Major Barbara

The eulogies and the obituaries have remembered Barbara Jordan as someone who fought against the system. But in fact, she was the ultimate insider, and that is what made her great.

March 1996By Comments

AMONG THE READINGS IN THE POLITICAL ETHICS CLASS TAUGHT BY BARBARA JORDAN at UT-Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs was an essay called “The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn.” The piece focuses on Huck’s moral quandary as he and Jim, a runaway slave whose escape Huck has abetted, raft on the Mississippi River toward freedom. Huck’s conscience begins to bother him. He believes in obeying the law, but he is now violating it. He is doing harm to Jim’s owner, who has done no harm to Huck. He goes ashore with the intention of turning Jim in, but his principles are no match for his feelings. When two white men looking for runaway slaves ask if the man on the distant raft is white or black, Huck can’t bring himself to tell the truth—not out of moral conviction, but just out of weakness of will. His moral principles, he realizes later, were useless.

It is easy to see the lesson that Barbara Jordan could glean from this tale. Huck’s dilemma was caused by his acceptance of the status quo. He had simply absorbed his principles from society, instead of thinking about them. His failure to come to grips with injustice rendered him morally helpless in a crisis.

Barbara Jordan’s conscience was everything that Huck Finn’s was not. When she died on January 17, succumbing finally to the ravages of multiple sclerosis, hypertension, diabetes, and leukemia, the reaction was as if America had lost its moral benchmark. The New York Times spoke of her passion for justice; eulogists at her funeral described her as a fighter for justice. Her principles were grounded in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence (which were also on her class reading list), and her defining moment came in 1974, when she addressed the issue of Richard Nixon’s impeachment in a voice that the nation would never forget. Noting that the Constitution’s opening words, “We, the people,” originally did not include her, she went on to say, “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total, and I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”

But there is more than one lesson in the parable of Huck Finn’s conscience—just as there was more than one dimension to Barbara Jordan. Huck did the right thing, but he did it for the wrong reason. Does that diminish the result? It shouldn’t. In politics, one cannot afford to embrace only the ally who is pure and the legislation that is ideal. The perfect is the enemy of the good. Sometimes it may even be necessary to do the wrong thing for the right reasons—for example, to court segregationists and the Houston power structure to be taken seriously, which is exactly what Barbara Jordan did when she arrived in the Texas Senate. In the years when she held public office, from 1967 to 1979, half of it spent in the Legislature and the other half in Congress, she was a shrewd and ambitious politician. She won the admiration of the old guard in both Austin and Washington, denounced black militants, and appealed to the broadest audience of any black politician in America.

Jordan’s moral legacy is secure, but her political legacy—the model she established for minority politicians—has been lost, to the nation’s detriment. The speakers at her funeral who described her as a fighter for justice revealed how little they understood the kind of politician she was. Confrontation was not her style. “All blacks are militants in their guts,” she told a Houston Post reporter in 1970, “but militancy is expressed in various ways. Some do it quite overtly while others try to work their way through ‘the system,’ trying to bring about changes in race and human relations. That’s the way I like to work. Disruptive or divisive kind of behavior is of no help.”

From her first major public address, delivered on the subject of race to the Texas Association of Broadcasters in 1968, to the end of her days, Jordan believed that the way for minorities to succeed in America was to embrace the majority culture. “If you cannot answer the question, What does the Negro want?” she told the broadcasters, “then answer the question of what do you want? And once you answer that, remember that the Negro wants the same thing. No different.” She was openly hostile to the cultural separatism of the black power movement, telling the broadcasters that its advocates were motivated by fear: “Because I am afraid I will not be able to break through to the kind of society promised, then I will protect myself behind an all-black shield.” She delivered a similar message in the last year of her life, as chairman of the United States Commission on Immigration Reform, when she said that those who come here must become Americanized—learn to read and write English, study American history, and become naturalized citizens.

Jordan believed that political equality—and only political equality—could lead to complete equality for blacks. “Within fifteen years,” she once said in a burst of optimism that proved tragically unprescient, “race will cease to be a factor in the quality of education, the kind of job or housing available, or the kind of justice meted out in our courts.” Black power was equivalent, she said, to withdrawing from the fray.

Caught between the mossbacks and the black radicals, Jordan gravitated toward the former. The radicals were the greater threat to her. She and they were battling over how to bring about change. “It’s not enough to say, ‘Right on, brother,’ or ‘We shall overcome,’ because you must become part of the decision-making process,” she said in 1970. They couldn’t beat her in an election—she was an icon, the first black state senator since 1883, whose personal popularity inspired a youth baseball team in Acres Homes to change its name from the Mets to the Barbara Jordans—but they might open the racial divide so wide that even she couldn’t bridge it. She won her congressional seat in 1972 with 80 percent of the vote against a militant legislator named Curtis Graves, who accused her of taking white money and of being an Aunt Jemima. (Baffled by the insult, a white railroad executive who was supporting Jordan asked her what it meant. “It means my ass isn’t black enough,” Jordan said.)

The more she distanced herself from black radicals, of course, the more the white establishment welcomed her. At the end of her first term in the otherwise all-male, all-white Senate, her colleagues adopted a resolution—patronizing by today’s standards but heady stuff for a black female political rookie who was only 31 years old—praising her conduct and calling her a credit to her state and her race. Later in her Senate career, she was invited to a political gathering at an East Texas hunting resort, an event that is still legendary around the State Capitol for two reasons: one, Jordan brought her guitar, as she often did in those years, and the local good ol’ boys joined her in singing “We Shall Overcome” before the night was over; and, two, her Fifth Ward upbringing had done so little to prepare her for quail hunting that at first she shot the birds on the ground. In 1971, as Jordan prepared to run for Congress, Houston political and business leaders honored her with a dinner for 1,500 people, at which former president Lyndon Johnson applauded her for not being part of “the new politics that seeks to destroy and divide and mess up everything in its way.” In its editorial endorsing her for Congress, the Houston Chronicle made a point of saying, “Miss Jordan is not militant in her approach.”

She was very ambitious in those years, as indeed she had been all her life. (In a 1972 Texas Observer profile, Molly Ivins told of the time Jordan’s father, a minister, scolded a teacher at Wheatley High School for encouraging Jordan’s ambition to be a lawyer. The teacher asked her, “Whew, baby, what you going to do now?” Her answer was, “I am big and fat and black and ugly, and I’ll never have a man problem. I’ll never get to college unless my father pays for it. So I will do exactly what he tells me to until I am twenty-one years old and then I’ll do what I damn well please.”) In her second term in the Senate, she said that as much as she liked it there, “I would not want to stay there the rest of my life.” Before she went to Congress, eight senators ahead of her in seniority agreed to step aside so that she could serve as governor for a day. At the ceremony Jordan said that she might want to retain the governor’s title for a longer period of time at a future date.

That was fanciful talk in 1972, but by 1976, when she gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, the idea that Barbara Jordan might run for governor or U.S. senator in 1978 and win seemed within the realm of possibility. She was also mentioned for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. But then she became afflicted with multiple sclerosis—although she never made a public statement about any of her diseases—and the dream ended. One can only guess at the depths of Jordan’s disappointment. Always an intensely private person, she kept it to herself. She taught for sixteen years and made occasional appearances (including another keynote speech in 1992), but she had little to do with politics, especially black politics, and most especially Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns. Today she is no longer the role model for a new breed of black politicians in Houston, who regard her successor, the late Mickey Leland—more activist, more community-oriented than Jordan—as the standard. “Barbara was Booker T. [Washington],” says one. “Mickey was W.E.B. [Du Bois].”

But there was no shortage of admirers, white and black, at the Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church on the day of her funeral. Presidents of the United States seldom attend funerals—that’s what vice presidents are for—but Bill Clinton was there for Barbara Jordan’s. The most telling words he spoke were Jordan’s own, from her 1976 keynote speech: “Are we to be one people bound together by common spirit, sharing in a common endeavor, or will we become a divided nation?” Ann Richards weighed in with, “Something about her made you proud to be part of the nation that produced her.” But the best thing to say about Barbara Jordan’s life had already been said many years before by Jordan herself: “I am neither a black politician nor a female politician, just a politician.”

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