Thank you, Congresswoman [Sheila] Jackson Lee, for those kind words – and for your extraordinary service to this city, and to our nation – as a strong advocate for your constituents, a principled leader, and a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee.
I also want to thank you for putting me in such good company today – among so many of Houston’s most dedicated and distinguished community leaders, attorneys, educators, and ministers – including Mayor [Annise] Parker, who I’m delighted to see here – as well as some of America’s best and brightest young people.
As our nation’s Attorney General, I have the great privilege of speaking with hundreds of law students each year. But it’s a rare treat for me to visit a school like Wheatley, and to meet so many future leaders at a time when countless doors – to your education, to your career, and to the remarkable men and women you will become – are wide open.
Today, I’m especially grateful for the opportunity to join with the Wildcat community in celebrating the legacy of one of our country’s great leaders – a personal hero of mine, and a distinguished alumna of this school. Exactly 60 years ago, before she became one of the most dedicated and effective champions of our nation’s Civil Rights movement – before she became the first African-American elected to the Texas State Senate, and the first African-American woman to represent the South in the United States Congress – Barbara Jordan was a senior at this school and, just like you, a proud Wheatley student. It is in her honor that we gather today – not only to celebrate her extraordinary contributions and achievements – but also to discuss how we can – and why we must – extend her work. I’d particularly like to recognize her sister, Rose McGowan, who we’re honored to have with us.
Throughout her life, Barbara Jordan was a firm believer in the need for civic engagement – and in the ability of Americans to bridge long-standing divisions, to overcome a history of injustice and inequality, and to build a future that reflects this nation’s founding ideals.
During one of America’s most turbulent and defining eras, she recognized the common struggles – and common strengths – that bind us together. And her extraordinary personal story proves that, as she once said: “. . . the American idea, though it is shared by all of us, is realized in each one of us.”
That’s a concept that Wheatley students understand better than many others. After all, few Americans have embodied this idea as well – or realized it more fully – than this school’s namesake, Phillis Wheatley. As a young girl, she arrived to this nation in chains – aboard a slave ship that traveled here from Africa – but Phillis Wheatley’s remarkable gifts, as a writer and poet, transcended the sharp racial divisions of her time, and even won her praise from national leaders like Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.
In the late 18th century, for most slaves and even free African Americans, achieving such success and widespread recognition must have seemed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. But even then, in a time when many considered racial equality to be unthinkable – and when most slaves were prohibited from learning to read, let alone write – Phillis Wheatley dared to set pen to paper, and to share her frustrations – as well as her faith. The strength and passion of her writing was enough to shatter expectations about what an African-American woman could achieve.
Since then, more than two centuries have passed. And much has changed. Our nation has made remarkable, once-unthinkable, strides toward equality, opportunity, and tolerance for all its citizens. Yet, the fact is that significant challenges remain before us – and there’s no way to predict the obstacles that you will face, or the future that your generation will create.
After all, there was a time – not so long ago – when the thought of women voting was simply unimaginable. When the idea that we might walk on the Moon, or map the human genome, was more science fiction than fact. Or when electing an African American to Congress – let alone the presidency – was out of the question.
It was in this climate that a young Barbara Jordan first enrolled as a student at Phillis Wheatley. She would have turned 76 next week – but on the day she was born here in Houston, to a Baptist minister and a domestic worker, few could have conceived that this child of modest means would grow up to help lead a movement, to inspire a generation, and to advance the cause of civil rights and equal justice across this state – and far beyond.
In an era when racial discrimination was institutionalized and segregation was the law of the land, this courageous young woman found hope in the promise that inspired our nation’s beginning. And it compelled her to speak out – on our streets, and in our courts – to make sure that every American is included in those first three words of our Constitution: “We the People.”
This dedication – to our founding principles and to her fellow citizens – is what led Barbara Jordan to graduate from Wheatley, then from college and law school, and to set up her own law practice – at first, on her parents’ dining room table here in Houston. It’s what inspired her to become involved in politics by volunteering on the presidential campaign of a young, charismatic senator named John F. Kennedy – an experience that would help ignite the passion for public service that came to define her life. And it’s what drove her – when other brave activists took to the streets, and to lunch counters, and city buses – to call her fellow citizens to the ballot box, and to pursue public office.
In 1966, after two unsuccessful campaigns for state office, Barbara Jordan was elected to the Texas State Senate, where she seized t he opportunity to play a role in the Civil Rights movement – both as a strong voice for the disenfranchised, and as a lawmaker empowered to change or repeal the unjust laws that so many Americans were rallying against.
She understood what was at stake – and what her fellow citizens were demanding. “What the people want is very simple,” she explained. “They want an America as good as its promise.”
With that goal before her, in 1972, Barbara Jordan set her sights on the U.S. Congress, and brought her passion – and her dedication to public service – to her new role in the House of Representatives.
Now, unlike many of the people in this room, I’m old enough to remember when Congresswoman Jordan first came to Washington. Along with the rest of the country, I watched as she rose to national prominence during the Watergate hearings – reminding a nation of its most noble principles, as well as its Constitutional obligations.
I continue to believe in these same principles. And I continue to be inspired by leaders, like Congresswoman Jordan, who fought for them. In fact, I moved to Washington, D.C. just a few years after Barbara Jordan did, to begin my own career in public service as a young attorney in the Justice Department’s brand-new Public Integrity Section.
But my time in Washington did not overlap with Representative Jordan’s for long. In 1979, she retired from Congress and returned to her beloved Lone Star State to teach at the University of Texas, in Austin. Of course, she remained active in community and civic affairs for the next two and a half decades – advising governors, chairing Congressional commissions, and even accepting the highest honor our country can bestow on any civilian, when President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1994.
Only two years later – as our nation mourned Barbara Jordan’s passing – this child of modest means was once again honored by her President, who spoke at her funeral, reminding us of the quiet power and tremendous impact of this remarkable woman. “When Barbara Jordan talked,” President Clinton said that day, “we listened.”
Today, her inspirational voice still echoes through the ages – and through the school and city she loved. And I hope her words will remind each of you – who now travel down the path she helped to blaze – of your own extraordinary potential, as well as your personal responsibility: to serve others.
“The imperative,” Barbara Jordan once said, “is to define what is right and do it.”
Over her lifetime, this extraordinary woman did just that. The people she served, and the causes she championed, were many. And her legacy is written in the words that inspired a nation, and in the laws – like the 1965 Voting Rights Act – that transformed it, in order to foster a society that serves the interests of the many over those of the few.
Today, as Attorney General, I have the privilege – and the solemn duty – of enforcing many of the civil rights laws and reforms that Barbara Jordan and so many others once championed, including the Voting Rights Act – which, I’d like to note, was signed by a president from Texas, and in some ways first directly benefited the remarkable leader we celebrate today.
This work is among the Justice Department’s most important priorities. And our efforts reflect Barbara Jordan’s belief that the right to vote is not only the cornerstone of our system of government – it is the lifeblood of our democracy. That’s why my colleagues and I are dedicated to aggressively protecting voting rights – and to fighting back against discriminatory rules, regulations, and practices that threaten to abridge the voting rights of U.S. service members and veterans; individuals with disabilities, racial and ethnic minorities; language minorities; or other citizens – including elderly Americans and even some students – who are legally eligible to cast a ballot but struggle to access voting opportunities.
Of course, there’s been a lot of discussion about voting rights issues here in Texas in recent months – from ensuring that congressional redistricting process is fair, to vigorously enforcing protections for this state’s language minority population. And I urge you to learn about – and become involved in – this dialogue, and the ongoing work of safeguarding voting rights. Protecting this right, ensuring meaningful access, and combating discrimination in our election systems must not be viewed as issues to be settled by lawyers and politicians. Every citizen has the ability – and the responsibility – to support policies and practices to ensure that all eligible citizens have the chance to participate in the work of their government and to exercise their right to vote. That’s true for everyone here – no matter how old you are.
And the leader we celebrate today proved this. Barbara Jordan still reminds us that a single person has the power to help bring about the progress we need. You have this power. You also have shining examples – of a young slave who defied the odds and became a poet of international acclaim, and of a young woman from Houston who rose to the halls of power in Washington, D.C. And you have strong role models – in Congresswoman Jackson Lee, in the late Congressman and Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Mickey Leland, who was a proud alumnus of this school – and in the community leaders and educators gathered here this afternoon.
They know, just as I do, that – despite all the achievements and improvements we’ve seen in recent decades – we have more to do. We still have injustice, violence, and discrimination to overcome. And we still must take steps to “define what is right – and do it.”
This is the challenge that Barbara Jordan left to us – and the charge we must keep before us today. So, as we assemble here, at her alma mater, let us take new ownership of the work that she started – the work that each of you must now continue.
In the months and years to come, as you leave the Wheatley community and move on to careers, to colleges, or to national service, I urge you to carry that famous Wildcat spirit with you. To remember the examples you’ve encountered during your years here. And to know – however you choose to make a living, pursue your passions, and give back to your community – that your parents, your teachers, and your nation’s leaders are not only immensely proud of you; we are also counting on you.
Once again, thank you for the opportunity to be here today. I’m looking forward to the extraordinary things you’ll achieve – and the difference you’ll make – here in Houston, and across the country.