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Barbara Jordan: American Hero

Barbara Jordan: American Hero

by Mary Beth Rogers

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Barbara Jordan was the first African American to serve in the Texas Senate since Reconstruction, the first black woman elected to Congress from the South, and the first to deliver the keynote address at a national party convention. Yet Jordan herself remained a mystery, a woman so private that even her close friends did not know the name of the illness that


Barbara Jordan was the first African American to serve in the Texas Senate since Reconstruction, the first black woman elected to Congress from the South, and the first to deliver the keynote address at a national party convention. 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.

In Barbara Jordan, Mary Beth Rogers deftly explores the forces that shaped the moral character and quiet dignity of this extraordinary woman.  She reveals the seeds of Jordan's trademark stoicism while recapturing the essence of a black woman entering politics just as the civil rights movement exploded across the nation. Celebrating Jordan's elegance, passion, and patriotism, this illuminating portrayal gives new depth to our understanding of one of the most influential women of our time-a woman whose powerful convictions and flair for oratorical drama changed the political landscape of America's twentieth century.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

She represented the best in public service...." So spoke Senator Ted Kennedy of the late Barbara Jordan, the first African-American woman elected to the Texas State Senate since Reconstruction, the first black woman from the South elected to Congress, and the first African American to deliver a keynote address at a national political party convention. Many recall Jordan's heroic role in the Nixon Watergate hearings, but her private life has to date gone largely unexplored. In Barbara Jordan: An American Hero, longtime Jordan colleague and friend Mary Beth Rogers explores Jordan's rich life and storied career, beginning with her impoverished Houston childhood and extending through her surprising and sudden withdrawal from public life.
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
"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.'"
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."

"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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We have to ask our heroes at the moment their challenge is thrust upon them, with its trials and the possibilities of greatness on the other side: Are you ready? Can you handle it?

It was on July 25, 1974, that millions of television viewers saw Barbara Jordan for the first time. What they saw was a massive, heavy black woman, in a pumpkin-orange knit dress, with a black-and-white polka-dot scarf at her neck. She was such a large woman that there seemed nothing unusual about her round and puffy face, swollen from the prednisone. Pearl earrings were visible under her short, smooth hair, but she wore no makeup or lipstick, and her eyes were shielded by glasses in heavy black frames that reflected the television lights back into the cameras, making her eyes almost impossible to see. Her elbows were on the table, with her right hand holding the edge of her glasses. She leaned into the microphone and started to read her remarks. The magic of her voice began to obliterate her appearance. Its clear, rapid, bell-like tones and rhythmic patterns made most viewers pause. Within a mere fifteen seconds, no more than fifty words into her text, both the sound and the content of her words began to engage, even captivate, her audience.

Earlier today we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, "We, the People." It is a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed on the 17th 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 must have 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. I believe 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. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.
Jordan then began to explain--in effect, to teach--what the whole crisis was about: the rule of law and a president who put himself above the rule of law. What the tapes and testimony, the evidence, revealed was a presidential scandal like never before (and never since). The president of the United States had knowingly directed his underlings to raise illegal funds to finance illegal activities designed to destroy the Democratic Party and key individuals. Then he had abused the powers of his office and federal agencies like the FBI to cover up his activities. This abuse extended to denying to the Congress and the courts information they were constitutionally entitled to have. What galled Jordan the most was the lying--the president's lying about his own involvement and that of his staff. To Barbara Jordan, it was contempt and disregard for the law in extreme. She wanted her remarks to get to the center of that issue. She wanted to answer the questions people wanted answered.

First, what was impeachment? It was like an indictment, she told us, an accusation that still had to be proven. "In establishing the division between the two branches of the legislature, the House and the Senate, assigning to the one the right to accuse and to the other the right to judge, the Framers of this Constitution were very astute. They did not make the accusers and the judges the same person." Without "playing games," she also began to lay out a respectable constitutional position for those committee members who had not yet made up their minds. She was telling them, in effect, that they could vote to impeach without having to judge beyond a shadow of a doubt the president's guilt. That would be up to the Senate.

To the American people, Jordan explained why the misdeeds of the president were crimes against the Constitution. She went back to the proceedings of the various states' debates during the process of ratifying the federal Constitution. She quoted from the Virginia Ratification Convention, from the South Carolina Ratification Convention, from Alexander Hamilton's words in the Federalist Papers, and particularly from James Madison's reasoning at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

We know the nature of impeachment. We have been talking about it awhile now. "It is chiefly designed for the President and his high ministers" to somehow be called into account. It is designed to "bridle" the Executive if he engages in excesses. "It is designed as a method of national inquest into the conduct of public men" (Hamilton, Federalist No. 65). The Framers confined in the Congress the power, if need be, to remove the President in order to strike a delicate balance between a President swollen with power and grown tyrannical and preservation of the independence of the Executive. The nature of impeachment is a narrowly channeled exception to the separation of powers maxim; the Federal Convention of 1787 said that. It limited impeachment to high crimes and misdemeanors and discounted and opposed the term "maladministration." . . .

Common sense would be revolted if we engaged upon this process for petty reasons. Congress has a lot to do. Appropriations, tax reform, health insurance, campaign finance reform, housing, environmental protection, energy sufficiency, mass transportation. Pettiness cannot be allowed to stand in the face of such overwhelming problems. So today we are not being petty. We are trying to be big because the task we have before us is a big one.
Then Jordan juxtaposed a few of the impeachment criteria with some of the president's actions:

Impeachment criteria: James Madison, from the Virginia Ratification Convention. "If the President be connected in any suspicious manner with any person and there be grounds to believe that he will shelter him, he may be impeached."

We have heard time and time again that the evidence reflects payments to the defendants of money. The President had knowledge that these funds were being paid and that these were funds collected for the 1972 Presidential campaign. We know that the President met with Mr. Henry Petersen twenty-seven times to discuss matters related to Watergate and immediately thereafter met with the very persons who were implicated in the information Mr. Petersen was receiving and transmitting to the President. The words are, "if the President be connected in any suspicious manner with any person and there be grounds to believe that he will shelter that person, he may be impeached. . . ."

The South Carolina Ratification Convention impeachment criteria: "Those are impeachable who behave amiss or betray their public trust." Beginning shortly after the Watergate break-in and continuing to the present time, the President has engaged in a series of public statements and actions designed to thwart the lawful investigation by Government prosecutors. Moreover, the President has made public announcements and assertions bearing on the Watergate case which the evidence will show he knew to be false.

James Madison, again at the Constitutional Convention: "A President is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution." The Constitution charges the President with the task of taking care that the laws be faithfully executed, and yet, the President has counseled his aides to commit perjury, willfully disregarded the secrecy of grand jury proceedings, concealed surreptitious entry, attempted to compromise a Federal judge while publicly displaying his cooperation with the processes of criminal justice.
As she had done throughout her remarks, Jordan repeated a key phrase for emphasis, also the words of James Madison: "A President is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution."

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 the next 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.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Meet the Author

Mary Beth Rogers was previously the chief-of-staff for Texas Governor Ann Richards and a professor of American Politics at the Lyndon B. Johnson School for Public Affairs, where Barbara Jordan taught ethics.  Mary Beth is now the CEO of KLRU-TV, the public television station in Austin.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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