Barbara Jordan – interviewed by Irv Kupcinet – March 7, 1964 – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
Barbara Jordan, a name that brings to mind an impassioned speech at the beginning of the Watergate Hearings and an equally impassioned Keynote address at the 1976 Democratic Convention.
She was an American lawyer, educator and politician who was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. A Democrat, she was the first African American elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction and the first Southern African-American woman elected to the United States House of Representatives. She was best known for her eloquent opening statement at the House Judiciary Committee hearings during the impeachment process against Richard Nixon, and as the first African-American as well as the first woman to deliver a keynote address at the 1976 Democratic National Convention. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among numerous other honors. She was a member of the Peabody Awards Board of Jurors from 1978 to 1980. She was the first African-American woman to be buried in the Texas State Cemetery. Jordan’s work as chair of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, which recommended reducing legal immigration by about one-third, is frequently cited by American immigration restrictionists.
Barbara Jordan’s political turning point occurred when she worked on the John F. Kennedy presidential campaign in 1960. She eventually helped manage a highly organized get-out-the-vote program that served Houston’s 40 African-American precincts. In 1962 and 1964, Jordan ran for the Texas house of representatives but lost both times, so in 1966 she ran for the Texas senate when court-enforced redistricting created a constituency that consisted largely of minority voters. Jordan won, defeating a white liberal and becoming the first African-American state senator in the U.S. since 1883 as well as the first Black woman ever elected to that chamber. The other 30 (male, white) senators received her coolly, but Jordan quickly earned a reputation as an effective legislator who pushed through bills establishing the state’s first minimum wage law, anti-discrimination clauses in business contracts, and the Texas Fair Employment Practices Commission. On March 28, 1972, Jordan’s peers elected her president pro tempore of the Texas senate, making her the first Black woman in America to preside over a legislative body. In seconding the nomination, one of Jordan’s male colleagues on the other side of the chamber stood, spread his arms open, and said, “What can I say? Black is beautiful.” One of Jordan’s responsibilities as president pro tempore was to serve as acting governor when the governor and lieutenant governor were out of the state. When Jordan filled that largely ceremonial role on June 10, 1972, she became the first Black chief executive in the nation.
In 1971 Jordan entered the race for the Texas congressional seat encompassing downtown Houston. The district had been redrawn after the 1970 Census and was composed of a predominantly African-American and Hispanic-American population. In the 1972 Democratic primary, Jordan faced Curtis Graves, another Black state legislator, who attacked her for being too close to the white establishment. Jordan blunted Graves’s charges with her legislative credentials. “I’m not going to Washington and turn things upside down in a day,” she told supporters at a rally. “I’ll only be one of 435. But the 434 will know I’m there.” Jordan took the primary with 80 percent of the vote. In the general election, against Republican Paul Merritt, she won 81 percent of the vote. Along with Andrew Jackson Young Jr. of Georgia, Jordan became the first African American in the twentieth century elected to Congress from the Deep South. In the next two campaign cycles, Jordan overwhelmed her opposition, capturing 85 percent of the total vote in both general elections.
This interview, part of a much longer series of interviews and discussions with other guests on Irv Kupcinpet’s nearly 3 hour show of March 7, 1964 puts her in the middle of her 1964 campaign for the House of Representatives from Texas and not yet a prominent figure on the national stage, that wouldn’t come for another 9 years.
Here is that interview.