Vernon Eulion Jordan Jr., a titan of the Civil Rights moment, who rose from an Atlanta public housing project to become a brilliant legal mind, confident corporate executive and president of the National Urban League, was eulogized on the campus of Howard University as a friend to people from all walks of life.
Jordan, 85, who died March 2, was groomed by his mother to appreciate business and entrepreneurship because she went from poverty to become one of Atlanta’s top caterers at the height of segregation. And she pushed her son to blazing new trails in terms of activism and business.
Jordan went to DePauw University in Indiana, where he was the first and only African American in his class. Upon graduation in 1957, he meshed his rhetorical skills with a bachelor’s degree in political science to be accepted to the Howard University School of Law in Washington DC.
“Vernon Jordan’s life embodied Howard’s motto of truth and service from his early beginnings as a lawyer to his work in the civil rights movement and later as an advisor to Presidents Reagan, Bush, Carter and most prominently as a friend and advisor to President Bill Clinton,” said Dr. President Wayne A. I. Frederick on Monday March 8, after Howard’s Board of Trustees voted to name the school’s law library after Jordan.
“Mr. Jordan is the kind of person who never met a stranger and who enjoyed mentoring students to help them succeed. He often told a story about spending his summers in college working as a chauffeur for Mr. Robert Maddox, a former Mayor and retired banker in Atlanta, GA, who owned a vast home library,” Frederick said in a statement. “One night at the dinner table, Maddox proclaimed to his family, ‘Vernon can read!’ Mr. Jordan never forgot that experience and it became a pivotal moment in his vast narrative of triumph over controversy. Therefore, it is most fitting that we name one of Howard’s libraries in his honor.”
On Tuesday former President Bill Clinton and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, President Frederick and several corporate trailblazers joined Jordan’s family to eulogize Jordan at Howard University’s Crampton auditorium for a private service that came after the re-show of the PBS documentary on Jordan.
Dr. Bernard Richardson, Dean of the Howard University Rankin Chapel, began the funeral for Jordan by saying "A mighty oak has fallen but what he left us will live forever."
DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, said, "I called him Mr. Jordan. We have been challenged to produce a since of hope (because) He was a man who was expected to provide a since of hope.”
President Joe Biden remembered Jordan as a foot soldier for civil rights. “Vernon Jordan knew the soul of America, in all of its goodness and all of its unfulfilled promise. And he knew the work was far from over,” Biden said in a statement.
During the funeral Marc Morial, President and CEO of the National Urban League, said Jordan was much more than the 5th President of the National Urban League. “He was bold. He was a blunt...He was authentically Black...How should remember Vernon Jordan, whose legacy was a from K street to Wall Street,” Morial asked.
"He was a man for others," Morial said, repeating that refrain several times. "He was a man for others in 1962 [when he] walked two students into the University of Georgia. He was a man for others at the National Urban League when a President refused to mention Black America in his State of the Union, he said, ‘I will create my own damn report,’ and as a result, the Urban League began delivering its annual State of Black America report."
President Barack Obama reflecting on his deep friendship with Jordan, saying in a statement, "Michelle and I benefited from Vernon Jordan's wise counsel and warm friendship—and deeply admired his tireless fight for civil rights. We hope the memory of his extraordinary presence and the legacy of his work bring comfort to Ann, Vickee, and his family."
In 1961, Jordan became Georgia field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. During his two years in the role, Jordan built new chapters, coordinated demonstrations and boycotted businesses that would not employ Blacks.
Jordan moved to Arkansas in 1964 and went into private practice. He also became director of the Voter Education Project of the Southern Regional Council. During his tenure, millions of new Blacks joined the voter rolls and hundreds of Blacks were elected in the South.
Jordan became a clerk for civil rights attorney Donald Hollowell, who successfully represented Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter — who attempted to integrate the University of Georgia.
In a famous photograph, Jordan, who was tall, is photographed holding at bay a White mob that tried to block Hunter from starting school. In 1971, after the death of Whitney Young Jr., Jordan was named the fifth president of the National Urban League. But in May 1980 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Jordan was shot with a rifle outside his hotel after returning from dinner.
Joseph Paul Franklin, an avowed White supremacist who targeted Blacks and Jews in a cross-country killing spree from 1977 to 1980. He later admitted to shooting Jordan, but he was never prosecuted in Jordan’s case. Ironically, Franklin was put to death in 2013 for another murder in Missouri.
“I’m not afraid and I won’t quit,” Jordan told Ebony magazine after the shooting.
But Jordan took a different path than other Civil Rights leaders. He went into law instead of elected office and he became a senior partner with the law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, where he served as senior counsel. He practiced general, corporate, legislative and international law in Washington, D.C and New York.
Before his tenure at Akin Gump, the positions held by Jordan included president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League, Inc.; executive director of the United Negro College Fund, Inc.; director of the Voter Education Project of the Southern Regional Council; attorney-consultant for the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity; assistant to the executive director of the Southern Regional Council; Georgia field director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and an attorney in private practices in Arkansas and Georgia.
During the service Ken Chennault, the former CEO of American Express and Ursula Burns, former CEO of Veon, both called Jordan one of their best friends.
Jordan’s friendship with Clinton took them both to the White House. He became the unofficial aide to Clinton, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment and Jordan refused to speak to the press, black or white.
During the service Clinton reflected on the personal side of a man who became as dear friend to his family before he was elected President. After he lost his first reelection bid for Governor, Clinton said Jordan called his wife Hillary and said, "Do you have grits down there?”
The next day Vernon came down to Arkansas and over grits, eggs and biscuits he counseled with the Clinton's and in 1982 he was re-elected as Governor.
"Vernon Jordan was a man worthy of our Love…He never felt a need to be driven with anger. He reminded me of Nelson Mandela,” said Clinton adding that he found it so hard to watch Jordan’s casket close. “Vernon Jordan was in the freedom business. He realized like Nelson Mandela that if you hate you can't be free.”
Clinton noted the fact that he spent nearly 100 days in a hospital recovering from an assassination attempt, he accepted a hug from George Wallace, and he was always working to bring the races together.
“Vernon tried to help us all be free,” Clinton preached. “God we were lucky that he was here. Lucky that he was our friend.”