Texas Times: Remembering Barbara Jordan

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn Jan. 22, 2009, 7:00am

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX)

This month, Americans in Texas and across the country pay tribute to the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. To this day his powerful message on the importance of equality, opportunity and the unique value of every human life continues to inspire generations of Americans.

Undoubtedly, Rev. King would have liked to be here to witness firsthand the Inauguration of our nation's first African American president.

As we celebrate this historic occasion, we should also pause to remember one of Texas' most accomplished civil rights activists, Barbara Charline Jordan.

The first African American woman from a Southern state to serve in the U.S. Congress, Jordan's unprecedented election was just one of the many shining "firsts" she achieved for both her race and her gender.

Jordan was born in Houston on Feb. 21, 1936, and grew up in Houston's Fifth Ward. Much of her childhood was spent in Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church, where she listened devotedly to the sermons of her father, Baptist Rev. Benjamin Jordan.

She carried his booming voice and resonating pulse from the pulpit with her, excelling as a young debater at Phillis Wheatley High School-determined even then to be a lawyer. Her grandfather's words guided her throughout her life: "just trot to your own horse and don't get in the same rut as everyone else."

Without question, Jordan was focused and determined to succeed. A member of the Wheatley honor society, she graduated in the top five percent of her class. She attended Texas Southern University, where she fine-tuned her debate skills, defeating top debaters from Ivy League institutions like Yale and Brown.

Jordan went on to graduate from Boston University School of Law, the only woman in her class of 128 students.

After a brief teaching stint at Tuskegee Institute, Jordan returned home to Houston, and practiced law. It wasn't long before Jordan found herself "bitten by the political bug," and in 1960, she began stuffing envelopes for the Harris County Democrats during the Kennedy presidential campaign.

She was quickly recognized for her exceptional oratory skills, and party leaders recruited her to begin speaking for area candidates.

Jordan's charisma on the stump was remarkable, and she soon became a candidate herself. Jordan made two unsuccessful runs at the state legislature before winning a seat in the Texas Senate in 1966-the first African American woman to do so. She earned the respect of her white male colleagues and a reputation for common-sense leadership.

In 1972, she made history again by becoming elected as the first African American female from the Deep South to serve in the U.S. Congress.

During her public service, she became a champion of the disadvantaged and disenfranchised. She even succeeded in broadening the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to include Mexican-Americans in Texas and other southwestern states.

Jordan captured the nation's attention in 1974, when she participated in the impeachment proceedings against President Nixon and delivered what many consider to be the most memorable and powerful remarks of the historic hearings.

The national spotlight followed her and in 1976, she became the first African American woman to speak before the Democratic National Convention, delivering an energizing speech centered on the ideals of equality and accountability.

In 1979, Jordan retired from government and accepted a position teaching ethics and public affairs at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. After a life of achievement, Barbara Jordan passed away in Austin on January 17, 1996.

Barbara Jordan's historic accomplishments and contributions to our nation earned her countless honors, including the elite Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994. In tribute to her passionate work to end discrimination, I was proud to have a hand in adding her name to the title of the Voting Rights Reauthorization Act of 2006, which was signed into law in 2008.

This month, the path paved by Barbara Jordan, Martin Luther King Jr., and other civil rights activists, will lead to the White House.

As Barack Obama becomes our nation's first African American president, I hope we can each pause to remember and pay tribute to Barbara Jordan and the others like her who have made this historic day possible - building, as Ms. Jordan once said, "an America as good as its promise."

Sen. Cornyn serves on the Armed Services, Judiciary and Budget Committees. He serves as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee's Immigration, Refugees and Border Security subcommittee and the Armed Services Committee's Airland subcommittee. He served previously as Texas Attorney General, Texas Supreme Court Justice, and Bexar County District Judge.

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