January 18, 1996 in Nation/World

Barbara Jordan, Voice Of Conscience, Dead At 59 She Summoned Her Country To Loftier Standards Of Racial Justice And Common Decency

Edward J. Boyer Los Angeles Times

Barbara Jordan, the former Texas congresswoman whose ringing declaration - “My faith in the Constitution is whole” - riveted America during the 1974 Watergate impeachment hearings, died Wednesday of pneumonia. She was 59.

Jordan and Andrew Young of Georgia were the first blacks to win seats in Congress from Southern states since Reconstruction when they were elected in 1972.

Her eloquent oratory launched her into national prominence, and she frequently was mentioned in 1984 as a possible vice-presidential candidate - a post she insisted interested her not at all.

Political historian Theodore H. White once described her oratorical style as “a flow of Churchillian eloquence, of resonance, boom and grip so compelling as to make one forget to take notes.”

Jordan succumbed to pneumonia as a complication of leukemia in Austin, Texas, a University of Texas official said.

Max Sherman, head of the university’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs where Jordan taught policy development and political values and ethics, told reporters she had been battling leukemia for some time and had developed viral pneumonia as a result of the disease in late December.

Jordan had been in and out of the hospital since then and was readmitted for the last time late Tuesday, Sherman said. Jordan also had battled multiple sclerosis for several years and moved about in a wheelchair or with the aid of a walker.

The daughter of a Houston Baptist minister, she rose to national prominence as a member of the House Judiciary Committee - the panel which adopted articles of impeachment that led to President Nixon’s resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

Jordan was only a freshman House member at the time, but few who watched the televised committee hearings would forget her expression of unshakable faith in the Constitution.

When the Constitution was completed in September 1787, she said, “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 decisions, I have finally been included in ‘We, the people.’ Today I am an inquisitor. I believe hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now.

“My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”

Born Barbara Charline Jordan on Feb. 21, 1936, in Houston, she was the youngest of three sisters. Her father, Benjamin worked at the Houston Terminal Warehouse and Cold Storage Co. before beginning his ministry in 1949.

Although her youth was spent during the Jim Crow era of racial segregation in the 1940s and 1950s, she did not join the marches of the early civil rights movement. Instead, Jordan joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and, after hearing a black woman lawyer speak to the group, decided that she, too, wanted to become an attorney.

She graduated from Houston’s segregated Phyllis Wheatley High School, and earned an undergraduate degree from all-black Texas Southern University and a law degree from Boston University.

In 1966, she became the first black woman ever elected to the Texas Senate. She said she tried to make her entrance into the legislative body a drama of modest proportions.

“I didn’t carry the American flag or go in singing, ‘We Shall Overcome,”’ she said. “I just took my seat as a fellow member of the Texas Senate, looking for no privileges and receiving none.”

As it turned out, she said, “the Capitol stayed on its foundations, and the star didn’t fall off the top.”

While serving in the Texas senate, she co-sponsored the state’s first minimum wage bill, a workers’ compensation bill and led opposition to legislation intended to disenfranchise blacks and Latinos by tightening voter registration requirements.

At the 1976 Democratic National Convention that nominated Jimmy Carter, she delivered a stirring keynote address. But her condemnation of “both white racism and black racism” at the 1992 convention was seen by some blacks as a ploy to bolster then-candidate Bill Clinton’s support among conservative white voters.

Jordan had challenged democratic delegates to “be prepared to answer Rodney King’s haunting question ‘Can we all get along?’ I say we answer that question with a resounding yes.”

Early, on her congressional career had been dubbed “headed for the stars,” but Jordan bowed out of the House of Representatives in 1978 after three terms.

Clinton awarded Jordan the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994, describing her as “the most outspoken moral voice of the American political system.”

Clinton said in a statement Wednesday that Jordan’s “eloquent voice, which articulated the views and concerns of millions of Americans, was always a source of inspiration. …

“Barbara’s words flowed with heartfelt conviction and her actions rang of indefatigable determination as she challenged us as a nation to confront our weaknesses and live peacefully together as equals,” the president said.

Jordan once served as ethics adviser to former Texas Gov. Ann Richards who said she was “brokenhearted” by her death.

“America has lost a patriot, a trailblazer, a hero. Barbara Jordan conquered overwhelming obstacles: racial discrimination, gender bias, growing up poor and physical infirmity. She opened fields to women and minorities, unequaled by anyone in our history,” Richards said.

Gov. George W. Bush said: “Texas has lost a powerful voice of conscience and integrity. Barbara Jordan was a champion of our freedom, Constitution and laws.”

Jordan is survived by her mother, Arlyne Jordan, and her two sisters.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email