By Andrea Plaid
Watching last night’s vice presidential debates, I thought about which woman I’d could easily see shredding Congressman Paul Ryan’s arguments with as much–if not more–aplomb than Vice President Biden. Of the many I thought of, I came up with the late congresswoman Barbara Jordan.
Her ability to shred arguments started in her younger years: she graduate from high school as an honor student in Texas. Inspired by lawyer and the first Black UN delegate Edith Sampson, Jordan aspired to be a lawyer, too: she majored in political science and history at Texas Southern University (the Jim Crow laws prevented her from attending University of Texas at Austin), where she not only graduated magna cum laude in 1956 but also became, during her time there, a champion debater, besting opponents from Yale and Brown. She earned her law degree from Boston University School of Law in 1959 and, after teaching a Tuskegee Institute for a year, went back home to Texas and started a private law practice in Houston. She also served as a get-out-the-vote organizer for the Kennedy-Johnson presidential ticket in 1960.
After two unsuccessful attempts to run for Texas’ House of Representatives, Jordan won a seat in the state’s Senate in 1966; she became the first African American senator since 1883 to win a seat and the first Black woman ever to do so. During her two-term tenure, her Senate colleagues voted her to serve as the state senate’s president pro tempore and as acting state governor for a day on June 10, 1972, while the governor and lieutenant governor left the state. She also helped get the state’s first minimum wage laws passed as well as advocated for creating the Texas Fair Business Practice Commission to eliminate discriminatory business practices. And then-President (and fellow Texan) Lyndon Johnson ran his 1967 message concerning Civil Rights by her.
Then Texans elected Jordan to serve in the US House of Representatives in 1972. Johnson encouraged her to sit on the House’s Ways and Means Committee and Judiciary Committee. According to the research tool Gale:
The 1974 Watergate scandal gave Jordan national prominence. Her speech in favor of President Richard Nixon’s impeachment was nothing short of oratorical brilliance. Her eloquence was considered memorable and thought-provoking. Her expertise as an attorney was demonstrated in 1974 when she spoke about the duty of elected officials to their constituents and the United States Constitution. Despite her personal distaste for an impeachment, Jordan insisted that President Nixon be held accountable for the Watergate fiasco. A Senate investigation, she believed, was warranted. Her televised speech was the center of media attention and critique for days to come.
And this is what she said (the full transcript is here):
Jordan solidified her reputation at the 1976 Democratic National Convention where she gave the keynote address which, along with the speech given above, are considered two of the top 100 US speeches of the 20th century. Not only was Jordan the first African American women to keynote at the convention, she’s rumored to have received a delegate vote at it, though she wasn’t even running for president. (Source) She continued to press for and support such legislation like the Community Reinvestment Act in 1977. She also wanted to expand the 1965 Voting Rights Act to include non-English speakers, but Texas legislators nixed the idea.
Politicos and the administration of then-president Jimmy Carter bandied her name about for several positions, from Carter’s running mate to US Attorney General to Secretary of Health and Human Services. Jordan instead chose to finish her tenure in the House and then semi-retire as an academic at the University of Texas in Austin. (Source)
In 1994, President Bill Clinton tapped Jordan to serve as Chair of the US Commission on Immigration Reform. Suffice to say, she held some rather–shall we say?–complicated opinions on how to modify the laws. She said in her testimony in 1995:
First, we set forth principles. We are a nation of immigrants committed to the rule of law. The Commission believes that legal immigration has strengthened the country and that it continues to do so. We as a Commission denounce the hostility that seems to be developing toward all immigrants.
To make sense about the national interest in immigration, it is necessary to make distinctions between those who obey the law, and those who violate it. Therefore, we disagree, also, with those who label our efforts to control illegal immigration as somehow inherently anti-immigrant. Unlawful immigration is unacceptable.
The second part of our strategy is worksite enforcement. You will hear testimony today about visa overstayers. You will hear that roughly one-half of the nation’s illegal alien problem results from visitors who entered legally but who do not leave when their time is up. Let me tell you in three simple words why that is: they get jobs.
We believe that employer sanctions can work, but only with a reliable system for verifying authorization to work. Employers want to obey the law, but they are caught now between a rock and a hard place. The current system is based on documents. An employer must either accept those documents, knowing that they might be forged, and thus live with the vulnerability to employer sanctions for hiring someone presenting false identification. Or, an employer may choose to ask particular workers for more documentation, which is discrimination.
The Commission has recommended a test of what we regard as the most promising option: electronic validation using a computerized registry based on the social security number. This is the only approach to deterring illegal immigration that does not ignore the half of the problem, the visa overstayer problem you are investigating today. We are pleased with the prompt, bipartisan support that this highly visible recommendation has received, and we look forward to real results from pilot projects before our final report in 1997.
Third in our recommmendations for a comprehensive strategy is making eligibility for public benefits consistent with our immigration policy. Decisions about eligibility should support our immigration objectives. Accordingly, the Commission recommended against eligibility for illegal aliens except in most unusual circumstances.
Citizenship and naturalization should be more central to the process of immigration. There are many barriers to naturalizing in law and practice, and they should be removed. But it is a debasement of the concept of citizenship to make it the route to welfare.
We on the Commission believe strongly that it is in the national interest for immigrants to become citizens for the right reasons, not the wrong ones. We want immigrants to be motivated to naturalize in order to vote, to be fully participating members of our polity-to become Americans. We don’t want to motivate lawabiding aliens to naturalize just so that they can get food stamps, health care, job training, or their homes tested for lead.
Fourth, deportation is crucial. Credibility in immigration policy can be summed up in one sentence: those who should get in, get in; those who should be kept out, are kept out; and those who should not be here will be required to leave. The top priorities for detention and removal, of course, are criminal aliens. But for the system to be credible, people actually have to be deported at the end of the process. The Commission will have additional recommendations on this crucial matter later this year.
Her immigration policies mar her otherwise liberal public-service record, for which she received a lot of recognition, including sharing the honor of TIME’s Persons of the Year in 1975, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994, a consideration of being a US Supreme Court justice (ex-President Clinton wanted this but said her deteriorating condition due to MS prevented it), being the first Black woman buried in Texas State Cemetery, and a statue in her honor at the University of Texas in Austin in 2009. (Source Source)
Considering that VP Debate 2012 Day was also National Coming Out Day, the public conversations around Jordan’s sexual identity still speaks volumes about the politics of “coming out” for politicians: Jordan herself never self-identified as a lesbian or spoke about her same-gender attractions or relationships during her life, and her biographer Mary Beth Rogers kept mum about them. However, Jordan’s obituary in 1996 mentions that she was in a long-term relationship with Nancy Earl, a educational psychologist Jordan met back in the 60s. Some writers speculate that her being closeted may have prevented her from voting for extending rights to cisgay communities. And Earl herself has kept mum about her relationship with Jordan, simply saying that “I was her good friend…[p]eople can say whatever they want.” (Source)
You know what? Forget wanting to see Jordan debate Ryan: though it would have been way, way fun, that would have been way, way too easy for her. I can’t wait to see how Viola Davis handles Jordan’s biopic–her speeches and her silences.