‘The world lost an influential figure in the fight for civil rights and American politics.’
by Rob Taylor Jr.
Courier Staff Writer
Late Monday evening, March 1, in the words of NAACP President Derrick Johnson, “the world lost an influential figure in the fight for civil rights and American politics.”
Vernon E. Jordan Jr. died at age 85 at his Washington, D.C., home, surrounded by his wife and family.
Jordan was the consummate civil rights leader, lawyer and presidential adviser, who opened eyes in his early days when he became one of the youngest leaders of the National Urban League, at age 35.
Jordan was born Aug. 15, 1935, in Atlanta. He graduated from an all-Black high school, Howard High School, then attended a primarily-White institution, DePauw University, in Indiana. He graduated from there in 1957, the only Black student in his class.
Jordan then studied law at Howard University, an HBCU, and his first foray into fighting segregation came when he filed a lawsuit against the University of Georgia’s integration policy in 1961 on behalf of Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter, two Black students. Jordan accompanied Holmes and Hunter to the UGA admissions office in that year through an angry mob of White students, according to CNN.
Before becoming the National Urban League president in 1971, he was a field director for the NAACP and director of the Voter Education Project for the Southern Regional Council. Johnson, the current NAACP president, in a statement called Jordan “an icon to the world and a lifelong friend to the NAACP. His contribution to moving our society toward justice is unparalleled.”
While on a trip to Ft. Wayne, Ind., in 1980, Jordan was shot in the back by a racist, and nearly died. The New York Times reported that he underwent six surgeries and remained hospitalized for 89 days.
But nothing, not even an assassination attempt, could stop the determined Jordan. He went on to advise President Bill Clinton during his initial campaign and throughout his two-term presidency. CNN reported that Jordan first met President Clinton during a trip to Little Rock, Arkansas, when Jordan was president of the National Urban League and President Clinton was the Arkansas attorney general.
Jordan advised President Clinton on numerous hirings, “golfing frequently with the president and sharing Christmas Eves together,” CNN reported.
DePauw University on Tuesday, March 2, mourned the passing of Jordan, and its president, Lori S. White, said in a statement that the university “has lost a dear friend and the world has lost a determined leader,” according to CNN.
“He spoke loudly—through words and deeds—as a civil rights activist and quietly as a trusted counsel to presidents,” White said. “DePauw is better for having had him as a beloved alumnus, and the country and the world are better for having him as a leader.”
Former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama said on Tuesday, March 2, via Tweet that they “benefited from Vernon Jordan’s wise counsel and warm friendship—and deeply admired his tireless fight for civil rights.”
Jordan also broke barriers when it came to Corporate America. Jordan, a man who seamlessly navigated in many circles, was on the boards of Celanese Corporation, Bankers Trust, American Express and Xerox, among others.
In 2001, Jordan received the NAACP’s Springarn Medal for a lifetime of social justice activism, CNN reported. “His exemplary life will shine as a guiding light for all that seek truth and justice for all people,” the NAACP’s Johnson said.
President Clinton said in a statement to CNN: “He was never too busy to give good advice and encouragement to young people. And he never gave up on his friends or his country. He was a wonderful friend to Hillary, Chelsea, and me, in good times and bad. We worked and played, laughed and cried, won and lost together. We loved him very much and always will.”
Current National Urban League President Marc Morial remembered Jordan as one of the “top transformative leaders” in civil rights, politics and business. Jordan was the first lawyer to lead the National Urban League, and helped propel it to more than 17 local chapters in his day and a budget that flirted with $100 million.
“The nation has lost one of its greatest champions of racial and economic justice,” Morial said in a statement, reported by the Associated Press. “He was a transformational leader who brought the movement into a new era. He was a personal mentor and dear friend. His passing leaves a tremendous void that can never be filled.”