In a perfect storm of unlikely circumstances, Barbara Jordan, a junior congresswoman from Houston, Texas, who grew up in segregation, landed a primetime spot to deliver an opening statement on July 25, 1974, during President Richard Nixon’s impeachment hearings. Jordan's speech catapulted her onto the national platform, but it wasn’t just her oratory skills and command of constitutional law that awed the nation. Jordan had made history as the first African American woman from a southern state to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, serving from 1973-1979.
In a political climate fraught with partisan divisions over civil rights, feminism and the aftermath of the Vietnam War, 1974 marked a year of explosive headlines. Among the most significant was the Watergate scandal. To determine if Nixon had committed impeachable crimes, the House Judiciary Committee televised its hearings in a series of evening broadcasts. Jordan, in her first term representing Houston’s 18th district, took part in the proceedings.
“It was unusual for a freshman member of Congress to be on the House Judiciary Committee,” says Max Sherman, a former Texas State Senator and close friend of Jordan’s, who edited a book of her speeches, Barbara Jordan: Speaking the Truth with Eloquent Thunder.
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Jordan Captivates Primetime TV Audiences
“Lyndon Johnson used his influence and urged the Speaker to put her on the Judiciary Committee,” said Sherman. Because of seniority, Jordan spoke on the second day, but close to 9 p.m., he adds. “That would have been at the primetime of primetime for one of the largest television audiences.”
For a little over 13 minutes, Jordan gave a stirring defense of the Constitution, but with surprising remarks about the document’s original exclusion.
“We, the people,” said Jordan. “It is a very eloquent beginning. But when the document was completed on the seventeenth of September 1787, I was not included in that ‘We, the people.’ I felt somehow for many years that 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.’”
The audience was riveted.
“My guess is 99.9 percent of the people who heard that, unless they were constitutional scholars, had no idea that when the Constitution was written one of the compromises made between the slave and the non-slave states was the 3/5 compromise,” says Sherman, referring to the stipulation that Black people were considered 3/5 of a human being. Also, until the 19th Amendment was ratified, “Not only was she disqualified as an African American, but she was disqualified as a woman,” says Sherman. “So, when she said that ‘I was not included,’ she was not included for two reasons.”
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Black female leaders, including Rep. Shirley Chisholm, who paved the way for Jordan and other African American women to serve in Congress, with her own history-making win as the first in 1968, had long spoken out about racial and gender inequality, says Ashley Farmer, a professor at the University of Texas and author of Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era. But the way in which Jordan addressed it during the impeachment hearing was a bold move.
“What I think was groundbreaking was a sitting representative doing so in such a public fashion,” says Farmer.
Jordan's Complex Legacy
Jordan, until the impeachment, was relatively unknown to the general public outside of Texas. She’d become the first Black woman to serve in the Texas State Senate, but she was surrounded by white politicians who didn’t want her there. “It was a very white supremacist, male dominated body,” says Sherman, who added it wasn’t easy for Jordan in the beginning.
“She certainly broke ground and made people feel like it was possible, particularly from the South,” says Farmer, of Jordan’s win in Texas. “But at the same time, her legacy is complicated.” Jordan faced pushback from African Americans who felt she wasn’t progressive enough and acquiesced to conservatives, says Farmer.
“Barbara was sometimes criticized in the Black community for being a compromiser,” says Sherman, who remembers that when Texas passed a sales tax, Jordan was one of the senators who made sure the tax didn’t apply to food and drugs. “She would work out ways to get things done.”
Jordan earned the respect of her Texas colleagues in both political parties who recognized her command of the law, sentiments soon shared by members of congress during the impeachment hearings.
“My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total,” said Jordan, in her opening statement. “I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”
READ: Full text of Jordan's speech.
Impeachment Articles Advance
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Although Democrats already had the votes to put forth the Articles of Impeachment, Jordan implored the committee to not rush the process, says Sherman. “It was Barbara who said ‘We’ve got to do all of our research, we’ve got to do all the checking. When we have done all of that, then we come together, then we make a decision, but not until then,’” he says.
Jordan ended her speech underscoring the Judiciary Committee’s grave task of being a check on the executive branch.
“Has the President committed offenses, and planned, and directed, and acquiesced in a course of conduct which the Constitution will not tolerate? That's the question. We know that. We know the question. We should now forthwith proceed to answer the question. It is reason, and not passion, which must guide our deliberations, guide our debate, and guide our decision,” said Jordan.
The House Judiciary Committee voted to approve three articles of impeachment against Nixon. And Jordan’s opening statement would be lauded as one of the top speeches in American history.