Remembering Vernon Jordan

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Civil rights giant and former Clinton adviser dies at 85

President Barack Obama walks with civil rights icon Vernon Jordan, left, on Jan. 30, 2016 in Washington, D.C. Jordan died on March 1 at age 85.
OLIVIER DOULIERY/ABACA PRESS/TNS

BY TIM DARNELL
THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION/TNS

ATLANTA — Former presidents and everyday Americans were among those paying tribute to Vernon Jordan, a civil rights leader and a close adviser to former President Bill Clinton. Jordan passed away March 1. He was 85.

His death was confirmed in a statement to The New York Times by his daughter, Vickee Jordan. She also released a statement to CBS News, saying, “My father passed away last night around 10 p.m. surrounded by loved ones, his wife and daughter by his side.”

A cause of death has not been released.

Exemplary career

Politicians far and wide lauded Jordan for his unfailing commitment to civil rights. “From civil rights to business, Mr. Jordan demonstrated the highest quality of leadership and created a path forward for African Americans where there were none,” said Jaime Harrison, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “He will be missed.”

“Today is a sad day in Georgia as we mourn the loss of another native son and giant of the civil rights movement,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams of Georgia’s 5th Congressional District and chair of the state Democratic Party. “Having grown up in segregated Atlanta, Vernon Jordan fought racism and injustice at home before rising to the highest echelons of American politics and business. He blazed countless trails and leaves a legacy of service, wisdom, friendship, and mentorship that has touched countless lives and will continue to impact generations to come.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said, “like many others in Atlanta, there is a deep and abiding personal connection to Mr. Jordan. He spent a lifetime fighting injustice — from the marching band of David T. Howard High School to the court room, to the White House, to the boardroom and beyond, he made Atlanta proud to call him our own.”

Humble beginnings

Vernon Eulion Jordan Jr. was born in Atlanta on Aug. 15, 1935, the second of Vernon and Mary Belle Jordan’s three sons. Until Jordan was 13, the family lived in public housing. But he was exposed to Atlanta’s elite through his mother, who worked as a caterer for many of the city’s affluent citizens.

Jordan was an honor’s graduate of David Tobias

Howard High School. Rejected for a summer internship with an insurance company after his sophomore year in college because of his race, he earned money for a few summers for college by working as a chauffeur to former Atlanta mayor Robert Maddox, then a banker.

Jordan graduated from DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, in 1957, with a degree in political science, where he was the only Black in his class and one of five at the college. He then attended Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C. and returned to Atlanta to join the law office of Donald L. Hollowell, a civil rights activist.

President Bill Clinton talks with Vernon Jordan in the Rose Garden at the White House after a ceremony in 1999.
PETE SOUZA/CHICAGO TRIBUNE/TNS

Defining history

Jordan was part of the legal team that helped Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes win admission as UGA’s first African-American students in 1961.

“Vernon Jordan played an important role in one of the defining moments in University of Georgia history,” said UGA President Michael F. Adams. “The courage, resolve and commitment to social justice that he demonstrated then have remained hallmarks of a career that has won him the admiration and appreciation of all Americans. The University of Georgia takes great pride in recognizing his achievements and contributions with this honorary degree.”

After leaving private law practice in the early 1960s, Jordan served as the Georgia field director for the NAACP, then moved on to the Southern Regional Council, then to the Voter Education Project.

Jordan considered running for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District seat in 1970 but was tapped that year to head the United Negro College Fund.

In 1971, after the death of Whitney Young Jr., Jordan was named the fifth president of the National Urban League, which is dedicated to empowering African Americans to enter the economic and social mainstream.

“I believe that working with the Urban League, the NAACP, PUSH and SCLC is the highest form of service that you can perform for Black people,” Jordan said in a December 1980 interview in Ebony Magazine.

“And if you serve Black people you serve the country as well. So, if I do a good job here, the Black people are not the only beneficiary; so is the country. The country has a vested interest in Black people doing well.”

Powerful friends

His friendship with Clinton, which began in the 1970s, evolved into a partnership and political alliance. He met Clinton as a young politician in Arkansas, and the two connected over their Southern roots.

Jordan was a key campaign adviser to Clinton during his first presidential campaign and co-chaired Clinton’s transition team. He remained close to the Clintons for the next decades, endorsing both of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns.

Although Jordan held no official role in the Clinton White House, he was highly influential and had such labels as the “first friend.” He approached Colin Powell about becoming secretary of state and encouraged Clinton to pass the NAFTA agreement in 1993. Jordan also secured a job at Revlon for Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern whose sexual encounters with the president spawned a scandal.

Jordan’s actions briefly drew the attention of federal prosecutors investigating Clinton’s actions, but he ultimately was not mentioned in a final report issued by special prosecutor Ken Starr. 

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