Hers was the booming voice that thundered across a nation—inspiring political leaders to greater vision, championing the underdog and fighting for truth on the House Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment hearings in 1974.
Always mindful of her humble beginnings in Houston’s Fifth Ward, Barbara Jordan overcame innumerable obstacles to become a lawyer and win elected office as the first African American since Reconstruction to serve in the Texas Senate and then as the first African American woman from the South to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. With her striking oratory, charismatic leadership and dedication to public service, Jordan touched countless lives during her years in government and later as a professor at The University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.
Barbara Jordan was the first African American since Reconstruction to serve in the Texas Senate and then the first African American woman from the South to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Both as a state senator and as a U.S. congresswoman, she sponsored bills that championed the poor, the disadvantaged and people of color. As a congresswoman, she sponsored legislation to broaden the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to cover Mexican Americans in Texas and other southwestern states and to extend the law’s authority to those states where minorities had been denied the right to vote or had had their rights restricted by unfair registration practices, such as literacy tests.
Jordan gained national prominence for her role in the 1974 Watergate hearings as a member of the House Judiciary Committee when she delivered what many considered to be the most powerful speech of the hearings.
Impressed with her eloquence and rising stature in the party, the Democrats chose her to deliver the keynote address at the 1976 Democratic national convention. She was the first woman and the first African American to do so. Her speech, which addressed the themes of unity, equality, accountability and American ideals, was considered by many to be the highlight of the convention and helped to rally support for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign.
Upon leaving the U.S. Congress in 1979, Jordan rejected offers to practice corporate law and instead accepted an invitation to teach public affairs and ethics at the LBJ School.
“Jordan was intrigued by the notion of teaching,” said Mary Beth Rogers, a former LBJ School faculty member and the author of Barbara Jordan: American Hero. “She felt that she had learned so much through her own experiences and that her knowledge might help others.”
Already considered a living legend when she came to the LBJ School, Jordan quickly earned a reputation as an extraordinary teacher. “Jordan called on her experience and her tremendous intellectual capacity to teach about justice and equality, what she considered to be the two fundamental principles of America,” Rogers said.
Students loved her sense of humor and distinctive teaching style, but it was her passion for her subject matter that made her seminars among the most sought after graduate classes on campus. For 17 years she after taught at the LBJ School until her death in 1996.
The news of Jordan’s death on January 17, 1996, produced a nationwide outpouring of emotion and respect. Media coverage of her life and contributions filled newspapers and broadcast news in the days following her death, and memorial tributes from schools, community organizations and others were abundant. Memorials to Jordan on The University of Texas at Austin campus began Jan. 19 with march from the university Tower to the LBJ Library, where Jordan’s body lay in state for 24 hours.
The words spoken in her honor described a woman whose public image was larger than life, but whose private persona was full of warmth, humor and humanity. Speaking at the memorial service, DeAnn Friedholm, M.P.Aff. ’79, described her friend and former teacher in a way that spoke for the entire LBJ School community: “So why was BJ so special? So admired? So loved? Because she spoke to the highest good in us all—she taught us to know our own hearts and minds, and to travel the high road.... She believed that each of us can actually change the world, and her investment in us gave us the confidence that we really could.”
It was that call to action that motivated students to organize the first Barbara Jordan forum in 1997, a year after Jordan’s death. Originally called the Barbara Jordan Memorial Forum on Diversity in Public Policy, the event was organized to put a positive light on diversity in the immediate aftermath of the Hopwood decision, which prohibited the use of race in the admissions process in Texas.
In keeping with Jordan’s focus on social justice and equality, forum themes have broadened to include a range of issues, including the digital divide, education, race relations and community empowerment. As a way to celebrate Jordan’s life, student organizers hold the forum each year in February—Jordan’s birth month and the month the nation celebrates Black history.
The Seventh Annual Barbara Jordan National Forum on Public Policy, scheduled for Feb.27 to March 1, is called “Rejuvenating Ethics, Responsibility and Commitment in Today's America.
Barbara Jordan’s keynote address at the 1976 Democratic national convention helped to rally support for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign.
This year’s forum organizers say their main objective is to revive Jordan’s messages about civic duty and show ordinary citizens how they can get involved and bring about positive changes in their communities.
“Americans are struggling to define our responsibility to our country, the ethics of our leaders and the commitment we must make to improve the lives of all our citizens,” said forum co-chair Alene Riley, who is also the LBJ School Class of 2003 Barbara Jordan Scholar. “We want participants to return to their schools, workplaces and communities thinking about these big questions and on their way to finding answers.”
Among this year’s speakers are former Texas Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes, former Wall Street Journal senior editor Joseph Boyce and Rogers, who is now chief strategist of KLRU, Austin’s public television station.
“Barbara Jordan dedicated her life to others,” said LBJ School Dean Ed Dorn. “It was her dream to see public policy leaders from a wide variety of backgrounds working together to improve the quality of life in their communities. The Barbara Jordan Memorial Forum is a way to continue building on her dream.”
For information about the Seventh Annual Barbara Jordan National Forum on Public Policy, which is free and open to the public, visit the Barbara Jordan Forum