I loved his deep booming voice. His sharp wit.
Vernon Jordan, Civil Rights Leader and D.C. Power Broker, Dies at 85
Mr. Jordan, who was selected to head the National Urban League while still in his 30s, counseled presidents and business leaders.
By Neil A. Lewis
March 2, 2021Updated 2:34 p.m. ET
Vernon E. Jordan Jr., the civil rights leader and Washington power broker whose private counsel was sought by the powerful at the top levels of government and the corporate world, died on Monday at his home in Washington. He was 85.
His death was confirmed in a statement by Vickee Jordan, his daughter.
Mr. Jordan, who was raised in segregation-era Atlanta, got his first inkling of the world of power and influence that had largely been denied Black Americans while waiting tables at dinners held at one of the city’s private clubs, which his mother catered, and as a driver for a wealthy white banker, who was startled to discover that the tall Black youth at the wheel could read.
Mr. Jordan went on to a dazzlingly successful career as a civil-rights leader and then a high-powered Washington lawyer in the mold of past capital insiders like Clark M. Clifford, Robert S. Strauss and Lloyd M. Cutler.
Along the way he cultivated a who’s who of younger Black leaders, inviting them to monthly one-on-one lunches, dispensing advice on everything from what to read to what to wear and using his unmatched influence to promote their careers in business, politics and the nonprofit world.
“When Vernon Jordan came into your life, he fully embraced you,” said Darren Walker, a close friend and the 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 30s when he was selected to head the National Urban League, an embodiment of the Black establishment, and was in that post when he survived an assassination attempt in 1980.
While leading the organization he began to provide advice to leading political figures and socialize with them, often inviting them to join him on Martha’s Vineyard, where he had a summer home and was a longtime member of the seasonal community of the wealthy and powerful who frequent the island.
As his network of connections grew, he moved away from the league to become a highly paid lawyer-lobbyist at Akin Gump, one of Washington’s most politically engaged law firms.
His closest relationship was with Bill Clinton, whom he had befriended years before Mr. Clinton was elected president in 1992. Mr. Jordan was named co-chairman of the Clinton transition effort and became at once a confidant and golfing buddy of the president’s.
And he used his decades of amassed influence to groom the next generation of Black executives, becoming instrumental in the diversification of America’s corporate leadership over the last 20 years.
“I would see these guys get their friends’ children jobs,” he told The Financial Times in 2018, “so I learned the process and I got my people jobs.”
Vernon Eulion Jordan Jr. was born in Atlanta on Aug. 15, 1935. He wrote that he had admired Vernon Sr., a postal worker, but that he had no doubt who the catalyst was for his life of achievement: his entrepreneurial mother, Mary Belle Jordan. She was the “architect, general contractor and bricklayer” for the whole project, he wrote.
Running her own catering business, Ms. Jordan oversaw the monthly dinners of the exclusive Lawyers Club in Atlanta from 1948 to 1960, and young Vernon often waited tables. He recalled paying great attention to the speakers and being impressed with the confident bearing of the lawyers in attendance — a manner he would later emulate as a Washington insider, always a commanding, supremely self-assured 6-foot-4 presence, whether in boardrooms or at Georgetown dinner parties.
After graduating from an all-Black Atlanta high school, he enrolled at DePauw University, an almost entirely white school in Indiana, at his mother’s urging, passing up an opportunity to go to Howard University in Washington. He would later go to Howard’s law school at a time, in the late 1950s, when the school served as an informal headquarters for a cadre of lawyers who were the architects of the legal strategy of the civil rights movement. He wrote that attending a white college and then a Black law school had provided perfect bookends to his education.