During her keynote speech at the 1976 Democratic Party convention, Barbara Jordan of Texas stood before a rapt audience and reflected on where Americans stood in that bicentennial year. “Are we to be one people bound together by a common spirit, sharing in a common endeavor, or will we become a divided nation? For all of its uncertainty, we cannot flee the future.” The civil rights movement had changed American politics by opening up elected office to a new generation of Black leaders, including Jordan, the first Black woman from the South to serve in Congress. Though her life in elected politics lasted only twelve years, in that short time, Jordan changed the nation by showing that Black women could lead their party and legislate on behalf of what she called “the common good.”
In She Changed the Nation, biographer Mary Ellen Curtin offers a new portrait of Jordan and her journey from segregated Houston, Texas, to Washington, DC, where she made her mark during the Watergate crisis by eloquently calling for the impeachment of President Nixon. Recognized as one of the greatest orators of modern America, Jordan inspired millions, and Black women became her most ardent supporters. Many assumed Jordan would rise higher and become a US senator, Speaker of the House, or a Supreme Court justice. But illness and disability, along with the obstacles she faced as a Black woman, led to Jordan’s untimely retirement from elected office—though not from public life. Until her death at the age of fifty-nine, Jordan remained engaged with the cause of justice and creating common ground, proving that Black women could lead the country through challenging times.
No change in the law alone could guarantee the election of Black leaders. It took courage and ambition for Barbara Jordan to break into politics. This important new biography explores the personal and the political dimensions of Jordan’s life, showing how she navigated the extraordinary pressures of office while seeking to use persuasion, governance, and popular politics as instruments of social change and betterment.
Mary Ellen Curtin is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Race, Gender, and Culture Studies and Director of American Studies at American University, Washington DC.