Vernon Jordan, Civil Rights Chief and D.C. Energy Dealer, Dies at 85

Vernon E. Jordan Jr., the Washington civil rights leader and power broker whose private advice was sought at the highest levels of government and the corporate world, died Monday at his Washington home. He was 85 years old.

His death was confirmed in a statement from his daughter Vickee Jordan. She did not give the cause.

Mr. Jordan, who grew up in Atlanta from the days of segregation, got his first taste of the world of power and influence that black Americans like him had largely been denied while waiting for tables at one of the city’s private clubs where his mother prepared dinner. and as the driver of a wealthy white banker who was shocked to discover that the big black boy at the wheel could read.

He made an amazingly successful career as a civil rights activist and then as a senior Washington attorney in the form of former capital insiders such as Clark M. Clifford, Robert S. Strauss, and Lloyd M. Cutler.

Along the way, he cultivated a who’s who of younger black leaders, invited them for monthly one-on-one meetings, gave advice on everything from reading to dressing, and used his unmatched influence to advance their careers in business, politics, and the nonprofit world .

“When Vernon Jordan came into your life, he gave you a big hug,” said Darren Walker, a close friend and president of the Ford Foundation. “This was a man who saw it as his job to advance the next generation of African Americans in this country.”

Mr. Jordan began his civil rights career after graduating from Howard University School of Law in 1960. He was in his thirties when he was elected and held the post of head of the National Urban League, an embodiment of the black establishment when he survived an assassination attempt in 1980.

While running the organization, he began advising and liaising with leading political figures. Often times he invited her to join him on Martha’s Vineyard, where he had a summer home and a longtime member of the seasonal community of the rich and powerful was often the island.

As his network of connections grew, he left the league and became a highly paid attorney lobbyist at Akin Gump, one of Washington’s most politically active law firms.

His closest relationship was with Bill Clinton, whom he had befriended years before Clinton’s election in 1992. Jordan was named co-chair of the Clinton Transition Efforts and became a confidante and golf pal of the president.

He turned down Mr. Clinton’s offer to become attorney general, but remained in orbit with the president and was recruited to handle sensitive issues for the White House. In one case, General Colin L. Powell was informed of joining the government as Secretary of State. (General Powell chose to continue serving as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff after assuming office under Clinton’s predecessor, George HW Bush.)

But Mr. Clinton’s trust in him also embroiled Mr. Jordan in the scandal that resulted from the President’s sexual affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, a White House intern, that led to Mr. Clinton’s impeachment. At the President’s behest, he tried to seek a job in Manhattan for Ms. Lewinsky and was investigated by the Special Prosecutor’s Office to possibly assist Mr. Clinton in covering up the matter. Mr Jordan testified five times before the grand jury and the House Impeachment Committee, but no action was taken against him.

Mr. Jordan survived the scandal and served on more than a dozen corporate and nonprofit bodies. And he used his decades of influence to nurture the next generation of black executives and has been instrumental in diversifying American corporate governance over the past 20 years.

“I would see these guys get their friends’ kids jobs,” he told the Financial Times in 2018, “so I learned the process and my people got jobs.”

Vernon Eulion Jordan Jr. was born in Atlanta on August 15, 1935. He wrote that he admired Vernon Sr., a postal worker, but had no doubt who was the catalyst for his successful life: his entrepreneurial mother, Mary Belle Jordan. She was the “architect, general contractor and bricklayer” for the entire project, he wrote.

Ms. Jordan ran her own catering business and oversaw the monthly dinners for the exclusive Lawyers Club in Atlanta from 1948 to 1960. Young Vernon often waited for tables. He recalled paying close attention to the speakers and being impressed by the confident demeanor of the attorneys present – a manner he later emulated as an insider in Washington, always an authoritative, extremely self-conscious 6-foot-4 presence whether in boardrooms or at Georgetown dinner parties.

After graduating from Black Atlanta high school, at his mother’s insistence, he enrolled at DePauw University, an almost entirely white school in Indiana, and missed the opportunity to attend historic Black Howard University in Washington. He later attended Howard Law School in the late 1950s when the school served as the informal headquarters for a group of lawyers who were the architects of the civil rights movement’s legal strategy. He wrote that attending white college and black law school gave his education perfect bookends.

At DePauw, he entered college speech competitions and listened to local black preachers, which was part of a lifelong fascination with the art of public speaking. He resisted what he called his own mild urges and the exhortations of others to become preachers themselves.

During his undergraduate summers, he worked as a driver for Robert F. Maddox, a former Atlanta mayor and president of the First National Bank of Atlanta and the American Bankers Association.

Mr Jordan wrote that he was an inexplicable creature to a wealthy southern white man like Robert Maddox. After discovering that young Mr. Jordan was taking his break in the magnificent library of the Maddox house, Mr. Maddox was stunned to find that his driver could read – a revelation he repeatedly associated with friends and relatives and told them, “Vernon can read. ”Mr Jordan used the term as the title of his memoirs, which he wrote with historian Annette Gordon-Reed and published in 2001.

After graduating from law school in 1960, he became a trainee lawyer with Donald Lee Hollowell, a prominent black attorney who had a busy one-man civil rights practice in Atlanta. Mr. Jordan worked closely on the University of Georgia overturned case and was close to Charlayne Hunter (later the journalist and author Charlayne Hunter-Gault), one of two young black plaintiffs admitted to court after winning. On her first day of class, Mr. Jordan was photographed escorting her to campus, surrounded by a hostile crowd.

After the Georgia case, he served as the field director of the NAACP in Georgia. The job required him to travel the southeast overseeing civil rights cases large and small. He said he tried to mimic his friend Medgar Evers, the admired director of the Mississippi office, who was later murdered.

In a short space of time, Mr. Jordan became director of the Southern Regional Council’s Voter Education Project and, in 1970, executive director of the United Negro College Fund. A year later, his friend Whitney Young, the head of the National Urban League’s A Trip to Lagos, Nigeria, drowned and Mr. Jordan was recruited to fill the unexpected position.

The organization brought Mr. Jordan to New York and exposed him to another world. The Urban League attracted a wide range of prominent citizens, both white and black, and was closely associated with American corporations. During his tenure, the group published a widely read annual report entitled “The State of Black America”.

As the organization’s national leader, Mr. Jordan traveled to Fort Wayne, Indiana in May 1980 to meet with local Urban League leadership. He was once in the company of a white board member, Martha Coleman, when a group of white teenagers passed them in a car and mocked them. Later, when Ms. Coleman fired him at his hotel, he was shot in the back by a white man with a hunting rifle. Mr Jordan almost died on the operating table, had six operations and stayed in the hospital for 89 days.

Joseph Paul Franklin, an avowed racist, was charged with the crime but acquitted in court, although he would continue to boast that he was the shooter. He was later convicted of other crimes, including the fatal shooting of two black joggers who ran with white women, and executed in Missouri in 2013.

The collaboration with leading company representatives on the board of directors of the National Urban League has sparked the ambition in Mr Jordan to work on company boards himself and to break through their color barriers, he said. He began to move away from active leadership of the group to take on the role of lawyer and advisor to banks and corporations. In the years that followed, he joined the boards of directors of Celanese Corporation, Bankers Trust, American Express, and Xerox, and built a network of connections that would serve him well in the years to come as his influence grew.

“I often describe Vernon as the first crossover artist,” said Kenneth I. Chenault, a close friend and former executive director of American Express, in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “He was able to go from a leader in the civil rights movement to a leader in business, but never lost his commitment to racial equality.”

Mr. Jordan’s capital office was with the Texas and Washington based law firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld; He had been recruited in 1982 by Robert Strauss, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and independent capital broker. In 1999, Mr. Jordan joined Wall Street investment firm Lazard while staying connected with Akin, Gump.

Last year, Mr. Jordan was the subject of an hour long PBS documentary entitled “Vernon Jordan: Make It Plain”.

His first wife, Shirley (Yarbrough) Jordan, whom he met as a student at Howard University, died of multiple sclerosis in December 1985 at the age of 48. In November 1986 he married Ann Dibble Cook.

In addition to his daughter Vickee, his wife, two grandchildren and three stepchildren survive him.

Mr. Jordan also leaves a long list of younger black leaders whose careers he promoted who describe him as something of a father figure, including Mr. Walker, Mr. Chenault, and Ursula Burns, the former CEO of Xerox and the first Black woman to win a Fortune 500 – to run a company.

Mr Jordan would go beyond offering advice or encouraging talks, Ms. Burns said Tuesday. He took her to parties in Georgetown and introduced her to people like the Clintons and President Barack Obama. He later used his influence to get her a seat on corporate boards.

“Vernon’s goal is to get me into these circles,” she said. “I thought I was so special and then I found out there were so many people he did this for.”

Clay Risen and Maria Cramer contributed to the coverage.

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