In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. In that same year, Barbara Jordan lost her second election for the Texas House of Representatives. Two years later, court-enforced redistricting mandated in the Act paved the way for her to become the first African American to serve in the Texas Senate and later the first African American woman from the South to be elected to Congress.
Barbara Jordan is a symbol of the promise of civil rights – not just equality of opportunities, but also equality of outcomes. However, when we look at the broader picture, we are left wanting. When observing education, income and job attainment, the gap between whites and minorities remains alarmingly similar to what it was in 1964. Why haven't we seen the change that equal opportunity promised?
In a 1965 commencement address at Howard University President Johnson said, “This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”
Barbara Jordan eloquently echoed these thoughts in her keynote address at the 1976 Democratic National Convention. “We are a people in search of a national community, attempting to fulfill our national purpose, to create and sustain a society in which all of us are equal…. We cannot improve on the system of government, handed down to us by the founders of the Republic, but we can find new ways to implement that system and to realize our destiny.”
There is no doubt that opportunities for underrepresented and disenfranchised communities have dramatically improved since 1965, thanks to trailblazers like Barbara Jordan. In the political arena, for example, strides have been made toward attaining more ethnically, religiously, and gender-diverse representative bodies. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, in the 2013 legislative session, women will make up 24.1% of all state legislators. The 113th Congress includes the first Hindu representative in the House, the first Asian American female senator and the first openly gay senator. This is not, however, nearly enough. How is it that nearly 50 years later we seem to only be treading water?
As students of public policy and future global leaders, it is imperative that we ask, "If everyone truly has the same chance for success in this country, why haven't we seen the change?" As Barbara Jordan’s birthday approaches and we celebrate her legacy at the LBJ School, we will have an opportunity to hear from leaders who, like Jordan and President Johnson, have taken action toward solving this complex problem.
For our society to truly be equal, we must not only listen to but follow their example and insist upon equality of outcomes. What does this mean? It means pushing for meaningful, thoughtful and action-oriented assessment and discussion of programs and policies. It means innovative thinking and creative problem solving. It means recognizing that our country will become stronger when equal educational, financial and career attainment are realized for all Americans and fighting loudly for that promise to be fulfilled.
Let us honor the legacy of Barbara Jordan by pressing toward equality of outcomes to a day when we can see the change that was promised so many years ago. As always, Barbara Jordan said it best. “What the people want is simple. They want an America as good as its promise.”