/Vernon Jordan, civil rights activist and Clinton adviser, dies at 85

Vernon Jordan, civil rights activist and Clinton adviser, dies at 85


Sarah Elbeshbishi

Deborah Barfield Berry
 
| USA TODAY

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Vernon Jordan, civil rights activist, dies at 85

Vernon Jordan was a close adviser to former President Bill Clinton.

USA TODAY, USA TODAY

Vernon Jordan, a civil rights activist and a former adviser to President Bill Clinton, died Monday, his family said. He was 85.

“My father passed away last night around 10p surrounded by loved ones, his wife and daughter by his side,” Vickee Jordan Adams, Jordan’s daughter, shared in a statement Tuesday to CBS News.

Before becoming a prominent adviser and aide to Clinton, Jordan had roles as with the NAACP, National Urban League and United Negro College Fund.

As president of the Urban League, he advocated for jobs and justice for Black Americans and against their modern struggles.

Jordan led the organization at a “crucial moment in history,” Marc Morial, the current Urban League president, said in a statement Tuesday. Jordan took the leadership role after the passage of several landmark pieces of legislation providing protections for Black Americans, including the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. Morial said Jordan’s mission was to “empower Black Americans to realize the promise of these victories.”

In Jordan, the nation “has lost one of its greatest champions of racial and economic justice,” Morial said. “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.”

While president of the Urban League, Jordan nearly died after being shot by a white supremacist with a hunter’s rifle in 1980, outside his Fort Wayne, Indiana, hotel. He had five surgeries and faced three months of recovery.

Still, Jordan told Ebony magazine after the shooting that he was not “afraid, and I won’t quit.”

In 2015, Dorie Ladner, a veteran of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Jordan were both speakers at a civil rights program hosted by the University of Pittsburgh. Ladner talked about voter suppression, but she said guests couldn’t wait to greet Jordan, the keynote speaker. The audience seemed to be spellbound. 

“He spoke out about how far we’ve come,’’ Ladner, 72, recalled. But he also noted how much more needed to be done. “He talked about it in realistic terms… He was very plain-spoken.”

Ladner first met Jordan in the early 1960s when she worked to register Black residents to vote in Mississippi. Jordan worked for a group that helped fund a voter education project in Greenwood. The funding was key to keeping the effort going, Ladner said.

She remembered a tall handsome man, who had such a presence. “Some people don’t have to say anything,” she said. “He had all of the attributes of a leader.”

The Bill Clinton years

Jordan left the Urban League in 1982 and became a partner at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld. Eventually he became a key campaign adviser to Clinton and co-chaired Clinton’s transition team, the first Black person in that role.

Jordan’s influence was rooted in his friendship with the former president, which started in the 1970s and turned into a partnership and political alliance. Clinton was still just a young politician from Arkansas when Jordan met him and bonded over their similar upbringings and Southern roots.

“From his instrumental role in desegregating the University of Georgia in 1961, to his work with the NAACP, the Southern Regional Council, the Voter Education Project, the United Negro College Fund, and the National Urban League, to his successful career in law and business, Vernon Jordan brought his big brain and strong heart to everything and everybody he touched. And he made them better,” Bill and Hillary Clinton said in a statement.

Humble beginnings in Atlanta

Jordan was born in Atlanta on Aug. 15, 1935, to Vernon and Mary Belle Jordan and was their second out of three boys. Jordan lived with his family in public housing until he was 13 but was exposed to the city’s elite through his mother, who worked as a caterer for many of the city’s affluent citizens.

Jordan attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, where he one of five Black students. He graduated in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Jordan then attended Howard University School of Law in Washington, where he met and married his first wife, Shirley Yarbrough.

Jordan spent two years at the Georgia field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, where he organized chapters, demonstrations and boycotts. He then moved to Arkansas to begin private practice, while also becoming the director of the Voter Education Project of the Southern Regional Council.

“Today, the world lost an influential figure in the fight for civil rights and American politics, Vernon Jordan. An icon to the world and a lifelong friend to the NAACP, his contribution to moving our society toward justice is unparalleled,” Derrick Johnson, NAACP president and CEO, said in a statement Tuesday.

While considering whether to run for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District seat in 1970s Jordan was picked to lead the United Negro College Fund, which he did for about a year. During his tenure, Jordan helped the organization fundraiser $10 million to provide support to students at historically Black colleges and universities.   

“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.”

Contributing: Associated Press