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

Vernon Jordan rose from Atlanta’s University Homes housing project to become one of the country’s leading civil rights activists and a Washington power broker who had the ear of presidents.

He got his first inkling of the world of power and influence that was largely denied to Black Americans in the 1950s, when he was a waiter at lawyers club dinners catered by his mother, and again later as a driver for a former Atlanta mayor and wealthy banker — who was startled to discover that the tall Black youth at the wheel could read.

Despite the odds against him, Jordan went on to a dazzlingly successful career as a civil-rights leader, surviving an assassination attempt, and then becoming a high-powered Washington lawyer, lobbyist and corporate board member. He then used his power to cultivate a who’s who of younger Black leaders.

Jordan, 85, died Monday night.

“He spent a lifetime fighting injustice,” said Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. “He made Atlanta proud to call him our own.”

Vernon Eulion Jordan Jr. was born in Atlanta on Aug. 15, 1935. He wrote that he admired his father, a postal worker, but the catalyst for his life of achievement had been his entrepreneurial mother, Mary Belle Jordan. She was the “architect, general contractor and bricklayer” for the whole project, he wrote.

The family started life in the nation’s first federal housing project for Blacks in segregated Atlanta. He told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2017 there were two poles to his social life, Saint Paul A.M.E. Church and the Butler Street YMCA.

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Retired Fulton County Superior Court Judge Marvin Arrington Sr., a few years younger than Jordan, remembers his commanding presence even at an early age.

“All of us used to hang out and play basketball at the Butler Street YMCA,” Arrington said. “I was always very impressed with him.”

Whenever Jordan made it back to Atlanta, he returned to St. Paul, whose family center is named after his mother.

“He would talk about singing in the children’s choir. His faith was a major part of Vernon’s life from a child until his death,” said the Rev Isaiah Waddy.

He was also worked in the family business as a young man. Mary Jordan’s catering business served weddings and events for many of Atlanta’s white elites, including the monthly dinners of the exclusive Lawyers Club from 1948 to 1960. The Jordan brothers often waited tables, but Jordan recalled paying attention to the speakers and being impressed with the confident bearing of the lawyers — a manner he would later embody as a Washington insider — always a commanding, supremely self-assured 6-foot-4 presence.

After graduating from David T. Howard High School, he enrolled at DePauw University, passing up an opportunity to go to the historically black Howard University in Washington. After graduating, he found his purpose attending Howard’s law school in the late 1950s, when it served as an informal headquarters for a cadre of lawyers who were the architects of the legal strategy of the civil rights movement. He wrote that attending a white college and then a Black law school provided perfect bookends to his education.

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In the summers of his college years, he worked as a driver for Robert F. Maddox, a former Atlanta mayor and bank president.

Maddox was stunned when he found Jordan taking his breaks reading in the home’s sumptuous library. Maddox would relate to friends and relatives, “Vernon can read,’' — a phrase Jordan used as the title of his 2001 memoir.

After graduating from law school in 1960, Jordan moved home and joined Donald Hollowell, Atlanta’s leading civil rights attorney. A year later in 1961, Hollowell sued the all-white University of Georgia to admit Charlayne Hunter, a Black student, and won. A young Jordan escorted Hunter to register through jeering crowds.

As Charlayne Hunter, 18, and Hamilton Holmes, 19, in the white coats, arrived to register as the first Black students at the University of Georgia in 1961, Vernon Jordan, the tall man behind Hunter, helped escort them, through a crowd. Jordan was a young lawyer working with the team that broke the racial barriers that kept Black students out of the formerly all white university.
As Charlayne Hunter, 18, and Hamilton Holmes, 19, in the white coats, arrived to register as the first Black students at the University of Georgia in 1961, Vernon Jordan, the tall man behind Hunter, helped escort them, through a crowd. Jordan was a young lawyer working with the team that broke the racial barriers that kept Black students out of the formerly all white university.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

He soon became Georgia’s field secretary for the NAACP, leading boycotts across the state. Then he became director of the Voter Education Project of the Southern Regional Council, and in 1970 he was named executive director of the United Negro College Fund.

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

In 1971, Jordan, still in his 30s, was selected to head the National Urban League. It was the embodiment of the Black establishment and brought Jordan to New York, exposing him to a wider world.

On a trip to Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1980, Joseph Paul Franklin, an avowed racists, shot Jordan in the back as a white board member of the league dropped him off at his hotel. Jordan nearly died on the operating table, underwent six surgeries and remained hospitalized for 89 days.

Franklin was acquitted of the charges, though he would later boast of having been the gunman. Franklin would be convicted and executed in 2013 in Missouri for killing two Black joggers.

 President Ford talks with Vernon Jordan, center, executive director of the National Urban League, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, national president of operation "PUSH", in 1974  during a meeting with civil rights leaders at the White House. (AP Wirephoto)
President Ford talks with Vernon Jordan, center, executive director of the National Urban League, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, national president of operation "PUSH", in 1974 during a meeting with civil rights leaders at the White House. (AP Wirephoto)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The Urban League gave Jordan business and social access to leading political figures and corporations. His closest relationship was with then-governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton.

Working with corporate leaders, Jordan recalled, fueled an ambition in him to serve on corporate boards himself and break their color barriers. He pivoted away from the Urban League in 1981 and toward the role of lawyer and counselor for top banks, businesses and law firms, forging a network of influential connections.

After Clinton was elected as president in 1992, Jordan was named co-chairman of the president’s transition effort and became his confidant and golfing buddy.

But Clinton’s reliance on him also led to Jordan’s becoming entangled in the scandal arising from the president’s sexual affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. At Clinton’s behest, he tried to find Lewinsky a job in Manhattan and was investigated by the special prosecutor in the matter as having possibly tried to assist the president in covering up the affair.

After his service to Clinton, he remained a key power broker and mentor to many younger Black leaders in Washington. But his roots in Georgia remained strong.

“Wherever he was and whatever he was doing, Vernon was going to be in the midst and the leader of what was going on,” said Roy Barnes, a former Georgia governor.

He recalled a time when Jordan came to the state Capitol for a meeting. As Jordan was walking into his office, he stopped for a moment at the door.

“He stood right there in the door and told me that the last time he came here he was representing a fellow who was gonna be executed. The governor’s executive secretary told him that he could not come through the threshold,” said Barnes, adding that the obvious reason was because Jordan was Black.

Later that night, after the meeting, the man who could not walk into the governor’s office a generation earlier, spent the night in the Governor’s Mansion.

Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation and one of the younger Black men Jordan mentored, said: “Monthly lunch with Vernon was filled with career advice, storytelling and a reminder of the responsibility we had as Black leaders. He reminded my generation that we stood on the shoulders of people who shed blood and gave their lives so we could have an opportunity.”

Jordan is survived by his daughter Vickee Jordan, his wife, Ann Dibble Cook; two grandsons; and three stepchildren.

Staff writer Shelia Poole and The New York Times contributed to this article.

GEORGIA ANGLE

Vernon Jordon grew up in Atlanta’s University Homes public housing project. He attended local segregated schools, graduating from David T. Howard High School, and worked for his mother’s catering business. When visiting Atlanta and family, he returned to Saint Paul A.M.E. Church, where his family was active and where he had sung in the children’s choir.

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