Nursing Clio Speak Up or Shut Up: The Legend of Barbara Jordan

Photo from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

Barbara Jordan – 1936-1996

“Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States: “We, the people.” It’s a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed on the seventeenth of September in 1787, I was not included in that “We, the people.” I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decision, I have finally been included in “We, the people.” Today I am an inquisitor.” AND “I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”~ Representative Barbara Jordan, July 24, 1974

“If you are respected by your colleagues, if you are consulted, if your advice is sought, that to me is power…knowing the subject matter hopefully more thoroughly than anybody else. That’s a real lever.” ~ Representative Barbara Jordan,  Washington Post

“If you’re going to play the game properly you’d better know every rule.” – Barbara Jordan

Today would have been Barbara Jordan’s 87th birthday. As February rolls toward March, we are nearing the cusp of Black History Month and Women’s History Month. This seems like a perfect time to honor my all-time shero, Barbara Jordan, who was at the intersection of being Black and a woman. This year’s themes are, respectively, Resistance and Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories. 

While Barbara Jordan staunchly resisted the status quo for Black Americans, it is important to understand that resistance takes many forms. Barbara Jordan took a dispassionate and practical approach to civil rights and diversity by reaching out to both Black and white people, and took strong but non-confrontational stances against racism, sexism and inequality. She saw that her path to bring about change was by gaining power through the established political system. “It is reason, and not passion, which must guide our deliberations, guide our debate and guide our decision,” she said at the 1974 Watergate hearings.

She also made clear how she felt about the equal representation of women in government when she said, “One overdue change… is currently underway. And that is reflected in the number of women now challenging the councils of political power… because they have been dominated by white male policy makers and that’s wrong. That horizon…that horizon of gender equity is limitless for us. And what we see today is simply a dress rehearsal for the day and time we meet in convention to nominate Madame President. This country can ill afford to continue to function using less than half its human resources, less than half its kinetic energy, less than half its brain power.”

Barbara Jordan also shunned labels. “Do not call for Black power or green power; call for brain power,” she once said. She was an American who was intent on steadily advancing through the U.S. political system to make life better for other Americans. In doing so, she mastered the art of political compromise today in order to celebrate victory tomorrow.

And, while Barbara Jordan was not interested in becoming the first anything, she smashed barriers more than once: she was the first woman to be elected to the Texas Senate (1966), the first Black president pro tempore of the Texas Senate (1972), the first Black woman from the Deep South to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (1972), and she was the first Black person to give a keynote speech at a Democratic National Convention (1976). 

Today, Americans are grappling with issues that we thought were resolved decades ago — civil rights, equal rights, voting rights, etc. Many are demoralized and feeling powerless to do anything to get our country back on track. To understand some of our history and at the same time gain inspiration, let’s go back in time and attend some of Barbara Jordan’s great orations:

A Stateswoman For The Ages

Barbara Jordan found her voice early, both figuratively and literally, whether she was in church or, later, at her all-Black Texas high school where she won a debate contest. At age 16, she was ready for college; but she could not attend the all-white University of Texas. Instead, in a cynical move, the all-Black Texas Southern University was established to avoid having to integrate the U of T. Barbara Jorden excelled at TSU, helping to lead its debate team to victories against Ivy League universities such as Yale and Brown, and tying with Harvard. After graduating magna cum laude from TSU she was accepted to Boston University’s law school. Ironically, after retiring from politics she taught at U of T, the institution that years earlier she could not attend because of her race.

I’ve often wondered what Barbara Jordan would say about the issues of racial and gender equality and fairness we face today. Here’s what she said and did about those issues in her time:

  • Voting Rights: “In 1975, when Congress voted to extend the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Jordan sponsored legislation that broadened the provisions of the act to include Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans.” ~ History, Art & Archives, United States House of Representatives
  • Kerfuffles over Critical Race Theory (CRT), Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DEI), The 1619 Project and an African- American AP Course: “Why is it that today, 125 years after the Civil War, 36 years after the decision in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 26 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 25 years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, why is it that after all of these years of addressing the problem of race in American life we are assembled in Dayton, Ohio, talking about Black/white relations and building bridges in a divided city? What is the problem? Why do we see an apparent resurgence of racism across the face of America — especially on college campuses? What’s wrong? White America, what’s bugging you?” ~ June 28, 1990
  • The Overturning of Roe v. Wade: “Along with other liberals and women, she voted against cutting Medicaid funds for abortion and even influenced some of her good-ole-boy colleagues.” “(Rep. Charlie) Wilson says, ‘I’d be afraid to vote wrong on abortion. Barbara’s wrath is more than I can bear.'” “Yet her eloquent words are seldom raised on the issue. A friend said, ‘She could never speak out on abortion and run statewide in Texas.'” ~ Looking Over Jordan, Washington Post, October 30, 1977

Barbara Jordan was an unapologetic moderate who stressed reason over passion. That is how she approached all aspects of her life. She was a pragmatist who understood that to rise in the political arena and get something done for American women and people of color she had to be able to influence a wide range of people with divergent opinions. She also was a good listener and was tuned in to the needs of her constituents, colleagues and followers, whether they were Democrats, Republicans, liberals, progressives, conservatives or moderates like herself. She was also keenly aware that she had to walk a fine line as a true-blue Democrat in a deep red Republican state. And as a moderate politician, she took incoming criticism from the right, left and even her own center.

But while Barbara Jordan deliberated, debated and decided issues based on reason, she was a brilliant orator who delivered some fiery and passionate speeches. She reminded me a bit of FDR in her addresses, and even visually as she approached the lectern at the 1992 Democratic National Convention in a wheel chair (although the public never saw FDR in his wheelchair in which he secretly spent most of his unprecedented nearly four-term presidency; people learned of his disability after his passing on April 12, 1945).

Barbara Jordan was the recipient of many awards and honors, including the first Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights in 1993 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994. She continues to be honored today by the Boston University School of Law’s Congresswoman Barbara Jordan Speaker Series on Race, Law & Inequality 2022-2023, the Barbara Jordan Career Center in Houston Texas, the Barbara Jordan – Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at TSU, the schools and a highway that have been named for her and the numerous books that have been written by and about her. 

Barbara Jordan was inspiring to a generation of Americans. A piece of my heart broke when just shy of her 60th Birthday she lost her life to complications from pneumonia (reportedly, she also suffered from MS and leukemia). If health issues hadn’t got in the way, she might have occupied a seat on the Supreme Court.

If only she was with us today to help sort out the challenges we face. 

Until next time,





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