Barbara Jordan took her place on the national stage at the Democratic National Convention in 1976, becoming the first black woman to deliver the keynote address at either political party’s national convention.
The rising legislator from Texas noted that in the 144 years since Democrats first gathered, "It would have been most unusual for any national political party to ask a Barbara Jordan to deliver a keynote address. But tonight, here I am."
Jordan was not one for barriers, for giving up, or for the status quo. She was a beacon of hope — a quality she passed on to her students at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, which celebrates her lasting impact each year with the student-led weeklong Barbara Jordan National Forum.
At the 1974 impeachment hearing of President Nixon, Jordan ruminated on her position as a member of the powerful House Judiciary Committee: "Earlier today we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, ‘We the people’ … 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 decision I have finally been included in ‘We, the people.’"
Those powerful words form the theme of this year’s forum: "We the people," which revolves around inclusion and social justice.
Jordan’s presence, as a member of that committee and onstage at that convention as a person of color, was something the Founding Fathers likely never imagined.
That’s particularly worth celebrating during the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote. Though she was born after the original suffragists, Jordan was also a pioneer of shattering the glass ceiling.
When she won election to the Texas State Senate in 1966, Jordan became the first black woman ever to serve in that body, and the only woman in the chamber at the time. In 1973, she would become the only woman elected in her own right to represent Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In office, Jordan fought for a more just, equitable society, and for a vision in which marginalization gave way to opportunities and empowerment. Although the 19th Amendment held the promise that women could command their own destinies and advance a society in which their daughters could flourish, it needed amendments and court decisions to thrive.
As a lawmaker, she sponsored or co-sponsored more than 300 pieces of legislation, including the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, which ensured that all Americans, including African Americans and those who spoke different languages, had the right to cast their votes.
"A nation is formed by the willingness of each of us to share in the responsibility for upholding the common good," she said in 1976. "Let each person do his or her part. If one citizen is unwilling to participate, all of us are going to suffer. For the American idea, though it is shared by all of us, is realized in each one of us."
This month, as we remember Barbara Jordan, let us appreciate the great legacy she left and the effect it continues to have on our society. And let us always honor the ideals she championed by holding our leaders and ourselves to the highest standards of ethics and justice.
Joel Carter and Aaron Escajeda, who contributed to this commentary, and Gonzalez Claytor are students at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas and are student co-chairs of the 23rd Barbara Jordan National Forum.
An interactive exhibit of Jordan’s life is on display at the Texas Capitol, Feb. 15 through Feb. 22.