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Civil rights activist Vernon Jordan dies at 85

Free Press wire reports | 3/4/2021, 6 p.m.
Vernon Jordan, who rose from humble beginnings in the segregated South to become a champion of civil rights before reinventing ...
Mr. Jordan

ATLANTA - Vernon Jordan, who rose from humble beginnings in the segregated South to become a champion of civil rights before reinventing himself as a Washington insider and corporate influencer, has died at the age of 85.

His niece, Ann Walker Marchant, confirmed that he died peacefully Monday night, March 1, 2021.

Former President Bill Clinton remembered Mr. Jordan as someone who “never gave up on his friends or his country.”

Mr. Jordan “brought his big brain and strong heart to everything and everybody he touched. And he made them better,” the former president and his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said in the statement.

After serving as field secretary for the Georgia NAACP and executive director of the United Negro College Fund, Mr. Jordan headed the National Urban League, becoming the face of Black America’s modern struggle for jobs and justice for more than a decade. He was nearly killed by a racist’s bullet in 1980 before transitioning to business and politics.

President Biden remembered Mr. 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,” the president said in a statement.

Former President Obama said that “like so many others, Michelle and I benefited from Vernon Jordan’s wise counsel and warm friendship — and deeply admired his tireless fight for civil rights.”

After growing up in the Jim Crow South and living much of his life in a segregated America, Mr. Jordan took a strategic view of race issues.

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

Mr. Jordan was the first lawyer to head the Urban League, which traditionally had been led by social workers. Under his leadership, the Urban League added 17 more chapters and its budget swelled to more than $100 million. The organization also broadened its focus to include voter registration drives and conflict resolution between Black people and law enforcement.

He resigned from the Urban League in 1982 to become a partner at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld.

Mr. Jordan was a key campaign adviser to President Clinton during his first presidential campaign and co-chaired the former president’s transition team. His friendship with President Clinton, which began in the 1970s, evolved into a partnership and political alliance. He met President Clinton as a young politician in Arkansas and the two connected over their Southern roots and poor upbringings.

Vernon Eulion Jordan Jr., was born in Atlanta on Aug. 15, 1935, the second of Vernon and Mary Belle Jordan’s three sons. Until he was 13, the family lived in public housing. But he was exposed to Atlanta’s elite through his mother, who worked as a caterer for many of the city’s affluent citizens.

Mr. Jordan went to DePauw University in Indiana, where he was the only Black student in his class and one of five at the college. Distinguishing himself through academics, oratory and athletics, he graduated in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and went on to attend Howard University School of Law in Washington. While there, he married his first wife, Shirley Yarbrough. She died in 1985. He married Ann Dibble Cook in 1986.

In 2000, Mr. Jordan joined the New York investment firm of Lazard Freres & Co. as a senior managing partner. The following year, he released an autobiography, “Vernon Can Read!: A Memoir.”

He has received more than 55 honorary degrees, including ones from both of his alma maters and sat on several boards of directors.