TOPICS > Nation

Barbara Jordan Remembered

January 17, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: We’ll talk with two people about Barbara Jordan’s life and impact, but first some words from Barbara Jordan, herself.

REP. BARBARA JORDAN, (D) Texas: (House Impeachment Hearing – July 25, 1974) 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 17th 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 decisions, I have finally been included in “we the people.”

BARBARA JORDAN: (Democratic National Convention – July 1976) Now, I began this speech by commenting to you on the uniqueness of a Barbara Jordan making the keynote address. Well, I am going to close my speech by quoting a Republican President. And I ask you that as you listen to these words of Abraham Lincoln, relate them to the concept of a national community in which every last one of us participates. “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This”– (applause) — “This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this to the extent of the difference is no democracy.

BARBARA JORDAN: (Democrat National Convention – July 1992) E pluribus unum. From many one. It was a good idea when the country was founded, and it’s a good idea today! We must change that deleterious environment of the ’80s, that environment which was characterized by greed and hatred and selfishness and mega mergers and debt overhang, change it to what? Change that environment of the ’80s to an environment which is characterized by a devotion to the public interest, public service, tolerance, and love–love–love. (applause) Love.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Barbara Jordan left Congress in 1978. She began teaching at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin. In the years that followed, she appeared regularly on the NewsHour.

MR. LEHRER: (June 23, 1989) What in your mind does the flag of the United States mean? What is–what does it symbolize? How important is it to us as Americans?

BARBARA JORDAN: (June 23, 1989) Yes. The flag of the United States is a symbol but Jim, that’s all it is. It is a symbol. It does not have the substance of the Constitution in it. It does not have blood and guts in it. You want to talk about what people die for, die for the flag? Let’s talk about the people in the Revolutionary era, who were so oppressed because their freedom of speech was denied that they had to die for that freedom to be preserved. The flag is an important symbol, but let us not attribute any more to it than a symbol.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: We’re joined now by Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington, D.C.’s delegate for the House of Representatives, and Molly Ivins, a long-time political reporter in Texas, now a syndicated columnist with the “Fort Worth Star-Telegram.” And, Molly, starting with you, how should we remember Barbara Jordan?

MOLLY IVINS, Fort Worth Star-Telegram: (Austin) It seemed to me that the words, the first and only, came before Barbara Jordan came so often that they often they almost seemed like a permanent title, the first and only black woman to serve in the Texas Senate, the first black woman elected to Congress, the first black elected to Congress, the Reconstruction, the first black woman to serve on corporate boards. She broke so many barriers. She was the first and the only so long and so often that I think it is not only a tribute to her abilities but it infected her entire personality. Jordan was a woman of magisterial dignity, and she wore that dignity like armor because she needed to. When she first came to the Texas Senate, one Senator used to call her “that old nigamammy washer woman,” and there were others who treated her with that sort of courtly conversation that such gentlemen reserve for the little lady. Jordan overcame all of that by sheer strength of personality, by ability, by her force of intelligence, and, of course, her superb voice, the rhetoric. We always said that if Hollywood ever needed somebody to play the role of God Almighty, they ought to get Barbara Jordan.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Eleanor Holmes Norton, how do you think she should be remembered? I mean–

DEL. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON, (D) Washington, D.C.: Well, Molly, yes, Barbara did make us understand that God was a she, uh, if anyone did. I think she should be remembered in light of her gifts, and when I say her gifts, I mean I don’t mean her personal gifts, gifts to her country. If you are a member, a woman who’s a member of the House of Representatives, as I am, you feel especially indebted to Barbara Jordan, because in a real sense by being there and being Barbara Jordan, she made that House a very different place, and she inspired many women to believe that they could come to that place. It was in part her, her take-charge extraordinary presence. That’s purely political. At the other end, though, of her gifts was this ability to weave the idealistic into the criticism that was inherent in both Watergate hearings that gave America their first sense that this is a woman who should lead us–I mean, here was a woman sitting there who could have gone at Nixon in a crassly political way and if she’d done it, he wouldn’t have been left standing, and, and, in fact, what she did was to take the low point of the Watergate hearings and raise our spirits by saying, after all, there is something bigger than what Richard Nixon has done; there is the Constitution. And we can’t let this happen, because you are letting us–you would be messing with the Constitution. And my faith in the Constitution is whole. So it, it was a wonderful blend which, in essence, made hers perhaps the only memorable remarks in the whole Watergate hearings.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: She did have that dramatic gift for oratory, but where did that love of the Constitution come from, from a woman who we just heard said you all left me out there for a pretty good while? How does she get that renewed faith in the Constitution, in the system?

MS. IVINS: That was the most striking, I think, part of Jordan’s intellectual force. The oratory was a matter of skill. I mean, her diction, her precise enunciation she got from her daddy, who was a parish preacher. The voice, of course, came from God. And I think the really stunning thing about her rhetoric was that she used words with the same precision that a master stone mason used when he makes a wall. She chose words so carefully to build thoughts, and never put a word out of place. If you were quoting her, you had to quote her exactly, because if you tried to substitute a word of your own, you’d mess up the whole thing.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Faith in the system?

MS. IVINS: The faith in the system.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And the Constitution.

MS. IVINS: That she earned. You know, she grew up in the 5th Ward of Houston, Texas, which is the biggest ghetto in Texas, and Barbara had a really strong sense that never deserted her of who she was and who she was fighting for. She was always on the side of people who never got a fair break, and she was absolutely convinced that this system, this democracy, if it lived up to its ideals, would provide liberty and justice for all, and she never wavered in that faith, and she worked like hell to make it come true.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How did she–did she think of herself as black specifically or as a woman? I mean, how did she deal with juggling all those identities of hers, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and a politician?

DEL. NORTON: Well, for one thing, she understood that she was black and she was more than black. She understood that she was a universal figure, that when Barbara Jordan talked, American listened. It was important to her that black America listened, but she clearly was a woman who had and knew she had influence beyond her own racial group. She was a traditional liberal, but she was not an automatic liberal. I mean, at the 1968 Convention she held or helped hold the Texas delegation with Lyndon Johnson and his view of the Vietnam War. She was a very thoughtful politician, but she was at the same time a woman who believed in the Constitution because she was going to make it be right. This was not a blind faith. This was the sense that if you struggle, if you insist, if you are determined, you can make your country live up to its ideas.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Molly, what’s going to be her greatest legacy?

MS. IVINS: I think, again, it’s that sense–and it’s something we so rarely hear of in either lawmakers or lawyers these days–that sense that law is something that needs to be kept carefully, deliberately, with great thought, in order to make justice, in order to create justice.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Molly Ivins and Eleanor Holmes Norton, thank you for this wonderful remembrance.