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The Majesty of Barbara Jordan

by Molly Ivins

She'd open her mouth, and they'd get the lesson of their lives
Barbara Jordan name was so often preceded by the words "the first black woman to ... " that they seemed like a permanent title. The first black woman to serve in the Texas Senate, one of the first black women in Congress (she was elected in 1972 without Republican opposition) and the first black elected to Congress from the South since Reconstruction, the first black woman to sit on major corporate boards, and so on. Were it not for the disease that slowly crippled her, she probably would have been the first black woman on the Supreme Court -- it is known that Jimmy Carter had her on his short list.

And long before she became "the first and only black woman to ... ," there was that astounding string of achievements going back to high school valedictorian, honors at Texas Southern University, law degree from Boston University. Both her famous diction and her enormous dignity were present from the beginning, her high school teachers recalled. Her precise enunciation was a legacy from her father, a Baptist minister, and characteristic of educated blacks of his day. Her great baritone voice was so impressive that her colleagues in the Legislature used to joke that if Hollywood ever needed someone to be the voice of the Lord Almighty, only Jordan would do.

But the real secret of her rhetoric, the reason she jolted everyone who ever heard her into respectful attention, was that her choice of words was just as precise as her diction. She used words to construct thoughts with the exactitude of a skilled craftsman building a limestone wall.

She wore her dignity like armor -- and she needed it. When she first came to the Texas Senate, racism was still common and open. One senator regularly referred to her behind her back as "that nigger mammy washerwoman." Others treated her with the sort of courtly condescension then deemed appropriate for Southern gentlemen toward a "little lady." But in an astonishingly short time, she won first the respect and then the affection of her colleagues. As a legislator, she could do it all -- spellbinding orator, quick debater, conscientious committee member and just as good at the back-room wheeling and dealing as any I've ever known.

A regular joke in the Capitol was to take your racist friends into the Senate gallery. "Who is that?" they would demand. Then, she'd open her mouth, and they'd get the lesson of their lives.

She cut the deals that got Texas its first black congressional district in 1971, dealing with the good ol' boys of the all-white establishment as though she were born to it. And that was long before Supreme Court decisions made such a thing almost easy.

She could deal with the Bubbas and even make them laugh -- her wit was as dry as West Texas -- but she always knew who she was and whom she was fighting for. She was born and raised in the Fifth Ward of Houston, and she always on the side of those who never got a fair break in life.

She never suffered fools gladly. I once asked her a dumb question, right after she got elected to Congress. "Have you ever considered running for statewide office?" I inquired, carried away by enthusiasm.

"Bar-bar-a Jordan run for statewide office? In Tex-as?" she said. "A black woman run for statewide office, in Tex-as?"

I picked myself up off the floor and said defensively, "Well, Sissy Farenthold ran for statewide office, and she almost won."

Jordan snapped, "Sissy's white!"

Years later, I reminded her of that passage, and she laughed that surprisingly silvery laugh of hers and said: "Well, since Ann has been elected, perhaps I am now ready to admit anything can happen -- even in Tex-as."

Jordan's presence was so strikingly magisterial that only her good friends knew how much fun she could be in informal situations. Before multiple sclerosis crippled her hands, she loved to play guitar, and she loved to sing to the end of her life. Jordan singing "The St. James Infirmary Blues" was just a show-stopper. This past Christmas, her old friend Bob Armstrong came over to play guitar for her, and the group started singing spirituals. During a break, Armstrong gazed at Jordan by the fireplace and started singing, "I looked over Jordan, and what did I see?" Broke her up.

As a citizen, politician and lawyer, Jordan was the kind we seldom hear of anymore; her faith in the Constitution was, as she so famously said, "whole, complete and total." She believed that law had to be made carefully and thoughtfully to bring about greater justice. From Texas' first minimum-wage law to Clarence Thomas' appointment to the Supreme Court, Jordan was never a knee-jerk anything or influenced by the fashionable orthodoxy of the day. She moved deliberately but with great force to use the law to create justice.

© Creators Syndicate
This column first appeared January, 1996

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Albion Monitor February 13, 2000 (

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