The club of politicians who are immediately recognizable for a particular statement or turn of phrase is a small one. Lloyd Bentsen is in it (“Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”); Ronald Reagan is too (“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”). And so is Barbara Jordan. Even if you didn’t know she was Texas’s first black state senator since 1882 or the first black congresswoman from the South, you know that she is the only person who could have spoken these words during the ordeal of the Watergate scandal:
“My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total.”
Today is Barbara Jordan’s birthday, and had she lived she would have turned 78 years old. So it’s worth looking back at a cover story Texas Monthly’s Bill Broyles, the magazine’s first editor, wrote about her in 1976, titled, “The Making of Barbara Jordan.” Given all of her accomplishments, here’s an excerpt worth considering:
At this point a certain perspective might be helpful. Until she went north with the TSU debate team, Barbara Jordan had lived completely in the segregated society of black Houston. Even when the debate team integrated the regional meet in Waco, they couldn’t stay at the hotel with the other teams. Instead they were put up at all-black Paul Quinn College. The city Barbara Jordan left to attend Boston University in 1956 had segregated taxis, restaurants and lunch counters, restrooms, hospital wards, swimming pools, churches, labor unions, and schools; the handful of black policemen could not arrest whites or eat in the segregated city cafeteria; blacks could not vote in the Democratic primary—the only election in one-party Texas that mattered—until 1944. In 1956, black Houston was a separate city of 200,000 people. Its leading citizens were small businessmen and the leaders of the segregated institutions—the ministers, the educators, the union officials. These men also served as ambassadors to the white society—they lobbied to get a road paved or a library built. In such a society, if you were young, gifted, and ambitious, you had to become aware, in a way no white could really understand, of the limits on your ambitions. You could rise only so far. You had to stay in the black society since the great opportunities of the larger white world were closed. That was what “knowing your place” meant.
Broyles’ story is a remarkable study of what it was like in Houston for black residents living in segregation, and the path to power that Jordan charted as a result of those pressures. Broyles explores her conflicts with John Connally, Curtis Graves, and Ben Barnes, and arrives at the conclusion that she became the true heir to the legacy of Lyndon Johnson. It’s a long story, but I hope you’ll take the time to read some of it.
Happy birthday, Congresswoman Jordan. The state was lucky to have you.