Skip to main content

A post not about Martin Luther King, Jr. on the occasion of his birthday (observed)

I have tremendous respect for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

He made many speeches that are noteworthy and repeat-worthy, which are often ignored in favor of his most-popular "I have a dream" speech. This barely rankles me because that speech still chokes me up.

The other thing that still chokes me up is the "This American Life" story where the dad explained to his young child why we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. His ideas scared many people, because they were based on love and tolerance, rather than hatred and oppression, the dad explained, and so some people got too scared and killed we celebrate his life, and try to live by the principles he preached. Kind of like...Jesus, the child said. The dad---and I---marveled at such a complex understanding and observation from such a young chld, stated is so few words.

As MLK Day approaches, I get excited and look forward to it. I look forward to celebrating the fact that we are reaching, many of us, towards tolerance and acceptance. I take this day to celebrate the advances, rather than worrying about all the ways we still need to improve.

But then, last week, I was listening to Pacifica radio and the radio host said, "I'm so sick of the only appreciated African American hero being Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I respect him, and his speech, but if I have to hear it one more time...Me? I'm black all day every day, as is every other black man out there." He laughed, to soften it, and I understood this wasn't a statement against Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, or the celebration of his life, but a statement for every other African American hero out there.

There are many. More than you hear about, or that you studied in your history class.

Check out this site that tells you about them: Real African American Heroes.

Real African American Heroes is a website dedicated to all African Americans who over the years have made a difference. This site will focus on leaders and positive role models who sometimes do not get all of the recognition that they deserve.

We hope to highlight individuals from all walks of life whose work should help others to remember that it is possible to make a difference.

The site tells you about every African American astronaut, military and medal of honor heroes, and other leaders. It is men and women alike.

I took the host's point to heart and considered it. I did a little research and that's how I found the above site. There really are only token heroes studied time and again, and so many other people who contributed tremendously get little to no recognition.

I decided to focus on an African American woman who made her mark in politics: Barbara Jordan.

© Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. This image is in the public domain and may be used free of charge without permission or fees.

I knew a little of her, and was fascinated to learn more.

Barbara Jordan was born and raised in Houston's Fifth Ward (a predominantly black and poor---often considered segregated---community) in 1936. Her father, Benjamin, a Baptist minister, and her mother, Arlyne, clearly raised their daughter to be strong, and ambitious.

Jordan attended an all black high school (Wheatley) and college (Texas Southern University). Upon graduating, she decided to pursue law and moved to Boston for law school. During her time there, she began to understand how restrictive and unequal "separate but equal" is, and how it prevented her from receiving the same quality of education her white peers had received.

Many say this was her galvanizing realization, but I believe this woman was motivated from the beginning.

Saying she attended high school and college, and then went on to law school might seem like nothing to us today.

However, here are two points to ponder:

* Jordan graduated magna cum laude from Texas Southern University in 1956

In 1956, all women total accounted for barely 30% of college enrollments. I can't distinguish race within that figure, but I imagine that black women were an even smaller percentage.

* Jordan graduated Boston University Law School in 1959. She passed the Bar Exams in Massachusetts and Texas before returning to Houston to open a law practice.

At the time, this was the prevailing sentiment regarding black lawyers:

At bottom, American ideology presumed that coloredness caused debilitation, requiring that superior whites should act for colored persons since they were incapable of acting in their own best interests. Presumed racial supremacy explains why blacks were enslaved, why Native Americans were removed, why Mexicans lost the Southwest, and why Chinese and Japanese persons were declared ineligible for naturalization. Even some whites have not been white enough to receive the privileges of whiteness until they abandoned their ethnic customs and embraced white supremacy.[5] Black and other colored lawyers lived under this shadow of presumed incompetence, while seeking to dismantle America’s discriminatory legacy. Thus, any racial progress at all is remarkable given the tremendous obstacles to it.

Note: This article also mentions some black legal pioneers in Alabama and is very interesting reading.

Source: Making Bricks Without Straw: The NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Development of Civil Rights Law in Alabama 1940-1980, UNiversity of Alabama Law Review, by U.W. Clemon and Bryan K. Fair

Jordan clearly had to overcome prejudice about both her gender and her race. It was a struggle. Some attribute this to the "tough shell" exterior she was reputed to have, and used it to explain what many felt was a "stubborn and sarcastic" personality.

After law school, she returned to Houston, found law to somehow not fulfill her, so turned her attention to politics. She first got on the political train in 1960 when she actively worked on the Kennedy-Johnson campaign.

She decided to try her own hand at campaigning and in 1962 and 1964, she ran (unsuccessfully) for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives.

In 1966, she won. She was elected to the Texas Senate.

Today, a woman elected to a state seat might not turn heads. But consider this:

In 1966, when she took office, she was the first African American state senator since 1883 and the first black woman to serve in that body.

It makes it a tremendous accomplishment. And her career flourished from there, until she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Here's a quick highlight of her accomplishments, from wikipedia:

1968-1972: Reelected to a full term in the Texas Senate, she was the first African-American female to serve as president pro tem of the state senate.

1972: Jordan served for one day as acting governor of Texas.

1972: Jordan was elected to the United States House of Representatives. She was the first black woman from a Southern state to serve in the House. Fellow Texan President Lyndon Johnson, supported her, and secured her a position on the House Judiciary Committee.

1973: Jordan was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis

1974: Jordan's landmark, famous speech that interpreted the Constituition. Broadcast on television, her speech to the House Judiciary Committee was considered the impetus for the resignation of Richard Nixon.

Her legislative accomplishments include the renewal of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (including expansion of that act to cover language minorities.

1976: Jordan presented the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, considered by many historians to have been the best convention keynote speech in modern history.

1977: Jordan sponsored the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, legislation that required banks to lend and make services available to underserved poor and minority communities.

1979: Jordan retired from politics to become a professor at the University of Texas at Austin Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

1992: Jordan again presented the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention .

1994: Jordan was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994. It was only one of many honors given her, including election into both the Texas and National Women's Hall of Fame.

1995: Jordan chaired a congressional commission that advocated increased restriction of immigration and increased penalties on employers that violated US immigration regulations.

She was awarded the prestigious United States Military Academy's Sylvanus Thayer Award, becoming only the second female awardee.

1996: Jordan passed away.

January 19, 1996, Jordan lay in state at the LBJ Library on the campus of The University of Texas at Austin. She was buried in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin, and was the first black woman interred there. Her papers are housed at the Barbara Jordan Archives at Texas Southern University.

Barbara Jordan had many admirers. In the KUT radio documentary Rediscovering Barbara Jordan, former president Bill Clinton stated that he wanted to nominate Jordan for the United States Supreme Court, but by the time he could do so, Jordan's health problems prevented him from nominating her.

And Eugene Holley Jr. said, "If we understand her lessons, then we will know that the making of an American hero is a rare--and wondrous--event."

Following are some of Barbara Jordan's famous quotes---and some of her lessons to us. Let's see if we can take Holley's and Jordan's words to heart.

• The American dream is not dead. It is gasping for breath, but it is not dead.

• I never intended to become a run-of-the-mill person.

• A spirit of harmony can only survive if each of us remembers, when bitterness and self-interest seem to prevail, that we share a common destiny.

• One thing is clear to me: We, as human beings, must be willing to accept people who are different from ourselves.

• If you're going to play the game properly you'd better know every rule.

• If you are politically inclined, you may be President of the United States. All my growth and development led me to believe that if you really do the right thing, and if you play by the rules, and if you’ve got good enough, solid judgment and common sense, that you’re going to be able to do whatever you want to do with your life.

• "We the people" -- it is a very eloquent beginning. But when the Constitution of the United States was completed on the seventeenth of September in 1787, I was not included in that "We the people." I felt for many years that somehow 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."

• 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 realize our destiny. (from her 1976 speech at the Democratic National Convention

• Just remember the world is not a playground but a schoolroom. Life is not a holiday but an education. One eternal lesson for us all: to teach us how better we should love.

• We want to be in control of our lives. Whether we are jungle fighters, craftsmen, company men, gamesmen, we want to be in control. And when the government erodes that control, we are not comfortable.

• If the society today allows wrongs to go unchallenged, the impression is created that those wrongs have the approval of the majority.

• The imperative is to define what is right and do it.

• What the people want is very simple. They want an America as good as its promise.

• Justice of right is always to take precedence over might.

• I live a day at a time. Each day I look for a kernel of excitement. In the morning, I say: "What is my exciting thing for today?" Then, I do the day. Don't ask me about tomorrow.

• I believe that women have a capacity for understanding and compassion which a man structurally does not have, does not have it because he cannot have it. He's just incapable of it.

• My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.

• The majority of the American people still believe that every single individual in this country is entitled to just as much respect, just as much dignity, as every other individual.

• How do we create a harmonious society out of so many kinds of people? The key is tolerance -- the one value that is indispensable in creating community.

• Do not call for black power or green power. Call for brain power.

• If I have anything special that makes me "influential" I simply don't know how to define it. If I knew the ingredients I would bottle them, package them and sell them, because I want everyone to be able to work together in a spirit of cooperation and compromise and accommodation without, you know, any caving in or anyone being woefully violated personally or in terms of his principles.

• On why she retired from Congress in 1976: I felt more of a responsibility to the country as a whole, as contrasted with the duty of representing the half-million people in the Eighteenth Congressional District. I felt some necessity to address national issues. I thought that my role now was to be one of the voices in the country defining where we were, where we were going, what the policies were that were being pursued, and where the holes in those policies were. I felt that I was more in an instructive role than a legislative role.


Which of these strikes you? Which motivates or validates you?

For me, I identify with many, including the one about not being a run-of-the-mill person, and needing to seize every opportunity to learn from life, rather than take a holiday. I also disagree with a few. I think men can have the capacity for caring that women have.

At heart, the one that most struck me, probably because of the day is:

"One thing is clear to me: We, as human beings, must be willing to accept people who are different from ourselves."

I also have to emphasize:

• The majority of the American people still believe that every single individual in this country is entitled to just as much respect, just as much dignity, as every other individual.

• How do we create a harmonious society out of so many kinds of people? The key is tolerance -- the one value that is indispensable in creating community.

• Do not call for black power or green power. Call for brain power.

For more Information about Barbara Jordan:

Barbara Jordan: American Hero by Mary Beth Rogers (a colleague of Jordan's at the LBJ School of Public Affairs)

This is a news article, created Wednesday, February 08, 2006 (341 days ago).
Alta Keynote Images. Austin, TX. The following is a transcript of KUT’s radio documentary, “Rediscovering Barbara Jordan,” which originally aired in February, 2006.

Barbara Jordan A short biography on

Barbara Jordan at LBJ School of Public Affairs

copyright 2007 Julie Pippert

Technorati Tags: , ,,


Her Bad Mother said…
I love this post. Thanks.

(and - GO BRAIN POWER. Yes.)
thailandchani said…
Thanks for the word portrait of Barbara Jordan. It was interesting to learn a bit more about her.

The women who have influenced me most would be Maya Angelou, bell hooks and Alice Walker.

I agree with the essence of your post.


Mom O Matic said…
Excellent post, thanks!
Girlplustwo said…
what a terrific portrait. truly. and the essence you were working to convey..i agree.

i just watched a documentary about Shirley Chisholm - the first black congresswoman...she was a powerful and amazing woman in her own right as well.
Bones said…
Barbara Jordan has always astounded me. I love the Constitution almost the same way I love Handel's Messiah. It is a brilliant document that demonstrates the final product being so much greater than the individual contributions from the farmers and lawyers who drafted it. Its clearly a flawed document, but the redundancy built into its systems were so well crafted that even the mistakes in the original document (the 3/5ths provision, for example) were fixed by the very systems the Constitution established.

Barbara Jordon has always been remarkable to me because she stands alone as an African American woman who believes in the Constitution and its very ability to provide justice to the people. So many African American folk and political heroes preached of revolution (albeit civil and not political) but she alone preached of the powers of the Constitution itself as the gateway to civil rights. And In the end, she was right. It wasn't a march or Rosa Parks or a cross burning or even the civil war that restored civil rights. It was the an act of congress, passed by both popularly elected representative bodies, signed by the President and upheld by the Supreme Court. And it couldn't have happened any other way.
kim said…
The one thing I love about your blog is that I always learn something. Thanks.
Robyne said…
Interesting blog! I did not know about Barbara Jordan..


Popular posts from this blog

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Quorum

After being confronted with written evidence, Julie admits that she is a total attention whore. In some things, in some ways, sometimes I look outward for validation of my worth and existence. I admit it. It's my weak spot, my vanity spot . If you say I am clever, comment on a post, offer me an award, mention me on your blog, reply to a comment I left on your blog, or in any way flatter me as a writer...I am hopelessly, slavishly devoted to you. I will probably even add you to my blogroll just so everyone can see the list of all the cool kids who actually like me . The girl, she knows she is vain in this regard , but after much vanity discussion and navel-gazing , she has decided to love herself anyway, as she is (ironically) and will keep searching for (1) internal validation and (2) her first person . Until I reach a better point of self-actualization, though, may I just say that this week you people have been better than prozac and chocolate (together, with a side of whi

In defense of vanity...I think

Do you have one of those issues where you argue with yourself? Where you just aren't sure what you actually think because there are so many messages and opinions on the topic around you? I have more than one like this. However, there is one topic that has been struggling to the top of my mind recently: vanity and perceived vanity. Can vanity be a good thing? Vanity has historically been truly reviled. Vanity is number seven of the Seven Deadly Sins. It's the doppleganger of number seven on the Seven Holy Virtues list: humility. There are many moralistic tales of how vanity makes you evil and brings about a spectacular downfall. Consider the lady who bathed in the blood of virgins to maintain her youth. Google Borgia+vanity and find plenty. The Brothers Grimm and Disney got in on the act too. The Disney message seems to be: the truly beautiful don't need to be vain. They are just naturally eye-catchingly gorgeous. And they are all gorgeous. Show me the Reubenesque Pr

Is your name yours? How your name affects your success...

Made by Andrea Micheloni Not too long ago I read What's in a name? by Veronica Mitchell. She'd read the NPR/USA Today article, Blame it on your name , that shared new research results: "a preference for our own names and initials — the 'name-letter effect' — can have some negative consequences." Veronica's post and that article got me thinking about names, and their importance. Changing to my husband’s name and shedding my maiden name was no love lost for me. By the time we married, I’d have gladly married any other name just for a change. My maiden name was a trial; I was sick of spelling it, pronouncing it, explaining it, and dealing with the thoughtless rude comments about it. My sister and I dreamed and planned for the day we could shed that name. So I wonder, sometimes, whether I adequately considered what a name change would actually mean. Heritage and genealogy matter to me and my maiden name reflected a great deal of familial history. Histo