Barbara Jordan: American Hero

Barbara Jordan: American Hero

by Mary Beth Rogers
     
 

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The first African-American to serve in the Texas Senate since Reconstruction, Barbara Jordan was also the first black woman elected to Congress from the South, and the first to deliver the keynote address at a national party convention. Her powerful oratory stirred a nation; her ideals of ethical leadership inspired millions. Yet Jordan herself remained a mystery, a… See more details below

Overview

The first African-American to serve in the Texas Senate since Reconstruction, Barbara Jordan was also the first black woman elected to Congress from the South, and the first to deliver the keynote address at a national party convention. Her powerful oratory stirred a nation; her ideals of ethical leadership inspired millions. Yet Jordan herself remained a mystery, a woman so private that even her close friends did not know the name of the illness that debilitated her for two decades until it struck her down at the age of fifty-nine. Mary Beth Rogers first met Barbara Jordan in the 1960s, and their paths crossed over the years as they pursued their academic and political careers. Now Rogers's meticulously documented biography deftly combines personal insight and impeccable research to explore the forces that shaped the moral character and quiet dignity of this extraordinary woman. Examining Jordan's stark childhood as the daughter of a Baptist preacher in sharply segregated Houston, Rogers reveals the seeds of her trademark stoicism and recaptures the essence of a black woman entering politics as the civil rights movement exploded across the nation. Jordan's political career went on to be both groundbreaking and inspiring.

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Editorial Reviews

Phil Gailey
Splendid...Rogers has filled in many of the blanks...an ample and inspiring account of Barbara Jordan's remarkable life.
New York Times Book Review
People Magazine
...[E]ngaging...
KLIATT
"Just remember the world is not a playground, but a school room. Life is not a holiday, but an education. One eternal lesson for us all: to teach us how better we should love." These are the words of Barbara Jordan, one of the most extraordinary women to grace our political arena. In the world of politics Jordan stands out as a moral, honest and courageous politician. She was Texas's first black senator and later went on to serve in the U.S. Congress. Highlights from her life, listed at the end of this outstanding book, show an incredible record of achievement—especially for a black woman from the South. Jordan's political rise had many influences, not the least of which was her Baptist preacher father, Ben Jordan. While he did not "push" her into politics, he profoundly affected her moral outlook, her self-discipline and her powerful vocal eloquence. Ben Jordan financially and emotionally supported his daughter through the beginnings of her political rise. Rogers says, "Barbara Jordan had the strength to absorb her father's influence, rather than be overwhelmed by it." His stern and unemotional demeanor, which kept her at a distance, also helped in creating her own detached public image. It was her grandfather, however, John Ed Patten, who gave Barbara the ability to accept herself as "black, smart, different, special." Her grandfather loved her without all the stern restrictions of Ben Jordan. Jordan became the best in whatever area she sought. She was a rousing speaker, an astute student of people and unrelenting in her efforts to serve her country. Her key position during the Watergate hearings and the support she had from friends like Lyndon B. Johnson helped in making hera household name. The fact that she was a woman, the fact that she was black, never held her back. She was able to break down barriers and prove herself more than capable in the political arena. Despite her growing health problems, she managed to teach and continue a vigorous schedule of public speaking. Eventually multiple sclerosis and accompanying ailments confined her to a wheelchair. While she sought to keep her personal problems away from the public, she nevertheless forged ahead endorsing candidates, teaching and working on committees. Rogers' biography is a well-written trip into the world of a most outstanding woman. It shows how Jordan was more than an innovator and pathfinder—she loved her country and the people above all else, as when she said: " I try to respect the humanity of everybody—no matter who they are or how they think or how they feel." Barbara Jordan was a true American hero, from her humble beginnings to her stunning achievements. This is also a book that is carefully researched, providing b/w photos, annotations and an in-depth index. Rogers relies greatly on interviews as well as scholarly research. This would be not only an outstanding contribution to both reference and biography collections, but a must for women's studies. KLIATT Codes: SA*—Exceptional book, recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1998, Bantam, 414p, 24cm, illus, notes, bibliog, index, 98-19996, $14.95. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Sally M. Tibbetts; Audio Visual/LRC, Des Plaines, IL, May 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 3)
Library Journal
As the first black woman elected to Congress from the South and the first to deliver the keynote address at a national party convention, Barbara Jordan became an American hero, "through intellect, character, and powerful oratory." In this tribute, Rogers views her as "independent and stoic" and as someone who won "power and influence through `inside politics.'"
Booknews
Describes the private life that Jordon (1936-96) kept pretty much to herself while becoming the first African American to serve in the Texas Senate since Reconstruction, the first black women elected to Congress from the South, and the first to deliver the keynote address at a national party convention before succumbing to a debilitating disease. Rogers, a political scholar (U. of Texas) who went into public politics and is now in public radio, combines research with her own insights based on knowing Jordon through political and academic circles. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
USA Today
A reverent portrait.
Phil Gailey
Splendid...Rogers has filled in many of the blanks...an ample and inspiring account of Barbara Jordan's remarkable life. -- The New York Times Book Review
From the Publisher
"This well-documented biography is a tribute to [Jordan] and a gift to those who honor the ideals for which she stood."
Chicago Tribune

"Splendid...an inspiring account of Barbara Jordan's remarkable life."
The New York Times Book Review

"[A] thoughtful biography of a one-of-a-kind twentieth-century figure."
Booklist

"The new Jordan biography-like its subject-commands respect."
Austin American-Statesman

"A reverent portrait that observes...the dignity, precision, oratorical gifts, discipline and self-sufficiency that defined Barbara Jordan."
USA Today

"[A] splendid new biography."
San Antonio Express-News

"Impressive...a major work...Jordan emerges from the page with an immediacy that leaves one with a new sense of loss over her death. "
The Women's Review of Books

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780553106039
Publisher:
Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group
Publication date:
12/01/1998
Pages:
414
Product dimensions:
6.56(w) x 9.66(h) x 1.21(d)

Read an Excerpt

It was pure Barbara Jordan common sense when she concluded: "If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offense charged here, then perhaps that 18th century Constitution should be abandoned to a 20th century paper shredder."

The audience had been spellbound during her brief remarks. Chairman Rodino had tears in his eyes. Barbara Jordan took a deep breath when she finished. The committee heard the remaining six speakers after Jordan's presentation and did not adjourn until almost 11:00 P.M. Jordan was exhausted, and Myers was waiting to take her to the car outside the Rayburn Building. There was a crowd waiting for her as she made her way, and people started cheering when they saw her. Someone shouted, "Right on!" One man grabbed her arm and told her he knew that "when you talked you were going to base whatever you were going to say on the law, if you had to go back to Moses."

Jordan was surprised. There had been such strict security during the proceedings, and there had been no applause or comment after each presentation, so she had no idea how her remarks had been received. She did not know that in his summation on the CBS News the reporter Bruce Morton had called Jordan the "best mind on the committee." Later, when she thought about it, Jordan felt that people must have "liked it that I didn't present a harangue." Maybe they knew "I was very serious about what I was doing. I felt that was what I was communicating. That here was a person who had really thought this through and had reached a decision, a considered, sincere, and sensible decision." Telegrams flooded into her office thenext day, congratulating her. On Saturday, the Washington Post ran the full text of her remarks. By Monday morning, her mail was overwhelming.

One woman from Arkansas wrote: "I want to let you know how much I appreciated your address last evening. It was one of the finest presentations given by any member of the Committee and it clearly showed the effort and research you had put into its preparation. I think the reference to your race and sex was appropriate. Keep up the good work. The country needs to hear from people who are proud to be Americans and not afraid to express themselves in time of crisis."

An attorney from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, had this to say: "I thought it was a brilliant summary. . . . You might be interested to know that before last night I had considered myself a life-long Republican." From an eighty-year-old woman in Miami: "I sat here with tears in my eyes. . . . I am not a constituent of yours. I am an old woman of eighty years and will not be voting for anyone for very much longer, but I will die with renewed belief that there is still a vast store of honesty, truth and honor among the men and women we have elected to serve us--you have restored my faith in our government."

And from a man in San Francisco: "Thank you once again for helping to restore this country and its people to a pride in our form of government and those who govern." A woman in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, wrote: "You brought the basic principles of the Constitution and the Articles of Impeachment alive." From another man in California: "Eloquence, forthrightness, incisive rationality, and dignity are rare qualities. Yet you, as a black woman from the South, vividly displayed these qualities. That a black woman from the South should have these qualities is no surprise; that the American political process should have progressed far enough to allow you to display these qualities to the entire country is a surprise."

She had notes from African Americans across the nation: "All of us who love all of the Mosaic of this precious land that is our own bless you for your Forceful, scholarly, Eloquent and Epic statement of the case. Now you belong to the ages. 'Free at last.'" Another: "I am 48 years old, black, female. I was born in a mining town in rural Alabama. This should give you an idea of some of the circumstances of my early years . . . nevertheless, I have earned a doctorate degree. . . . I have known many outstanding people--Mrs. Mary McCleod Bethune, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney M. Young Jr., Roy Wilkins--all, in my estimation, the epitomes of the dedicated, concerned, active black. Last night, I met you."

And from a one-hundred-year-old black man: "Madam, after Listen to you in Impeachment committee which you speak so eloquence made me Happy. Because I was Born in Texas in 1874. . . . I know you had some Bad Days to make it where you are." He asked her for a photograph of herself, "that I mite keep it the Rest of My Life."

The letters came from naturalized citizens as well. "When you speak of that great Document the 'Constitution of our beloved United States' it brings tears to my eyes. You see I am European born and a citizen by 'choice.' I pledged to protect and pledge allegiance to it, not to the President, whoever he may be."

Many Americans were ready to run Barbara Jordan for president of the United States on the spot: "You have changed the minds of myself, my wife, our relatives and all our friends, for the good of our country, as before we watched you on T.V. we thought only a man should be the President, but all of us will vote for you or any black man or lady." And from another: "Your scholarship was breathtaking tonight; your logic convincing; your sincerity unimpeachable; your power and beauty and dignity overwhelming. When you run for President, you can count on my vote."

Of the opening statements of the thirty-eight members of the Judiciary Committee, many were eloquent, some were agonizingly heartfelt, and others were scholarly and erudite. Yet Barbara Jordan's was the one that resonated with ordinary Americans. She became a national sensation overnight. Houstonians were so proud, they sent flowers and flooded her office with calls. One supporter bought twenty-five billboards all over Houston and plastered them with the message: "Thank you--Barbara Jordan--for explaining our constitution."

What was going on? What was so moving, so inspirational about Barbara Jordan's eleven minutes on national television? Was it the voice? The words? Her very blackness? Perhaps it was the sheer authenticity of this woman who had spent most of her life on the fringe of American mainstream society but was now inside and able to see--and explain--to all of the other Americans who would never be inside, or privy to the high secrets of politics, just what was right, as well as what was wrong, with the American system of law and the people sworn to uphold it. In one sense, Jordan was like the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, who had a certain confidence in the moral coherence of a world in which justice and righteousness should not be violated, mocked, or nullified and who, like others who have spoken in the prophetic tradition, are passionate poets, moral energizers, and discerning social analysts. Jordan's cadence and rhythm did give a poetic ring to her words, creating emotions that touched the hearts as well as the minds of her listeners. But her words conveyed information, too. Her analysis of the legal and moral issues was clear and instructional, and her obvious faith in the Constitution provided a moral energy sorely needed to deal with the whole morass of Watergate corruption. Her passion conveyed the clarity of righteousness and justice. Andrew Young said that when Jordan spoke, "It sounds like the heavens have opened up." The writer William Broyles, the former Newsweek editor who had observed Jordan closely in Texas, believed the religious parallels were apt: her voice was "an evangelical voice, a voice designed to bring to the fold the presence of the Lord." After a year of Watergate revelations, resignations, details, and denials, Americans clearly needed a voice of reason from "on high," and Barbara Jordan gave it to them.

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