as compared to BJ's which rocked the house. Just by making the speech, BJ was making yet another kind of history by being the first African-American or woman keynote speaker at a major political convention. In a speech interrupted more than 20 times by thunderous applause, BJ said in part, My prescence here is one additional bit of evidence that the American Dream need not forever be deferred. Now that I have this grand distinction, what in the world am I supposed to say? I could easily spend this time praising the accomplishments of this party and attacking the Republicans, but I don't choose to do that. I could list the many problems which cause people to feel cynical, angry, frustrated....I could recite these problems and then I could sit down and offer no solutions. But I don't choose to do that either. The citizens of America expect more. That same year(1976), BJ was re-elected to a 3rd term in Congress and made the top 10 list of TIME magazine's Women of the Year. 2 years later in 1978, she made a surprise announcement that she was quitting politics. Many people could not believe it because at that time it seemed the sky was the limit for her. She had everything going on for her so it seemed almost erratic for her to quit then. But in her vintage pattern, Barbara stuck to her decision and left Washington, DC for her home state Texas in 1979. Back in Texas she became a Professor at University of Texas, Austin's Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. She taught courses on Policy Development, political values and ethics. In 1982 she was named University of Texas Lyndon B. Johnson Chair of National Policy. From there onwards, she was bombarded by ceremonial posts and awards.

In 1984 she was named Best Living Orator by the International Platform Association. In 1988, during the Atlanta, Georgia Democratic National Convention, she again delivered a powerful speech, this time endorsing Vice-Presidential hopeful Lloyd Bentsen against Republicans George Bush of Texas and Dan Quayle of Indiana. The Republicans won the elections. That same year presented a scary moment for the Johnson family. BJ suffered cardiac arrest and was found floating face-down in her swimming pool. According to the doctor who treated her following the incident, she had come only 10 minutes shy of suffering severe brain damage or death. Eventhough she went on to recover from this incident, sources close to her were well aware that all was not well in her health department and kept a close eye on her. In 1990 BJ was inducted into the National Women Hall of Fame and in 1991 was appointed Special Counsel for Ethics by Texas Governor Ann Richards.

BJ again delivered a keynote address at the July 13th 1992 Democratic National Convention in New York City. The following year(1993), together with actor Tom Seleck and others they established Character Counts Coalition with the objective of instilling in American youths, the importance of values like trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. Soon after President Bill Clinton was sworn-in in early 1993, he appointed BJ to head the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform. In 1994 BJ went on to bag an American politician's ultimate prize when she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton. This is the highest civilian award in the U.S. and as of 1995, only 144 Americans had received this prestigious honour for exemplary public service.

BJ died on January 7th 1996 in Texas. At the time of her death she was 59. The cause of her death was listed as viral pneumonia as a complication of Leukemia. She also had Multiple Sclerosis(MS), a disease affecting the central nervous system.

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