Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Jordan and the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Yesterday, President Barack Obama presented 13 recipients with the 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian (non-military) honor that can be bestowed on a person by a sitting American president.  Established in 1963, the Presidential Medal of Freedom replaced the Medal of Freedom established in 1945 by President Truman to honor civilian service during World War II.  The PMOF is not limited to U.S. citizens, and is open to military personnel as well as civilians and public servants.  A diverse group of 2012 medalists included folk singer Bob Dylan, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, author Toni Morrison (a one-time Texas Southern University professor), and retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, among others.

Jordan and President Clinton
 Jordan was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton on August 8, 1994.  Surrounded by sisters Bennie and Rose Mary and close friend Nancy Earl, Jordan’s co-recipients included Mexican American activist Cesar Chavez (posthumously), Sargent Shriver, and in a strange coincidence, civil rights activist and former National President of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority Dorothy Height—Height’s signature appears on Jordan’s Delta pledge certificate, dated 1953.

Jordan, the Clintons and
sisters Rose Mary (left)
 and Bennie
In another interesting coincidence, former Senator and astronaut John Glenn also received a Presidential Medal of Freedom yesterday—Glenn was one of two keynote speakers at the 1976 Democratic Convention, along with Jordan.  Jordan made one of her most famous speeches at this convention, hyping up the crowd so much that Jordan’s name was bandied about as a possible Vice Presidential running mate for Jimmy Carter (and Jordan actually secured one nomination as a presidential candidate at the convention).  Glenn, in contrast, gave a much more subdued speech that was not nearly as well received as Jordan’s had been—Glenn noted in his autobiography that “Jordan was a hard act to follow.” 

Jordan was buried with her Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

In honor of Cinco de Mayo and Jordan's support of the Hispanic community of Texas, we offer a special exhibit chronicling Jordan's involvement with the Voting Rights Act of 1975.  This legislation was an extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which essence prohibited states from using poll taxes, literacy tests, "grandfather clauses," or gerrymandering in elections--these were typical tactics used to deny or curtail the voting rights of US citizens on account of race or color, particularly in the Southern states. When the Act was due for reauthorization in 1975, Jordan became interested in extending voting rights to Mexican American voters, chiefly due to the interest of her staffers Bob Alcock and Bud Myers, who were connected with many civil rights lobbyists in Washington. They brought to Jordan's attention the fact that Mexican American voters were having difficulties with voter blocking and intimidation in many parts of the U.S., particularly in areas with high concentrations of Hispanics--including Texas. Texan attorney Paul Cedillo, Jr., also brought to Jordan's attention an incident involving voter intimidation at a school board election in Rosenberg, Texas in 1975, sending her affidavits from Mexican American voters who were turned away from the polls for a variety of reasons. Jordan had a personal interest in the issue as she had connections to MALDEF, LULAC, and had even assisted Cesar Chavez during a 1967 protest in Texas over minimum wages for migrant workers; in addition, her chief aide Bob Alcock’s mother was a Mexican native, so the issue of voting rights for Mexican Americans hit close to home for Jordan.

Jordan decided the time was right to amend the Voting Rights Act to not only include Spanish-speaking citizens, but other language-minority voters--and to make sure Texas, which was excluded from the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in terms of voting fairness for language-minorities, was included in the reauthorization. Thanks to Jordan's efforts, we've had bilingual voting materials at polling places ever since.  Jordan's victory had its hurdles, though--for example, then-President Gerald Ford tried to block the bill in the Senate and it took a Jordan supporter in the Senate to invoke a little-used special senatorial procedure to break a filibuster. Jordan considered the passage of the amendment to be the highlight of her political career. 

Please visit our online exhibit at Flickr to learn more:  click a link for an English version or en EspaƱol (note: you can pause any slide at any time by clicking the pause icon at the bottom left of the slide show). Or, if you're in the Houston area, please visit us at the Robert J. Terry Library's Special Collections, and you can see our exhibit in person through the month of May or in electronic format on our museum's audiovisual display at Texas Southern University.