Vernon Jordan, a lawyer and presidential advisor, was an influential figure in the civil rights movement and in American politics. Jordan served as field director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), executive director of the United Negro College Fund, executive director of the National Urban League, and head of the transition team for U.S. president Bill Clinton.
Education and Early Career
Vernon Eulion Jordan Jr. was born in Atlanta on August 15, 1935. His father was a World War II (1941-45) veteran and a postal worker for the U.S. Army, and his mother was a caterer. After graduating with honors from David T. Howard High School in 1953, he attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. The only African American student in his class at DePauw, Jordan graduated in 1957. He subsequently enrolled in law school at Howard University, in Washington, D.C., and earned a law degree in 1960.
After graduating from law school, Jordan returned to Atlanta and joined the law office of Donald Hollowell, a civil rights activist. Jordan entered the battle for civil rights as the junior member of a legal team led by Hollowell and Constance Motley. The team sued the University of Georgia, charging the institution with racist admission policies. The suit ended in 1961 with a federal court order demanding the admission of two African Americans, Charlayne Hunter (later Charlayne Hunter-Gault) and Hamilton Holmes. Jordan personally escorted Hunter past a group of angry white protestors and to the university admissions office.
Several months later Jordan left private law practice and joined the staff of the NAACP as the Georgia field director. While in this position, Jordan led boycotts against Augusta merchants who refused to hire African Americans and organized a voter registration drive for the entire South. He left the NAACP to work for the Southern Regional Council, holding positions of increasing responsibility over the course of a few years. In late 1965 he became the director of the council’s Voter Education Project and led voter registration campaigns in eleven southern states. In 1970 he was named executive director of the United Negro College Fund, which raised a record $10 million in the first year of Jordan’s leadership.
Civil Rights and Political Influence
In 1972 Jordan became the executive director of the National Urban League, an organization devoted to securing economic self-reliance, parity, power, and civil rights for Black Americans. While Jordan emphasized such traditional issues as training, education, and job creation for African Americans, he took other proactive measures as well, including the lobbying of corporations to hire more African Americans. In 1975 he established a policy journal, The Urban League Review, which was published for nearly twenty years before ceasing publication in 1993. Jordan also initiated in 1980 the publication of State of Black America, an annual report written by experts about the social and economic progress of African Americans. The report is still being published today. Under Jordan’s leadership, the Urban League’s budget tripled.
Jordan’s rising importance and visibility became evident when he was shot and wounded by a sniper in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in May 1980. U.S. president Jimmy Carter was among Jordan’s visitors at the hospital. The police charged Joseph Paul Franklin, a white supremacist, with the crime. Franklin, denying involvement, was acquitted of the charges, but many years later, he admitted his guilt.
Jordan underwent six surgeries and remained hospitalized for eighty-nine days following the assasination attempt. Once recovered, he resigned from the Urban League and joined Akin Gump, a major law firm in Washington, D.C. A natty dresser and towering presence, Jordan cut a distinctive figure in Washington, becoming an influential power broker at a time when African Americans were all but absent from the upper echelons of the nation’s leadership class. His influence was sustained through positions on several major corporate boards, including American Express, Dow Jones and Company, Union Carbide, and Xerox. Jordan remained committed to African American advancement during these years, too, becoming a mentor to a generation of Black professionals, many of whom would later accept leadership positions at prominent corporate and philanthropic organizations. “Jordan wasn’t a passive trailblazer,” remembered one of his mentees years later. “He always reached back to pull folks with him, to push others forward, or to guide them through being the only one in the room.”
Jordan’s longtime friend Bill Clinton, who was elected to the U.S. presidency in 1992, chose Jordan to head his presidential transition team. Arguably the president’s most trusted counselor, Jordan advised Clinton on a range of issues, and played an influential role in the selection of Cabinet nominees. Jordan was later called to testify during the 1999 impeachment trial of President Clinton regarding Clinton’s relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
During his long career, Jordan received numerous awards, including an honorary doctor of laws degree from the University of Georgia. His autobiography, Vernon Can Read!, was published in 2001.
Jordan died in 2021 at the age of eighty-five.