By: Richard Greggory Johnson III
I start this tribute by first suggesting that I am a great supporter of Barbara Jordan who has inspired me for the last forty-five years. I first came across Barbara Jordan from my parents. In K-12 school, I had not learned about Jordan or the groundbreaking activities she was involved with at the time. However, both my parents were civil rights workers from the 1960s through the 1980s. They would often talk about Jordan in such glowing terms while the family was having dinner. Therefore, I knew that Jordan was an important figure in Black history and American history from a very young age. Specifically, I remember my family gathered around our black-and-white television to listen to the Watergate Hearings in 1974. My parents thought it was important that my brother and I bear witness to history being made with Jordan speaking at the hearings. Though my brother and I were only 4 and 5 years old respectively. We knew that our paying attention to Jordan’s speech was important to our parents. Therefore, it was in our best interest to pay attention. Years later, I found Jordan’s speech on YouTube and use it regularly with many of my MPA students at the University of San Francisco.
I attended HBCU Johnson C. Smith University during the 1980s and it was there that I learned more about Jordan. She was saluted on our campus as being a political giant. The great thing about having attended an HBCU is that Black History was celebrated the entire academic year. African American luminaries routinely were presented on campus. Such important persons included Dr. Cornel West, Shirley Caesar, Dr. Maya Angelou, and Rep. Barbara Jordan. Having access to these individuals and so many more was a huge part of my college experience. My mother also attended an HBCU (Morris College) and recounted the same experiences of having Black dignitaries such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visit her campus during the mid-1960s. Mother talked about meeting King with such great excitement even so many years later. This is how I felt meeting Jordan in college. Jordan is also a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated. Therefore, the Delta’s on the Johnson C. Smith University campus came out in full force in to celebrate Jordan while she was on campus. It was a thrilling experience for the hundreds of people who attended her lecture in the Brayboy Gymnasium on campus. I remember leaving Brayboy with a deep-seated sense of pride for Jordan.
As a twenty-one-year Professor of Public Administration and Policy and Social Equity Scholar I have an opportunity to speak truth to power, particularly on women’s issues. Having grown up with a strong Black mother. I am privileged to understand the struggles that my mother and best girlfriends continue to go through, even while having college degrees, families, and careers. The truth is that justice has never been afforded easily to African American women. This indeed would include Barbara Jordan as well.
Barbara Jordan passed in away 1996 but her legacy lives on. I can’t help but believe that she would be pleased with the acknowledgment of fellow Black women known as the “computers” from the Hidden Figures movie (2017). Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson were contemporaries of Jordan and like Jordan faced discrimination and sexism during their career. These women did their jobs oftentimes under great strain. But yet it was many years before people hear about the above three women despite their involvement and great contributions to NASPA.
I conclude this tribute about Representative Barbara Jordan by suggesting that Women’s History Month is critical to observe. There is a wrong assumption that women have made parity with men in our society. But the truth is that women must still struggle for professional opportunities. NPR did a story on the lack of women film directors. This is still very true. But the same would be true regarding the absence of women in many university fields such as public administration. The struggles continue but the battle can only be won if women’s groups work with other groups such as civil rights groups, LGBT groups, disability awareness groups etc.