Obituary: Barbara Jordan

Godfrey Hodgson
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:59

Barbara Jordan was the first African-American to be elected to either house of the United States Congress since the Reconstruction period immediately after the Civil War.

In 1976 she was the first black woman to be seriously considered as a Vice-Presidential candidate by the Democratic Party, and she twice gave the keynote address at Democratic national conventions, in 1976 and again in 1992.

Her greatest moment, however, came in 1974 as a member of the judiciary committee of the House of Representatives during the hearings on the possible impeachment of President Richard Nixon for the various excesses collectively known as "Watergate".

With quiet but passionate eloquence she stirred her colleagues and the national television audience to share her stern conception of the committee's duty. Her fellow Democrats had been held back from pressing impeachment by fear of appearing partisan. Her intervention is reckoned to have been decisive in persuading the committee to recommend that impeachment proceedings should go forward.

When the Constitution was signed, Jordan said, she, as a black woman, was not included. "I felt somehow," she said wrily, "that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake." But, through the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision she was finally one of "We the people". "Today," she said, "I am an inquisitor, and I believe it would not . . . overstate the solemnness that I feel right now to say my faith in the Constitution is whole, it is total, and I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the destruction of the Constitution."

"As if speaking from tablets of stone," as her fellow Democrat Senator Lloyd Bentsen recalled, in her strong voice with a Texas accent clipped for effect, she concluded with a peroration that exactly expressed what tens of millions of Americans felt. "If the impeachment provision in the Constitution will not reach the offences charged here, then perhaps that 18th-century Constitution should be abandoned to a 20th-century paper-shredder."

In 1976 she featured on a longish list of people who were being considered as possible Vice-Presidential candidates by Jimmy Carter and his advisers before she gave her keynote speech at the Democratic convention. Polls at that point showed that her presence on the ticket would lose Carter more votes than she would bring to him. When she spoke, however, her "rolling rhetoric", as one reporter put it, aroused huge enthusiasm in the audience. A majestic, tall black woman in a green dress, her father had been a Baptist minister, and she spoke with the exciting cadences of generations of southern black preachers.

She ended by quoting Abraham Lincoln: "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy." That sentiment, and her magnificent presence and delivery, touched off renewed calls for her to run with Carter, but it was not to be.

When Senator Walter Mondale was chosen instead, she campaigned actively for Carter and worked successfully with Jesse Jackson and other black leaders to register large numbers of new black voters. The next year, however, she surprised political Washington by announcing that she would stand down from Congress and go home to Texas after only three two-year terms. "The longer you stay in Congress," she explained, "the harder it is to leave. I didn't want to wake up one fine sunny morning and say there is nothing else that Barbara Jordan can do."

From 1979 she taught at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin, where she was immensely popular with students. In 1992 she again gave the keynote speech at the Democratic convention and again she struck the right note, this time a call for reconciliation. "We need to change the decaying inner cities from decay to places where hope lies," she said. "We must be prepared to answer Rodney King's haunting question, 'Can we get along?' " (King was a black motorist whose beating by the police, captured on videotape, set off the 1992 Los Angeles riots.) "I say we answer that question with a resounding 'yes'."

Barbara Charline Jordan, politician: born Houston, Texas 21 February 1936; Member (Democratic), Texan Senate 1966-72; Member, House of Representatives 1973-78; Lyndon B. Johnson Public Service Professor, University of Texas, Austin 1979-82, Lyndon B. Johnson Centennial Chair in National Policy 1982-96; died 17 January 1996.

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