(Editors’ note: This is part of Just Security’s Juneteenth Reading Recommendations.)

“What the people want is very simple. They want an America as good as its promise.”
-Barbara Jordan.

On the occasion of Juneteenth, I recommend that you read the book Barbara Jordan: American Hero, by Mary Beth Rogers (2000). The life of Barbara Jordan (1936-1996) provides a lesson in quiet dignity, moral character, elegance, passion, and patriotism. Jordan was the first post-Reconstruction African-American elected to the Texas Senate and later went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, the first African-American woman from a southern state to do so. She exemplified resilience in the face of adversity, serving with grace and grit, and evincing a fighting spirit that we can draw on today.  Her sonorous and honeyed voice called all of us to our higher selves. It is appropriate and fitting that we celebrate one of the greatest Americans and dedicated patriots that this country has ever known. Jordan’s family has roots in Juneteenth and Reconstruction, and these ingredients combined to produce an orator, advocate, and politician of historical importance. The life of Barbara Jordan, and her unyielding commitment to the Constitution and democracy, have deep roots in the emancipation of African-Americans from slavery.

Juneteenth: Freed People Celebrate a Victory They Made Possible

The holiday of “Juneteenth,” as it is colloquially known, represents Galveston’s most important historical moment. It stemmed from General Order No. 3, read on June 19, 1865, announcing that all enslaved people were free. The most important thing to know about Juneteenth is that it was late. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation on Sep. 22, 1862, yet the proclamation had little impact on Texans at the time it was originally issued, because there were not enough Union troops available in Texas to enforce it. Two and a half years later, in June of 1865, more than 2,000 federal soldiers of the 13th Army Corps arrived in Galveston. Major General Gordon Granger, Commanding Officer, District of Texas, delivered to Galveston General Order No. 3, informing Texans that all enslaved people were free.

When we consider the significance of Juneteenth, it is essential that we recognize that African-Americans, women and men, fought for the Union and against bondage before they were legally emancipated. African-Americans were not passive recipients of emancipation. Instead, they were active agents battling for their own liberation. Indeed, according to the National Archives:

By the end of the Civil War, roughly 179,000 black men (10% of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy. Nearly 40,000 black soldiers died over the course of the war – 30,000 of infection or disease. Black soldiers served in artillery and infantry and performed all noncombat support functions . . .  Black carpenters, chaplains, cooks, guards, laborers, nurses, scouts, spies, steamboat pilots, surgeons, and teamsters also contributed to the war cause. There were nearly 80 black commissioned officers. Black women, who could not formally join the Army, nonetheless served as nurses, spies, and scouts, the most famous being Harriet Tubman, who scouted for the 2d South Carolina Volunteers.

Given the context of the long struggle for freedom, the official end of slavery tasted sweet to the liberated. On Jan. 2, 1866, a Galveston newspaper, Flake’s Bulletin, reported that over 1,000 “colored people of Galveston” celebrated their emancipation from slavery with a procession, and by listening to an address of Gen. Gregory, Assistant Commissioner of Freedmen. The program included a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the singing of “John Brown’s Body.” Juneteenth was celebrated across the state, in Brenham, Marlin, Liberty, Bastrop, and elsewhere, with parades, picnics, speeches, and dancing. Ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished chattel slavery nationwide on Dec. 6, 1865, after the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on Apr. 9, 1865. Unquestionably, news of their freedom came late to the African-American people of Texas, yet they celebrated.  The end of the Civil War and the end of slavery were their victories too. Freedmen were not passive recipients of emancipation. They fought for it with their very lives.

Reconstruction, Voting Rights, and Public Service

During the period from 1865 to 1877 – termed Reconstruction – the nation’s laws and institutions were rewritten and reshaped in an effort to ensure that newly freed people could claim their basic rights under the Constitution. Reconstruction represented a heady period when newly freed people not only could exercise their basic rights and (for men) vote, but could also hold office. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Reconstruction Act of 1867 aimed to enforce the rights of Black men to vote. African-Americans voted in large numbers and held office at every level of government. Under Reconstruction, newly refashioned state governments established public schools, reunited families torn apart by slavery, and outlawed discrimination in transportation and education. During Reconstruction in Texas, notes the Texas Almanac, “52 African-American men served Texas either in the Legislature or as delegates to the Constitutional Convention.”

Just as Barbara Jordan fought for freedom and democracy in the 20th century, her family fought for freedom and democracy in the 19th century. Her great-grandfather was Edward A. “Ed” Patton, a Republican, who, according to the Texas State Historical Society, was born in Texas around 1859, came of age at the height of Reconstruction, and, as a teacher and farmer, won election to the 22nd Legislature of Texas in 1890, where he served as its only Black member and, among other positions, opposed the adoption of a poll tax.

Patton served a single term. By the late 19th century, the backlash to Reconstruction was in full swing, and new laws increasingly sought to curtail African-Americans’ efforts to exercise their rights to vote and to serve in public office. Indeed, following Reconstruction, the Texas Senate would not see another African-American member until Patton’s great-granddaughter, Barbara Jordan, was elected in 1966.

Barbara Jordan: A Life of Service

Patton’s great-granddaughter, Barbara Charline Jordan, was born on Feb. 21, 1936, in Houston, just a few miles from Galveston. Life in Texas when Jordan came of age was shaped by racism that, decades after Reconstruction, had never been expunged. She attended the segregated Phyllis Wheatley High School, which lacked adequate resources for students of color. She was a member of the inaugural class at Texas Southern University (TSU), a historically Black college created by the Texas Legislature to avoid integrating the University of Texas, where she excelled, leading the debate team to national renown and graduating magna cum laude. In 1959, she earned her law degree from Boston University in 1959 as one of only two African-American women in her class. She passed the Massachusetts and Texas bars and returned to Houston, where law firms refused to offer her a position because of her race, so she began her own practice at the kitchen table of her parents’ home.

Jordan was instrumental in the election of John F. Kennedy, securing unprecedented voter turnout in her area. In 1966, after two previous unsuccessful runs for a State House seat, she won the contest for a newly created State Senate seat, becoming the first African-American woman elected to the Texas State Senate and the first African-American elected to the Texas Senate since Reconstruction. One of her greatest achievements in the Texas State Senate was leading the passage of legislation that gave millions of Texas farmworkers a living wage. In an honor remarkable for her era, she was elected President Pro Tempore of the Texas Senate in 1972.

In 1972, Jordan won election to U.S. Congress from Houston’s 18th district, with a decisive 81% of the vote, becoming the first Black Texan in Congress and the first African-American woman from the South in the House. During her tenure from 1973-1979, she developed a reputation as a member of the liberal wing of the Texas Democratic Party who maintained good relationships with the conservative wing, and who also showed the pragmatic political instincts of her mentor, Lyndon B. Johnson.

Her opening statement to the U.S. Judiciary Committee on July 25, 1974, during President Nixon’s impeachment hearings, catapulted her onto the national platform. Despite noting in her remarks that women and African Americans were not included in the original draft of the Constitution, she offered a stirring defense of the document, stating, “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total.” Jordan’s 13-minute speech would be lauded as one of the most remarkable in American history. In 1976, she was the first African-American woman to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. After an exceptional career in politics, she returned to her home state and taught at UT’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

Drawing a Lesson on the Meaning of Juneteenth

I met Barbara Jordan in person during her final years, when I was lucky enough to sit in on a seminar she taught at the LBJ School. She taught up until the end of her life. She believed in education, she believed in government, and she believed in serving the people. She also believed that, if you could get the best education, you could be a more effective individual. Citizens of the United States face numerous threats to democracy. Among the most worrying are efforts to implement voter suppression, which include interfering with electoral processes, concentrating power in the state executive, and reducing the powers of secretaries of state.

One of the lessons of Juneteenth is that we cannot wait for others to save us. We must engage, and actively fight for freedom. One of the lessons of Barbara Jordan’s life, as she stated in the Watergate Hearings nearly 20 years ago, is that we cannot “sit here and be [idle] spectators to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.” Instead, each of us must ask what active steps we can take to protect our Constitution. Former Dean of the LBJ School Max Sherman remembers Jordan as bold, and said that although she was incredible at compromise, when it came time to fight, she would fight.

On this Juneteenth, we can honor Jordan, and honor the tens of thousands of African-Americans in the Civil War who fought for their own liberation, and honor all those who, in the face of racism and injustice, chose public service. We too can choose to resist instead of standing by while we lose our rights. We must make sure our family and friends are registered to vote. Too many sacrifices were made to secure the franchise for women and people of color; we must never take our vote for granted. Jordan’s legacy demonstrates the power of our voices. On this, on the other independence day, let us continue to work towards “an America as good as its promise.”

IMAGE: Barbara Jordan on House Judiciary Committee during Watergate impeachment hearings, 1974. (U.S. House of Representatives Photography Office/Wikimedia Commons)