Barbara Jordan passed away Wednesday, Jan. 17. She was 59.
I will give you the basics, the statistics most people want when they believe they need to be informed, and then I will tell you what you should know about this truly remarkable, American heroine, for people are better known as a culmination of the people whose lives they touched during their lifetime. Our past loved ones are not simply a database of statistics including birthplace, family members, education and career accomplishments. They are the ones who fed us, clothed us, taught us and guided us - opened doors into places we thought never existed. Our memories are filled with conversations, advice, laughter and tears. We never forget our heroes and heroines, for they shape our future from the moment they enter our lives. Jordan was one of my heroines.
Born in Houston, the youngest of three sisters, she attended Houston's segregated school system and graduated from Texas Southern University magna cum laude, with honors. She received her law degree from Boston University. She realized as a volunteer in the Kennedy-Johnson presidential election campaign that politics would be her destiny, and said the "law was meat and potatoes and money for gas." Soon, she became the first African American woman to be elected to the Texas senate, where she co-sponsored t he state's first minimum-wage legislation and worker's compensation bill, and of course, led the fight against a bevy of legislation designed to disenfranchise African Americans and Latinos. She went on to be the first African American from Texas to be el ected to Congress, receiving almost 80 percent of the vote.
Most remember Barbara Jordan from her almost magical keynote address, given at the 1976 Democratic National Convention that nominated Jimmy Carter, in addition to seeing her as a House freshman on the House Judiciary Committee during the televised impeach ment hearings of President Nixon. During the keynote address, she spoke of selfishness and conceit, the fuel that drives the engines of special interests and private concerns; the nation becoming a "collection of interest groups: city against suburb, region against region, individual against individual," leaving in its wake the civil liberties of a disenfranchised people. During the Watergate impeachment hearings, Barbara Jordan's unwaivering commitment to the spirit and sanctity of the Constitution became her anchor, as she held those who sought subversion and subterfuge at bay.
Jordan retired from the Senate in 1979 and began teaching political ethics at the University of Texas, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. She was afflicted with multiple sclerosis, an ailment that in recent years confined her to a wheelchair. She died of viral pneumonia, a complication of the leukemia that ravaged her body, but never her mind nor spirit.
Her voice, resonating clean and clear, seemed to reach out and touch you especially, as if no one else was around to hear, each word pronunciated and enunciated, commanding attention and consideration. She has been compared with Winston Churchill - "Churchillian eloquence," some say. I say no. What she said was personal, not political. "George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake," she said, "but through the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision, I have finally b een included in 'We the people'." She made it personal because it was personal to her, and she knew no other way to convey it.
I was mesmerized by her voice, her philosophies, her insight. She was the consummate politician, a mover and shaker who would advance the civil liberties promised in the Constitution, thus, a champion for the rights, benefits and privileges of all the pe ople, whether white, black, Latino, or immigrant. She spoke to me, she spoke for me. She said the things that I could not say, in a manner I could not conceive, to the people I could not reach. She articulated my fears, my frustrations -- understanding why looking over your shoulder was a way of life. She understood why being tolerated would never be acceptable. She knew that sometimes function was the right form; her savvy recognized that the struggle contains many fronts; she was cognizant that the revolution will not be televised.
Jordan reached a level of autonomy and influence within a system designed to subjugate and define her as unworthy. She used the one document from which that entire system is chartered, and fought for the liberties and rights of all people against those who would succumb to the trappings of hatred and the false security of indifference. Her life was an inspiration, and her words will continue to inspire.
I would like to note the passing of a genuine role-model and heroine. I will miss her.
David H. Benton is a second-year law student and president of the Black Law Students Association.