WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Vernon Jordan, who grew up in the segregated South to become an influential leader in the American civil rights movement, Washington politics and Wall Street, has died at age 85, his daughter said on Tuesday.
Jordan, who in 1980 was badly wounded by a white supremacist sniper in Indiana, died on Monday night peacefully and “surrounded by loved ones,” daughter Vickee Jordan said in a statement.
His role as a Washington insider took him all the way to the White House, where he was a close friend, golfing buddy and adviser to President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Jordan never held a formal government job, but no one knew better than Jordan how favors, access and requests worked in Washington.
In a statement, Clinton and his wife, Hillary Clinton, called him a “wonderful friend,” adding, “Vernon Jordan brought his big brain and strong heart to everything and everybody he touched.” Clinton mentioned Jordan’s instrumental role in desegregating the University of Georgia in 1961, his career in law and business, and his work with civil rights groups.
President Joe Biden said Jordan was a high-powered lawyer and financier who fought against injustice throughout his life and was never afraid to speak his mind.
“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, citing Jordan’s commitment to ending systemic racism. “To honor him, and others of this Civil Rights generation, we must continue to do the same.”
Jordan grew up in a housing project in Atlanta before his family bought a home and he was the only Black person in his class at DePauw University in rural Greencastle, Indiana.
After graduating, Jordan earned a law degree from Howard University and returned to Atlanta to work for a civil rights attorney. Among his cases was one that integrated the University of Georgia at a time of racial segregation in Southern states. Jordan helped escort his two young Black clients past jeering protesters on their first day of class.
Jordan later went to work for the NAACP and the United Negro College Fund before becoming head of the National Urban League in 1971. He worked well into his 80s, going back and forth between the jobs at the Akin Gump international law and lobbying firm in Washington and the Lazard financial management firm in New York.
“To the world, Vernon was a towering civil rights figure, a confidant to presidents, and a counselor to CEOs and governments around the globe. And he was all of those things. But to those of us at Akin Gump, Vernon was also a wise and trusted mentor and friend,” the firm said in a statement.
“His achievements were doubly remarkable considering the obstacles he overcame as a Black man rising from the virulent racism of America’s segregated Deep South. Vernon burned brighter than the rest of us, with a vitality amplified by his imposing frame and resonant voice,” Lazard Chairman and CEO Kenneth Jacobs wrote in a memo to employees.
‘ROSA PARKS OF WALL STREET’
After gains in voting rights and equal access laws, Jordan’s approach was to push for greater economic opportunities for Black people, even in corporate boardrooms.
At an Urban League event Jordan said he told the organization’s corporate benefactors, “Don’t just give us money and don’t just show up for the Equal Opportunity Day dinner. That is not enough when you look at Black consumer power in this country. It’s not enough for you to come and shake our hands and be our friends. We want in.”
Under his leadership, the Urban League began issuing its annual State of Black America reports to assess the social and economic status of Black Americans.
U.S. companies such as American Express, Xerox, Dow Jones, Bankers Trust, RJR Nabisco, Revlon and Sara Lee put him on their boards, where he was often the only Black member.
Jordan was close to President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s, and Carter reportedly offered him cabinet jobs. Jordan would eventually become critical of Carter, saying he had not delivered on his economic promises to Blacks.
In 1980, Jordan was badly wounded as he exited the car of a white woman who was an Urban League member in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Joseph Paul Franklin, a former Ku Klux Klansman and member of the American Nazi Party who was convicted of a series of race-related murders, admitted to the ambush but was acquitted. He told authorities he hated interracial couples.
After 10 years at the Urban League, Jordan wanted something different and joined Akin Gump. Tall and imposing, he earned a reputation for being a charming and persuasive “Washington wise man.” After Clinton was elected president in 1992, he chose Jordan, whom he had known since the early 1970s, to head his transition team.
In 2008 when Barack Obama was running to be the first Black president, Jordan stuck by his longtime friends and supported Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party’s nomination. According to the Financial Times, Jordan told Obama, “I am too old to trade friendship for race.”
Jordan’s first wife, Shirley Jordan, died of multiple sclerosis in 1985. They had one child. In 1986 he married Ann Dibble.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Will Dunham and Andrea Shalal; Writing by Bill Trott; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Steve Orlofsky)