Image credit: U.S. House of Representatives Photography Office, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Her story in brief:
Barbara Jordan was born in 1936, in Houston, Texas to a teacher and Baptist preacher. A Career Day speech at her segregated high school given by lawyer Edith Sampson, the first Black American delegate to the United Nations, inspired Jordan to become an attorney.
Before entering politics, she taught political science at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. She was elected to the Texas State Senate in 1966. To say that her election was exceptional is an understatement: She was the first Black woman elected to the State Senate, and the last time a Black person had been elected to that office was nearly a century earlier (in 1883). During Jordan’s time there, she helped pass the state’s first minimum wage law and was instrumental in creating its Fair Employment Commission.
Then, in 1972 — the same year that Shirley Chisholm ran for President — Jordan was elected to the US House of Representatives. Her political style became juxtaposed with Chisholm because of the timing and the difference between their approaches. Chisholm’s politics were influenced by Marcus Garvey. Her slogan was “Unbought and Unbossed”, and she called for a “bloodless revolution” at the 1972 Democratic National Convention. Meanwhile, Jordan opted to work more quietly within the system. She was a well-liked and effective legislator. “In moving past the stringent racism of her white colleagues, Barbara managed to earn their respect,” wrote Drs. Berry and Gross.
But Jordan’s non-combative style did not mean she shied from speaking truth to power. Her impressive oratory skills earned her acclaim in Congress during the waning days of the Nixon Administration. “Barbara, the daughter of a Baptist minister, took to the floor of Congress and delivered a stirring address to demand that the country’s elected officials do what was right and impeach the president,” wrote Drs. Berry and Gross.
Why her story should be told:
Barbara Jordan’s Congressional career pushes back against the assumption that Black political action is monolithic and exists solely in resistance to white supremacy. Not all Black politicians are radical or even progressive, according to Drs. Berry and Gross, who point out that today not all people of color identify with “the Squad” in Congress.
“There are masses of Black folks who are much more conservative and don’t necessarily want to have every conversation be about race and anti-Blackness,” explains Dr. Gross. “There are people who care more about just getting food on the table, having access to decent employment and fair housing.” Dr. Gross goes on to say that while Jordan “was not a radical Black politician, she also wasn’t in denial. She fought for voting rights and tried to safeguard the rights of citizenship for Black people.”