to Making the Case
BARBARA JORDAN (1936–1996)
Edward A. Patton, one of the last African-Americans elected to
Texas Legislature during the Reconstruction Era, argued against a
proposed poll tax during an 1891 debate in the House of
Representatives. The following year, Patton lost his bid for re-election
and was forced to flee the state. What a difference 75 years can make.
In 1966, a federal court struck down the Texas poll tax. In that same
year, Barbara Jordan, Patton’s great-granddaughter, won election
to the Texas Senate, becoming the first African-American state senator
Born in 1936 in Houston’s Fifth Ward, Jordan grew up
unconscious of the limitations that segregation placed on her and other
African-Americans. Blessed with a strong voice and a powerful
intellect, Jordan was a top student and star debater at Wheatley High
School and Texas Southern University. But when Jordan entered Boston
University Law School in the fall of 1956 — one of only six women,
including two African-Americans in a class of approximately 250 — she
realized that she was not the equal of the white students in knowledge
or experience, according to Barbara Jordan: American Hero.
“I realized that the best training available in an all-black
instant university was not equal to the best training one developed as
a white university student. Separate was not equal; it just
wasn’t,” Jordan wrote in her 1979 autobiography, A
Through hard work during long nights of study, Jordan brought up her
grades and received her law degree. She passed the Texas bar exam in
December 1959 and began practicing law from her parents’ home in
Houston. But Jordan soon heard the siren call of politics. In the fall
of 1960, she volunteered to work in the John F. Kennedy-Lyndon B.
Johnson campaign headquarters in Houston and spoke frequently on behalf
of the ticket.
In 1962, Jordan ran as a liberal Democrat for a Harris County seat in
the Texas House. Although Jordan drew strong support from
Houston’s African-American community, she lost in the primary and
again suffered defeat in 1964. The problem was Texas still elected
legislators based on a countywide vote.
Jordan was able to expand her base beyond the Fifth Ward in 1965,
when Harris County Judge Bill Elliott named her as his assistant.
Jordan was the first African-American to work at the Harris County
Courthouse other than in a janitorial position. She used her high
profile with the county to boost an effort to integrate Houston public
schools, helping to organize an African-American student boycott of the
schools to put pressure on the school board. The mass absences resulted
in losses of state funding for the school district, prompting its board
to accelerate desegregation.
When Jordan decided to run for the state Senate in 1966, there were
new legislative districts. In 1965, a three-judge federal court ordered
the Texas Legislature to redraw the districts to meet the “one
person, one vote” requirement. The panel also held as
unenforceable a constitutional provision limiting a county to one
senator. When the Legislature redrew the lines, Harris County had three
new Senate districts, including one that took in Houston’s
downtown business area, the ship channel and the Third, Fourth and
Fifth Wards. Jordan won in that district, defeating state Rep. Charlie
Whitfield in the Democratic primary.
Jordan’s time in the Senate was marked by several
“firsts.” She was the first African-American senator to
chair a major committee, Labor and Management Relations, and the first
freshman ever to be named to the Texas Legislative Council. She also
was responsible for two major changes in Texas law, sponsoring bills
that provided the first increase in a dozen years in the benefits paid
workers injured on the job and that established, for the first time, a
minimum wage in Texas.
In November 1972, Jordan won a seat in the U.S. House of
Representatives and soon became a national figure. During a 1974 House
Judiciary Committee hearing, Jordan emphasized the importance of the
Constitution in considering articles of impeachment against President
Richard Nixon. The following year, she was instrumental in passing
legislation broadening the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to cover
Jordan scored another first in 1976, when she became the first
African-American to be a keynote speaker at a national political
convention. She spoke at the Democratic National Convention that year
and at the 1992 convention.
Tiring of life as a public official, Jordan opted not to seek
re-election in 1978 and returned to Austin to teach at the Lyndon B.
Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. By this
time, Jordan was struggling with weakening of her legs and the muscles
in her right eye caused by multiple sclerosis. But Jordan remained
active, speaking out against Robert Bork’s nomination to the
Supreme Court in 1987 and chairing the Commission on Immigration Reform
in 1994 and 1995.
Illness prevented Jordan from seeing the completion of her work on
the commission. She died in early 1996.