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Vernon Jordan, civil rights champion and 'first friend' to Bill Clinton, dies at 85

Deborah Barfield Berry and Sarah Elbeshbishi, USA TODAY
·8 min read
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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, said in a statement Tuesday to CBS News.

Before becoming a prominent adviser and aide to Clinton, Jordan had roles 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.”

Vernon Jordan, photographed with President Bill Clinton on the golf course in Martha's Vineyard in August 1993, was a trusted adviser to the president.
Vernon Jordan, photographed with President Bill Clinton on the golf course in Martha's Vineyard in August 1993, was a trusted adviser to the president.

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.”

Morial said Jordan first published the league’s annual “State of Black America’’ report in 1976 because President Gerald Ford didn’t include the conditions facing Black Americans, including poverty and civil rights concerns, in his State of the Union address.

“Vernon said, ‘I’ll publish my own,’’ Morial told USA TODAY.

The report continues to beone of the organization’s signature documents. “It is the baseline on the disparities that exist in American life,’’ he said.

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 hotel in Fort Wayne, Indiana. 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."

An influence on young activists

Morial first met Jordan when he was 16 years old and the civil rights activist visited his family’s home in New Orleans. He said Jordan made a lasting impression on him and his friends.

“He was authentically Black,’’ Morial said. “He was very well-dressed. He was cool, and he seemed to be so down to earth. Never would I have imagined at 16 that I would get an opportunity to stand on his shoulders.’’

Before that, much of what Morial knew about Jordan came from what he read about him in Jet magazine, where Jordan was regularly featured. “He contributed so much to so many walks of life,’’ Morial said. “He contributed to politics and business and civil rights.”

Morial said he also admired how Jordan sponsored and mentored so many young professionals, some whom would go on to head major organizations.

In 2015, Dorie Ladner, a veteran of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Jordan were 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, she said: “He talked about it in realistic terms. … He was very plain-spoken.”

Ladner first met Jordan in the early 1960s when she and others 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 a presence. “Some people don’t have to say anything. He was the type of person who could take charge,” she said. “He had all of the attributes of a leader.”

Antjuan Seawright spent time with Jordan in 2008 and 2016, when he drove the civil right activist to campaign stops in South Carolina. Jordan was a surrogate for the Hillary Clinton campaign. Seawright was an adviser for the campaign in 2016 and a staffer in 2008.

Seawright recalled watching Jordan work a room in 2016, speaking to a diverse audience that included young people. It had been a tough primary season for Clinton.

“He made the case for why it’s OK to color outside the line and support a candidate like Hillary Clinton,’’ said Seawright, noting Clinton went on to win that primary. “That speaks to who Verdon Jordan is when you can pull together a melting pot, I think that matters.”

Seawright, 35 and a Democratic political adviser based in South Carolina, said Jordan also put on a “master class’’ for him and other younger consultants on how to make sure you influence policy, people and leaders. He particularly noted Jordan’s impact on shaping the National Urban League and its national influence.

“He was the epitome, I think, of how you do politics, influence and make a difference,’’ said Seawright, who is chair of the Charleston Urban League board.

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 a young politician from Arkansas when Jordan met him and they bonded over their similar upbringings and Southern roots.

President-Elect Bill Clinton meets with Vice President-elect Al Gore and Vernon Jordan at the Governor's Mansion in Little Rock, Arkansas, on Nov. 18, 1992. Jordan was the Clinton-Gore transition chairman.
President-Elect Bill Clinton meets with Vice President-elect Al Gore and Vernon Jordan at the Governor's Mansion in Little Rock, Arkansas, on Nov. 18, 1992. Jordan was the Clinton-Gore transition chairman.

Jordan “never gave up on his friends or his country," Clinton said Tuesday.

“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.

Former President Barack Obama said that “like so many others, Michelle and I benefited from Vernon Jordan’s wise counsel and warm friendship – and deeply admired his tireless fight for civil rights."

Congressman Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., said Jordan's "presence in corporate board rooms and on international platforms, as well as his advice and counsel to multiple Presidential administrations, truly made a positive difference. He did so much for so many for so long.”

Jordan's death comes months after the loss of two other civil rights icons: U.S. Rep. John Lewis, C.T. Vivian and the Rev. Joseph Lowery.

More: Deborah Berry: I'm blessed to hear living Black history from our civil rights veterans

After growing up in the Jim Crow South and living much of his life in a segregated America, Jordan took a strategic view of race issues.

“My view on all this business about race is never to get angry, no, but to get even,” Jordan said in a New York Times interview in July 2000. “You don’t take it out in anger; you take it out in achievement.”

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 was 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 as 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 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 the 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 raise $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 an interview in Ebony Magazine in December 1980. “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: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Vernon Jordan, civil rights activist and Bill Clinton adviser, dies