Civil rights activist Vernon Jordan dies at age 85

Civil rights activist Vernon Jordan (pictured in 2019) died Monday evening at the age of 85

Civil rights activist Vernon Jordan (pictured in 2019) died Monday evening at the age of 85

Tributes from US leaders including former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Stacey Abrams and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have poured in for civil rights activist Vernon Jordan after he passed away Monday evening aged 85. 

Jordan’s daughter, Vickee Jordan Adams, released a statement to journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin that said her father ‘passed away peacefully last evening surrounded by loved ones’. 

‘We appreciate all of the outpouring of love and affection,’ the statement said.

A cause of death has not been released.

Jordan grew up in the segregated South and went on to become an influential leader in the American civil rights movement, Washington politics and Wall Street. 

Upon learning the news of his passing, tributes poured in from individuals who worked closely with Jordan. 

‘Vernon Jordan was a wonderful friend to Hillary, Chelsea, and me, in good times and bad. We worked and played, laughed and cried, won and lost together. We loved him very much and always will,’ Clinton tweeted. 

Obama also shared an image of him with Jordan with the caption: ‘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. 

‘We hope the memory of his extraordinary presence and the legacy of his work bring comfort to Ann, Vickee, and his family.’

Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost her 2018 Georgia bid to become the first black female governor in US history, tweeted Tuesday morning: ‘Mourning the passage of my friend, the extraordinary Vernon Jordan. He battled the demons of voter suppression and racial degradation, winning more than he lost. He brought others w/him. And left a map so more could find their way. Love to his family. Travel on with God’s grace.’ 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shared: ‘Vernon Jordan was a respected and trusted adviser to presidents and a champion for voting and civil rights who never forgot nor stopped working against racism and injustice he first encountered growing up in the South during Jim Crow. His wisdom and light will be deeply missed.’ 

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Upon learning the news of his passing, tributes poured in from leaders across the country. Bill Clinton remembered Jordan as a 'wonderful friend'. The pair pictured golfing in 2000

Upon learning the news of his passing, tributes poured in from leaders across the country. Bill Clinton remembered Jordan as a ‘wonderful friend’. The pair pictured golfing in 2000

'Vernon Jordan was a wonderful friend to Hillary, Chelsea, and me, in good times and bad. We worked and played, laughed and cried, won and lost together. We loved him very much and always will,' former president Bill Clinton tweeted

‘Vernon Jordan was a wonderful friend to Hillary, Chelsea, and me, in good times and bad. We worked and played, laughed and cried, won and lost together. We loved him very much and always will,’ former president Bill Clinton tweeted

Rev Al Sharpton tweeted: ‘Saddened at hearing of the passing of Vernon Jordan, a true Civil Rights Giant. He made a difference. I’ll always treasure he guidance.’ 

National Urban League President and CEO Marc H. Morial released a statement, saying: ‘The nation has lost one of its greatest champions of racial and economic justice.’

Morial continued: ‘He was a transformational leader who brought the movement into a new era. He was a personal mentor and dear friend. His passing leaves a tremendous void that can never be filled.’

‘Vernon assumed leadership of the National Urban League at a crucial moment in history, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act. The broad, legal goals of the 20thCentury Civil Rights Movement had been achieved,’ Morial said. 

Morial then shared a quote from Jordan, saying: ‘His mission, as he saw it, was to empower Black Americans to realize the promise of these victories. In his words, “Black people today can check into any hotel in America, but most do not have the wherewithal to check out.”‘  

In a statement, NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said: ‘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. He was an NAACP giant and a mover and shaker in the legal and political world. His influence and his inspiration will be missed. His exemplary life will shine as a guiding light for all that seek truth and justice for all people.’ 

Jordan served as the Chairman of the Clinton Presidential Transition Team in 1992. The pair pictured in 2000

Jordan served as the Chairman of the Clinton Presidential Transition Team in 1992. The pair pictured in 2000

Georgia Sen Rev Raphael Warnock wrote: ‘An Atlanta-born, Howard-educated lawyer who fought in court to integrate UGA. A civil rights champion who led both the @UNCF & @NatUrbanLeague. A trusted presidential counselor. And now, an honored ancestor. Rest in power, Vernon Jordan. Job very well done.’  

After stints as field secretary for the Georgia NAACP and executive director of the United Negro College Fund, he became head of the National Urban League, becoming the face of Black America’s modern struggle for jobs and justice for more than a decade. 

Jordan’s 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 former president Bill Clinton in the 1990s. 

His death comes months after the deaths of two other civil rights icons: US Rep John Lewis and C.T. Vivian.

After growing up in the Jim Crow South and living much of his life in a segregated America, 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,’ Jordan said in a July 2000 New York Times interview. 

‘You don’t take it out in anger; you take it out in achievement.’ 

In 1971, Jordan became the first lawyer to head the Urban League, which had traditionally been led by social workers. 

Under Jordan’s leadership, the Urban League added 17 more chapters and its budget swelled to more than $100million. 

The organization also broadened its focus to include voter registration drives and conflict resolution between African Americans and law enforcement. 

After growing up in the Jim Crow South and living much of his life in a segregated America, Jordan (pictured in March 2011) took a strategic view of race issues

After growing up in the Jim Crow South and living much of his life in a segregated America, Jordan (pictured in March 2011) took a strategic view of race issues

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

Jordan worked well into his 80s, going back and forth between the jobs at the Gump Akin international law and lobbying firm in Washington and the Lazard financial management firm in New York. 

Representatives for Gump Akin did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Jordan was a key campaign adviser to Clinton during his first presidential campaign and co-chaired Clinton’s transition team in 1992. He was the first African American to be assigned such a role.

His friendship with Clinton, which began in the 1970s, evolved into a partnership and political alliance.

He met Clinton as a young politician in Arkansas, and the two connected over their southern roots and poor upbringings. 

Although Jordan held held no official role in the Clinton White House, he was highly influential and had such labels as the ‘first friend’. 

He approached Colin Powell about becoming Secretary of State and encouraged Clinton to pass the NAFTA agreement in 1993. 

Jordan’s presidential appointments included: the President’s Advisory Committee for the Points of Light Initiative Foundation; the Secretary of State’s Advisory Committee on South Africa; the Advisory Council on Social Security; the Presidential Clemency Board; the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission and the National Advisory Committee on Selective Service.  

He never held a formal government job, but no one knew better than Jordan how favors, access and requests worked in Washington.

In 2018 the Financial Times called him ‘one of the most connected men in America’.

Vernon Eulion Jordan Jr, was born in Atlanta on August 15, 1935, the second of Vernon and Mary Belle Jordan’s three sons.  

Jordan is pictured in January 1998 leaving his home in Washington, DC

Jordan is pictured in January 1998 leaving his home in Washington, DC 

Vernon Eulion Jordan Jr (left in 1982), was born in Atlanta on August 15, 1935, the second of Vernon and Mary Belle Jordan's three sons

Vernon Eulion Jordan Jr (left in 1982), was born in Atlanta on August 15, 1935, the second of Vernon and Mary Belle Jordan’s three sons

Actress Cicely Tyson (second from right) and Jordan (left) are seen having a conversation at a Capital Press Club dinner in Washington, DC, on May 6, 1974

Actress Cicely Tyson (second from right) and Jordan (left) are seen having a conversation at a Capital Press Club dinner in Washington, DC, on May 6, 1974

Jordan is seen speaking at the 2000 Presidents Cup  in Gainesville, Virginia

Jordan is seen speaking at the 2000 Presidents Cup  in Gainesville, Virginia

Upon learning the news of his passing, tributes poured in from leaders across the country. Jordan is pictured with former president Barack Obama at the May 2016 commencement address at Howard University

Upon learning the news of his passing, tributes poured in from leaders across the country. Jordan is pictured with former president Barack Obama at the May 2016 commencement address at Howard University 

Until Jordan 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. 

Jordan went to DePauw University in rural Greencastle, Indiana, where he was the only African American 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, a historically black university in Washington, DC. While there, he married his first wife, Shirley Yarbrough.  

The young couple moved to Atlanta after Jordan earned his law degree in 1960, and Jordan became a clerk for civil rights attorney Donald Hollowell, who successfully represented two black students – Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter – attempting to integrate the University of Georgia. 

In an iconic photograph, Jordan, an imposing 6 feet, 4 inches, is seen holding at bay the white mob that tried to block Hunter from starting her first day of classes.

In 1961, Jordan became Georgia field secretary for the NAACP. During his two years in the role, Jordan built new chapters, coordinated demonstrations and boycotted businesses that would not employ black people. 

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 black people joined the voter rolls and hundreds of African Americans were elected in the South.  

Jordan considered running for Georgia’s fifth congressional district seat in 1970, but was tapped that year to head the United Negro College Fund. 

Holding the position for just 12 months, Jordan used his fundraising skills to fill the organization’s coffers with $10million to help students at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

In 1971, after the death of Whitney Young Jr, Jordan was named the fifth president of the National Urban League, which is dedicated to empowering African Americans to enter the economic and social mainstream.

‘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.’

After graduating, Jordan (pictured in 1967) earned a law degree from Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, DC, and returned to Atlanta to work as a civil rights attorney

After graduating, Jordan (pictured in 1967) earned a law degree from Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, DC, and returned to Atlanta to work as a civil rights attorney

Vernon Jordan speaking in 1971

Jordan is seen being presented with an award in 1970

Jordan later went to work for the NAACP and the United Negro College Fund before becoming head of the National Urban League (left) in 1971

The high-profile position landed him in the crosshairs of a racist in May 1980 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Jordan was shot with a hunter’s rifle outside his hotel after returning from dinner following a speaking engagement.

Jordan had five surgeries and was visited by President Jimmy Carter during his three-month recovery in the hospital.

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

Joseph Paul Franklin, an avowed white supremacist who targeted black people and Jewish people in a cross-country killing spree from 1977 to 1980, later admitted to shooting Jordan. 

He was never prosecuted in Jordan’s case, but was put to death in 2013 for another slaying in Missouri.

Jordan left the organization in 1981, but said his departure was not related to the shooting.

In 2000, 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. 

Also in 2001, Jordan was awarded the Spingarn Medal, the highest honor given to a Black American for outstanding achievement.

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

Jordan is survived by his wife, Ann, and his daughter Vickee. 

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