Vernon E. Jordan, civil rights activist, passes at 85
Herb Boyd | 3/2/2021, 9:23 a.m.
A smooth, polished and elegant style characterized Vernon E. Jordan Jr.’s political comportment, as well as his personal demeanor. Remarkably, without ever being elected to office or exercising his legal acumen in the courts, Jordan was a commanding figure in Washington, D.C. and an exemplar of an insider with charm. Jordan, 85, died on March 1 at his home in Washington, according to his daughter Vickee, who provided no causes for his death.
Always sharply attired with a permanent smile and an extended hand was the picture we often saw of Jordan in the press, but clearly there was much more to the man than his persona; he operated effectively in social, political and economic circles, a rolodex replete with luminaries and associates, none more illustrious than former President Bill Clinton. Many remember his loyalty to Clinton during that trying period of impeachment when Jordan was the go-to-guy in defense of his friend in the media.
For more than a generation, he was a boldface name after getting public notice in the early 1960s, escorting Charlayne Hunter, during her breaking of the color line at the University of Georgia. That was the beginning of his being in the news and in the company of history-making moments.
Born Aug. 15, 1935 in Atlanta, Jordan was the son of a postal worker on a military base and a mother who ran a successful catering business, where he worked occasionally and gained some early insights on the city’s elite white society. He attended segregated schools, but departed the South when he enrolled at DePauw University in Indiana. It was there that he became involved in the Civil Rights Movement and voter registration, and a visible and prominent figure in campus government. During summer breaks he returned to Atlanta and worked as a chauffeur and waiter. When he was caught reading the books in a formers mayor’s library, it was announced that “Vernon can read.” It was a backhanded compliment that Jordan later used as the title of his memoir in 2001.
Jordan was the only African American member of his graduating class from DePauw in 1957, and he immediately entered Howard University Law School. Three years later he graduated and joined a prominent law firm led by Donald L. Hollowell. This was the firm that represented Charlayne Hunter and brought Jordan the opportunity to accompany her to the school through a throng of angry protesters. This was a steppingstone into a leadership position at the NAACP and a series of boycotts demanding employment for Black workers. In 1964, he relocated to Arkansas and led voter registration efforts that eventually added 2 million voters to the rolls, mainly in the South.
Five years later he was a fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and in 1970 he became executive director of the United Negro College Fund. After the death of Whitney Young in a drowning incident off the coast of Nigeria in 1971, Jordan was chosen as his successor as the executive director of the National Urban League. In this capacity, he oversaw a budget of more than $100 million, which also necessitated extensive travel and fundraising activities. His membership on the boards of several major companies secured jobs for countless numbers of African Americans. Without being an open advocate of Black Power, he nonetheless found ways to appropriate the phrase and insert it in his speeches and policies.
On May 29, 1980, Jordan was shot in the back by a high-powered rifle after addressing an Urban League meeting in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The wound he received was as large as a fist, which African American doctors and other medical assistants managed to close without complications. He quipped later, that those who treated him were a testament to the question of whether there had been progress in the nation. A coterie of dignitaries visited him at the hospital, including President Jimmy Carter, Sen. Edward Kennedy, and a host of corporate leaders and executives. His assailant, Joseph Paul Franklin, was arrested and had previously been tried for shooting Larry Flynt in 1978, leaving the publisher of Hustler magazine paralyzed. He was found guilty of violating Jordan’s civil rights and later linked to 20 killings across the nation. He was executed in 2013 in Missouri.
After a successful recuperation from the shooting, Jordan resigned from the NUL and became legal counsel with the D.C. firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld. Later his influence as a powerbroker, accentuated by his close association with Bill Clinton, facilitated his partnership at the investment firm of Lazard Frere & Company in New York.
Among the many awards and honors was the Alexis de Tocqueville Award from the United Way of America (1977). In 2001, he was awarded the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal. Along with his columns in weekly newspapers that was widely syndicated, Jordan’s memoir was highly praised and was instrumental in the frequent invitations he accepted to appear on national television. There were cameo appearance in such films as “Rounders” in 1998 that starred Matt Damon and Edward Norton.
His first wife was Shirley Yarbrough, who died in 1985 and Vickee was their daughter; and his second wife was Ann Dibble Jordan, whom he married in 1986. He leaves to mourn him nine grandchildren, seven of whom are his second wife’s children, Janice, Mercer and Toni.