A firm believer of the spirit of democracy found within the contours of the U.S. Constitution, Barbara Jordan aroused the conscience of a nation. The Lyndon B. Johnson School Professor of Ethics and Political Values most known for her deep, jagged voice was born in the heat of Jim Crow. Despite these prejudicial laws, Jordan sustained her love and faith for a democracy that did not express the same love and faith in return. When the Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution in 1787, people of African descent could not be citizens of the United States. But Jordan knew full well that the saving grace about the dynamic document was that it was self-corrective. Nearly a century after the draft of the Constitution, the protection of individual civil and political rights was extended to black Americans when the United States adopted the Fourteenth Amendment which nullified the Dred Scott decision (1857).
Such rights found in the Constitution allowed Jordan to be a pioneer on many occasions. Barbara Jordan was the first black American to serve in the Texas Senate since Reconstruction. She was the first black American woman from the South to serve in the United States Congress; the first woman and first black American to give the keynote speech at a Democratic National Convention (1976); and the first black American woman interred in the Texas State Cemetery. Still, despite these breakthroughs, Jordan did not consign herself to the prevailing identity politics of the time. In her 1976 Democratic National Convention Keynote Address, she declared in an unapologetic affirmation the rejection of both black and white racism. She was undeniably the embodiment of modern American liberalism.
As a progressive liberal, Jordan championed legislation to improve the lives of the underprivileged and minority communities. She supported the renewal of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, a piece of legislation requiring banks to make loans to the impoverished. But 17 years after her death, what social justice or moral imperative would she champion? Jordan’s past indicates that she would be concerned with at least two.
First, her political career suggests that she would continue her fight to combat income inequality. A symptom of this problem was made manifest by the clash between the plutocrats on Wall Street and those who occupied it. Income inequality undermines social cohesion, increases crime rates in communities, leads to the loss of all forms of social, cultural and civic participation among the less wealthy, and reduces distributive efficiency, the idea that those with the greatest need will benefit most from goods or resources.
Second, her private life suggests that she would promote marriage equality. Jordan’s obituary mentioned another woman with whom Jordan had cohabitated for nearly 30 years. Although Jordan never publicly advocated for this position in her years as a politician, nor commented on her own sexuality, I am confident that with the Constitution by her side, she understood that the denial of marriage between same-sex couples is in effect a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The work of Barbara Jordan concerned equality. She knew that such a task could never be achieved in any one lifetime. But her struggle to produce such fairness for all people helped lay the groundwork for her students to continue to build on. The told (and untold) life of Jordan challenges us all to work, whether it be in the powerful halls of Washington or the allies of poverty in the developing world, for the common good. I agree with the Roman poet Lucius Annaeus Seneca: “As is a tale, so is life; not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.”