Vernon Jordan, Civil Rights Leader, Dies at 85
Join us in remembering the achievements of civil rights leader Vernon Jordan, who passed away on March 1, 2021, at the age of 85.
Vernon Eulion Jordan Jr. was born on August 15, 1935, in Atlanta, Georgia, which was part of the segregated South. He lived in public housing with his family until the age of 13. He graduated from DePauw University in Indiana in 1957, with a degree in political science, as the only Black student in his class. He studied law at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he earned his J.D. in 1960.
Throughout his professional life, Jordan fought for civil rights and desegregation. During a 1961 campaign to desegregate colleges and universities, he famously helped escort a Black student, Charlayne Hunter, through a group of white protestors at the University of Georgia.
Jordan served as a field director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1961 to 1963, then served as the director of the Southern Regional Council for the Voter Education Project from 1964 to 1968. He joined President Lyndon Johnson in a civil rights conference in 1966.
In 1970, Jordan became the director of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). He raised $10 million in a mere 10 months to benefit Black students and institutions, and he worked with the Young and Rubicam Advertising Agency and the Ad Council to develop the now-iconic UNCF slogan “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
Jordan was president of the National Urban League from 1972 to 1981. During his tenure, he used his influence as a board member of American Express, Dow Jones, and other corporate entities to promote equal opportunity hiring for minorities.
In 1980, a white supremacist attempted to assassinate Jordan. Although he was seriously injured in the attack, Jordan survived to resume his activism and legal practice.
Jordan was a respected advisor to U.S. presidents on both sides of the aisle, including Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, and Lyndon Johnson. Of all the presidents he advised, Jordan was closest with Clinton and his family. Jordan advised Clinton during his 1992 presidential campaign and served as chairman of the 1992-93 presidential transition team. He earned a reputation as a Washington power broker. Unfortunately, he became embroiled in the Kenneth Starr investigation into the relationship between Clinton and then-White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and he was called to testify before the grand jury. He later endorsed Hillary Clinton’s candidacy during both of her presidential bids.
Jordan received more than 50 honorary degrees, including two which were awarded by his alma maters. He received the prestigious Spingarn Medal from the NAACP in recognition of his years of activism. In 2001, he published an autobiography, Vernon Can Read!, which he coauthored with Annette Gordon-Reed.
Jordan passed away on March 1, 2021, in Washington, D.C., leaving behind a legacy of social and political change.
Associated Press. “Vernon Jordan, Activist, Former Clinton Adviser, Dies at 85.” VOA, Voice of America, 2 March 2021, https://www.voanews.com/usa/vernon-jordan-activist-former-clinton-adviser-dies-85.
Chappell, Bill. “Vernon Jordan, Civil Rights Activist And Power Broker, Dies At 85.” NPR, NPR, 2 March 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/03/02/972810306/vernon-jordan-civil-rights-activist-and-power-broker-dies-at-85.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Vernon Jordan.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 2 March 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Vernon-E-Jordan-Jr.
Gangel, Jamie, et al. “Vernon Jordan, civil rights leader and close ally of Bill Clinton, dies.” CNN Politics, Warner Media Company, 2 March 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/03/02/politics/vernon-jordan-dies/index.html.
UNCF. “UNCF Mourns the Passing of Vernon Jordan, Former Executive Director.” UNCF, United Negro College Fund, Inc., 2 March 2021, https://uncf.org/news/uncf-mourns-the-passing-of-vernon-jordan-former-executive-director.
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