In a perfect storm of unlikely circumstances, Barbara Jordan, a young congresswoman from Houston, Texas who grew up in isolation, landed a prime-time spot to make an opening statement on July 25, 1974, at the hearings. impeachment of President Richard Nixon. Jordan’s speech catapulted her onto the national platform, but it wasn’t just her public speaking skills and mastery of constitutional law that impressed the nation. Jordan made history as the first African-American woman from a southern state to be elected to the United States House of Representatives, serving from 1973 to 1979.
In a political climate marked by partisan divisions over civil rights, feminism and the aftermath of the Vietnam War, 1974 marked a year of explosive headlines. The Watergate scandal is one of the most important. To determine whether Nixon had committed crimes that cannot be prescribed, the House Judiciary Committee televised its hearings in a series of evening broadcasts. Jordan, in his first term representing Houston’s 18-year-olde district, participated in the proceedings.
“It was unusual for a freshman of Congress to sit on the House Judiciary Committee,” says Max Sherman, a former Texas state senator and close friend of Jordan, who edited a book of his 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 President to put it on the Judiciary Committee,” Sherman said. Due to seniority, Jordan spoke on the second day, but around 9 p.m., he adds. “It would have been prime time for one of the biggest TV audiences.”
For just over 13 minutes, Jordan gave a moving defense of the Constitution, but with startling remarks on the document’s initial exclusion.
“We the people,” Jordan said. “It’s a very eloquent start. But when the document was completed on September 17, 1787, I was not included in this “We the people”. I felt for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton had mistakenly overlooked me. But thanks to the process of amendment, interpretation and decision of the court, I was finally included in “We the people”. “
The audience was mesmerized.
“I guess 99.9% of the people who heard this, unless they were constitutional scholars, had no idea that when the Constitution was drafted, one of the compromises made between slave and non-slave states was the 3/5 compromise ”. Sherman said, referring to the stipulation that blacks were considered 3/5 of a human being. Also, until 19e The amendment was ratified: “Not only was she disqualified as an African American, but she was disqualified as a woman,” Sherman says. “So when she said ‘I wasn’t included’ she wasn’t included for two reasons.
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Black women leaders, including Representative Shirley Chisholm, who paved the way for Jordan and other African American women to sit in Congress, with her own historic victory in 1968, have long spoken out on racial inequality and gender Alisha Farmer, professor at the University of Texas and author of Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Turned An Era. But the way Jordan approached him during the impeachment hearing was a bold move.
“What I think is revolutionary is that a representative on duty does it so publicly,” says Farmer.
Jordan’s complex heritage
Jordan, until impeachment, was relatively unknown to the general public outside of Texas. She had become the first black woman to sit in the Texas State Senate, but she was surrounded by white politicians who didn’t want her. “It was a very white, male-dominated supremacist body,” says Sherman, who added that it wasn’t easy for Jordan at first.
“She certainly broke new ground and made people feel that it was possible, especially from the South,” Farmer says of Jordan’s victory in Texas. “But at the same time, his legacy is complicated.” Jordan faced a crackdown from African Americans who felt it was not progressive enough and accepted conservatives, Farmer says.
“Barbara has at times been criticized in the black community for being a compromiser,” says Sherman, who recalls that when Texas passed a sales tax, Jordan was one of the senators who made sure the tax didn’t go down. did not apply to food and medicine. “She would find ways to get things done.”
Jordan earned the respect of fellow Texans from both political parties who recognized his mastery of the law, sentiments soon shared by members of Congress during impeachment hearings.
“My faith in the Constitution is complete, it is complete, it is total,” Jordan said in his opening statement. “I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator of the reduction, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.
READ: Full text of Jordan’s speech.
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Although Democrats have already had the votes to present the articles of impeachment, Jordan pleaded with the committee not to rush the process, Sherman says. “It was Barbara who said, ‘We have to do all our research, we have to do all the checking. When we have done all of that, we come together and then we make a decision, but not before, ”he says.
Jordan ended his speech by highlighting the grave task of the Judicial Committee of controlling the executive branch.
“Has the President committed crimes, planned, directed and acquiesced in conduct that the Constitution will not tolerate? This is the question. We know that. We know the matter. We must now answer the question immediately. Reason, not passion, should guide our deliberations, guide our debate and guide our decision, ”Jordan said.
The House Judiciary Committee voted to approve three articles of impeachment against Nixon. And Jordan’s opening statement would be hailed as one of the main speeches in American history.