Barbara Charline Jordan was born in Houston, Texas, on February 21, 1936. She graduated from Texas Southern University in 1956 and from Boston University Law School in 1959, and then returned to Houston to open her own law practice. After participating in the Kennedy-Johnson presidential campaign of 1960, she decided to run for the Texas Legislature and won a seat in the state senate in 1966. She was the first African American state senator since 1883, and the first black woman to serve in that body. Reelected in 1968, she served until 1972. In that same year, she also served briefly as acting Governor of Texas.
In 1972, she was elected to the United States House of Representatives and became the first black woman from a southern state to serve in that body. She served as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, and she rose to national prominence for her televised speech before the committee’s hearings on the impeachment of President Richard Nixon in support of constitutional principles.
I never intended to become a run-of-the-mill person.
She was perhaps best known for as one of America’s greatest orators. She had a constituent who once heard her on the radio and said “it was like listening to the voice of God.” Her speech at the 1976 Democratic National Convention is considered by many historians to be the best keynote speech in modern history. As one senator remarked about her speeches, “Her message united people from vastly different walks of life, bringing them together to stand as one and nod their heads in unison and say: ‘Yes, each one of us can make a difference, and together we can make this nation stronger.'”
During her career, she was the recipient of 31 honorary doctorates and numerous national awards. In 1994, President Bill Clinton presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a civilian. In 1993, she was the first recipient of the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights, given by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
In 1973, Jordan began to suffer from multiple sclerosis. The disease eventually caused her to be confined to a wheelchair, and she retired from politics in 1979 and became a professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.
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.
— Testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, July 25, 1974
She passed away on January 17, 1996, and is buried in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. Even in death, she broke barriers as the first black woman to be interred there.
Barbara Jordan served on the board of trustees of the Kaiser Family Foundation from 1985–1993. As a member of the board, she played a pivotal role in the decision to completely make over the Foundation under new leadership in 1990, and in the early decisions that shaped the Foundation’s role today as a leader in health policy and communications. She also inspired the Foundation’s special and now longstanding commitment to South Africa.
The Barbara Jordan Conference Center in Washington, D.C., is our tribute to the indelible mark that she left on the Foundation’s people and mission. In 1999, the Foundation created the Barbara Jordan Health Policy Scholars Program in order to honor her and expand the potential pool of young leaders of color interested in the field of health policy and public service, a purpose we are sure Barbara would have applauded.
America’s mission was, and still is, to take diversity and mold it into a cohesive and coherent whole that would espouse virtues and values essential to the maintenance of civil order. There is nothing easy about that mission, but it is not Mission Impossible.