Today we honor and celebrate a civil rights activist and pioneering politician. Today would have been Barbara Jordan’s 78th birthday; she was born on this date in 1936 in Houston, TX. She was an honors student, inspired by the model of Edith Sampson to pursue a career in law. Unable to attend UT Austin because of segregation, she majored in Political Science at Texas Southern. She received her law degree from Boston University in 1959.
After a year teaching at Tuskegee Institute, she returned to Texas and started her own law practice. After two failed runs at the Texas House, she was appointed to the state Senate, the first African-American woman to serve in that body. She ran for the seat and won it, leaving in 1972 after her election to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Jordan was the first woman elected to represent Texas in the House and the first Southern African American in the House. With the support of former President Lyndon B. Johnson (a great civil rights pioneer), she secured an important post on the House Judiciary Committee. She became a leader in Democratic politics, delivering the keynote at the 1976 Democratic National Convention — the first African-American woman to do so. While in office she helped pass the Community Reinvestment Act, requiring banks to make services available to minority and underserved communities.
Jordan retired from politics in 1979 (although she delivered another DNC keynote in 1992), teaching at UT Austin, the very school that had barred her attendance decades before. Throughout her life she suffered from multiple sclerosis, requiring a cane for most of her adult life and eventually needing a wheelchair. President Clinton intended to nominate her for the Supreme Court, but her health forced her to withdraw before the initial vetting process.
Barbara Jordan spent the last 30 years of her life with her partner, Nancy Earl. Although she never publicly described herself as a lesbian, she attended many public functions with Earl and made it clear that they were a couple. For a black, southern woman of her generation, this is fairly remarkable, especially given her very public career. The Jordan/Rustin coalition was created in her name and the name of Bayard Rustin to mobilize LGBT African Americans and encourage their active participation in the political process.
She was a frequent public speaker, known for her vibrant support of progressive causes. Jordan died of leukemia in 1996 at the age of 59, leaving behind a legacy of public service and activism. Happy Birthday, Barbara Jordan.