Private celebration of life brings remembrances about civil rights activist, national power broker

At a private memorial service Saturday, Atlanta native Vernon Jordan was remembered for the lives he affected over the decades through his civil rights work and his influence with political and corporate leaders in America.

Andrew Young, former Atlanta mayor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, eulogized Jordan at the gathering, saying that his longtime friend was renowned for his dogged pursuit of civil rights.

“It was his town. … He was one of the prettiest men I ever knew,” Young added, eliciting laughter from more than 100 attendees at the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church.

“There was always, in the way he carried himself, a sense of superiority. And that comes out of being born Black in a — supposed to be — white nation. … This was a man’s man. God was at his best when he made Vernon Jordan.”

Jordan rose out of Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward to become a civil rights leader and Washington power broker, advising presidents and corporations. He died March 1 at age 85. His daughter, Vickee Jordan Adams, said he drew “his last breath” with her and her mother at his bedside in Washington, D.C., after he finished his favorite meal — fried chicken.

ExplorePHOTOS: Atlanta event honors legacy of Vernon Jordan

“This is emotional, but it’s also an opportunity to celebrate,” Vickee said, noting that St. Paul A.M.E. Church “has always been home for us.”

Saturday’s memorial was planned as a celebration of life and also the dedication of the Jordan Family Life Center in his honor at the church.

At Jordan’s public memorial service in Washington in March, President Bill Clinton said Jordan “was worthy of our love and admiration.” Jordan co-chaired Clinton’s transition effort, and Young said Jordan was Clinton’s “spiritual father.”

Vernon Eulion Jordan Jr. was born in Atlanta on Aug. 15, 1935. Black Americans could hardly obtain worldly power and influence in the 1950s, but Young said Jordan’s parents, Mary Belle and Vernon Sr., pushed him to greatness. Jordan worked for his mother’s catering business serving Atlanta’s white elites.

He later became a driver for former Atlanta mayor and bank president Robert F. Maddox — who was startled to learn that his young, 6-foot-4-tall driver was literate.

ExploreAtlanta native Vernon Jordan remembered for insight, dedication to freedom

In 1953, Jordan graduated with honors from David T. Howard High School. He later attended DePauw University in Indiana, where he was the only Black student in his class, according to The HistoryMakers oral history collection. He graduated from the Howard University School of Law in 1960.

After leading boycotts as the Georgia NAACP’s field secretary, Jordan became executive director of the United Negro College Fund. He subsequently presided over the National Urban League’s growth, becoming the face of Black America’s modern struggle for employment and justice for more than a decade.

At Saturday’s memorial, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms called Jordan “a great, giant man” who “always made our village proud to call him our own.” Voting rights activist and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams said she looked to his example of leading “the single largest voter registration efforts in Georgia’s history.”

Abrams also said he kindly told her she “was out of (her) mind” to think she could become governor. However, she said, he did it to push to her to serve Georgia’s people and the Lord and “not my own ambition.”

A white supremacist in Indiana tried to assassinate Jordan in 1980. Young said Jordan didn’t hear the shot, but he remembered “something hit him in the back, and picked him up off the ground.”

Vernon Jordan: Civil rights leader, close advisor to Bill Clinton, dies at age 85
Vernon Jordan: Civil rights leader, close advisor to Bill Clinton, dies at age 85

Credit: Associated Press

Credit: Associated Press

Jordan subsequently transitioned to business and politics, becoming a legal counsel with the law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld in D.C.

Young urged the attendees to continue Jordan’s work “to redeem the soul of America.”

“May the afterglow of his well-lived life inspire others to greater works,” said the Rev. Gregory V. Eason Sr., pastor of Flipper Temple A.M.E. Church.

Jordan is survived by his wife, Ann; his daughter, and his three stepchildren. He is also survived by his nine grandchildren, eight nieces and nephews, in-laws, cousins, grandnieces and grandnephews.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution writers Ernie Suggs and Shelia Poole, the Associated Press and The New York Times contributed to this article.

ExploreVernon Jordan, 85, rose from Atlanta’s public housing to the White House