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Civil Rights Giant, Vernon Jordan, Joins The Ancestors

Civil Rights Giant, Vernon Jordan, Joins The Ancestors

An American giant has joined the ancestors.

On March 2, 2021, Vernon Eulion Jordan Jr, civil rights leader, and a staple in American politicians, passed away Monday at his home in Washington, according to his daughter Vickee Jordan. The 85-year-old came into this world on August 15, 1935, one of three children born to Vernon, a postal worker, and Mary Belle Jordan, a caterer, in segregated Atlanta.

"Vernon E. Jordan Jr. passed away peacefully last evening surrounded by loved ones. We appreciate all of the outpouring of love and affection," Jordan's daughter said in a statement.

His mother ran her own business which oversaw monthly dinners at the exclusive Lawyers Club in Atlanta from 1948 to 1960. As a young man, Jordan waited tables there. He paid attention to the speakers and was impressed by the lawyers who attended. He became a driver for a wealthy white banker, Robert Maddox, who was surprised to find out Jordan was literate. He used the phrase "Vernon can read" as the title of his 2001 memoir.

The political power broker graduated from DePauw University as the only Black student in his class and one of five at the college. He distinguished himself through academics, public speaking, and athletics, receiving a bachelor's degree in political science in 1957. He attended Howard University School Of Law in Washington, where he met and married his first wife, Shirley Yarbrough.

Following his law school graduation in 1960, he became a law clerk to Donald Hollowell, who had a civil rights practice in Atlanta. The two worked closely together on the case that desegregated the University of Georgia on behalf of students Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter. In an iconic photo, the 6-foot-4 lawyer can be seen escorting Hunter onto campus the first day of school while surrounded by a hostile crowd. He became the Georgia field director of the NAACP, traveling throughout the Southeast overseeing cases. During this time, he met and befriended Medgar Evers, the Mississippi office director who was eventually assassinated.

"I believe that working with the Urban League, the NAACP, PUSH, and SCLC is the highest form of service that you can perform for black people," Jordan said in a December 1980 interview in Ebony Magazine. "And if you serve black people, you serve the country as well. So if I do a good job here, the black people are not the only beneficiary; so is the country. The country has a vested interest in black people doing well."

Due to his hard work, he was named director of the Voter Education Project of the Southern Regional Council. Then in 1970, he became executive director of the United Negro College Fund. The next year, following the untimely death of Whitney Young, head of the Urban League, he was brought on to fill the position. He began working with a slew of prominent individuals, white and Black, and began associating himself with corporate America. During his time at the Urban League, they began issuing an annual report titled "The State of Black America." In 1980, while on a trip to Fort Wayne, Ind., he was nearly assassinated by an avowed racist. He was shot in the back, underwent six surgeries, and remained in the hospital for 89 days.

"I'm not afraid, and I won't quit," Jordan told Ebony after the shooting.

He retired from the Urban League to practice law in 1982. He was recruited by Robert Strauss, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to join the law firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld. Then, in 2000, Jordan joined the New York investment firm of Lazard Freres & Co. as a senior managing partner. He also sat on the boards of the Celanese Corporation, Bankers Trust, American Express, and Xerox, among others, creating a network that would serve him well as his influence and power grew.

Throughout his time working as an activist and lawyer, he mentored Black people, creating opportunities for them to get ahead and reclaiming the space they'd often been denied. Today, he is responsible for making space for many Black leaders within companies.

"Monthly lunch with Vernon was filled with career advice, storytelling, and a reminder of the responsibility we had as Black leaders," said Darren Walker, the Ford Foundation president. "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."

Leaders have expressed their shock and sadness at his passing.

"Today, the world lost an influential figure in the fight for civil rights and American politics, Vernon Jordan. An icon to the world and a lifelong friend to the NAACP, his contribution to moving our society toward justice is unparalleled," NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in a statement Tuesday. "In 2001, Jordan received the NAACP's Spingarn Medal for a lifetime of social justice activism. His exemplary life will shine as a guiding light for all that seek truth and justice for all people."

He is survived by his children, grandchildren, and, his second wife Ann Dibble Cook, whom he married in 1986.

Thank you for your service to justice, sir. Rest in power! 

Photo Credit: Associated Press and DePauw University