Vernon Jordan, Civil Rights Leader and D.C. Power Broker, Dies at 85

Vernon E. Jordan Jr., the civil rights leader and Washington power broker whose private counsel was sought both by the powerful at the top levels of government and those in 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 got his first inkling of the world of power and influence that had largely been denied Black Americans when he was a waiter at lawyers club dinners catered by his mother in Atlanta and as a driver for a wealthy banker, who was startled to discover that the tall Black youth at the wheel could read.

Despite the odds against him, 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.

He then used that power to cultivate a who’s who of younger Black leaders.

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

Mr. Jordan began his civil rights career after graduating from Howard University School of Law and in 1971 was selected to head the Urban League while still in his 30s, a post in which he survived an assassination attempt in 1980.

ImageMr. Jordan in 1967 working on voter registration at the Southern Regional Council in Atlanta.
Credit…Warren K Leffler/PhotoQuest, via Getty Images

While leading the Urban League, he began to provide advice to leading political figures and socialize with them. 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 president’s transition effort and became at once the confidant and golfing buddy of Mr. Clinton, a member of multiple corporate boards and a highly paid lawyer-lobbyist at one of Washington’s most politically-engaged law firms.

Mr. Jordan turned down the president’s offer to be nominated for attorney general, but he remained in Mr. Clinton’s orbit, recruited to handle sensitive issues for the president, in one case sounding out Gen. Colin L. Powell about joining the administration as secretary of state. (General Powell chose to continue as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, having taken the post under Mr. Clinton’s predecessor, George H.W. Bush.)

But Mr. Clinton’s reliance on him also led to Mr. Jordan’s becoming entangled in the scandal arising from the president’s sexual affair with the intern Monica S. Lewinsky. At Mr. Clinton’s behest, he tried to find Ms. Lewinsky a job in Manhattan and was investigated by the special prosecutor in the matter as having possibly tried to assist the president in covering up the affair. Mr. Jordan testified five times before the grand jury and before the House impeachment committee but no action was taken against him.

Vernon Eulion Jordan Jr. was born in Atlanta on Aug. 15, 1935. He wrote that he had admired his father, a postal worker, but that he was never in doubt that the catalyst for his life of achievement had been his entrepreneurial mother, Mary Belle Jordan. She was the “architect, general contractor and bricklayer” for the whole project, he wrote.

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Credit…Associated Press

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 embody 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 provided perfect bookends to his education.

At DePauw he began taking part in college oratory contests and listening to local Black preachers, part of a lifelong fascination with the art of public speaking. He resisted what he described as his own mild urges and the exhortations of others to become a preacher himself.

In the summers of his college years, he was hired as a driver for Robert F. Maddox, a former Atlanta mayor and president of both the First National Bank of Atlanta and the American Bankers Association.

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Credit…Marcy Nighswander/Associated Press

Mr. Jordan wrote that he had been an inexplicable creature to someone like Robert Maddox. After discovering the young Mr. Jordan taking his break in the Maddox home’s sumptuous library, Mr. Maddox was stunned to discover that his driver could read, Mr. Jordan wrote — a revelation that Mr. Maddox would relate to friends and relatives, telling them, “Vernon can read.’’ Mr. Jordan used the phrase as the title of his memoir, published in 2001.

After graduating from law school in 1960, he became a law clerk to Donald Hollowell, who had a busy one-man civil rights practice in Atlanta. Mr. Jordan worked closely on the case that desegregated the University of Georgia and grew close to Charlayne Hunter (later the journalist and author Charlayne Hunter-Gault), one of two young Black plaintiffs who gained admission after winning in court. On the day she first attended school, Mr. Jordan was photographed escorting her onto the campus surrounded by a hostile crowd.

After the Georgia case, he served as Georgia field director of the N.A.A.C.P. The job required him to travel regularly throughout the Southeast to oversee civil rights cases both large and small. He said he tried to model himself after a friend, the vaunted director of the Mississippi office, Medgar Evers, who was later assassinated.

In short order he became director of the Voter Education Project of the Southern Regional Council and was named executive director of the United Negro College Fund in 1970. A year later his friend Whitney Young, the head of the Urban League, drowned on a trip to Lagos, Nigeria, and Mr. Jordan was recruited to fill the unexpected vacancy.

The Urban League, the embodiment of the Black establishment, brought Mr. Jordan to New York and exposed him to a wider world. The organization drew on a wide range of prominent citizens, both white and Black, and was closely associated with corporate America. During his tenure the group began issuing a widely read annual report titled “The State of Black America.”

While holding that post, on a trip to Fort Wayne, Ind., in May 1980, he was in the company of a local member of the Urban League board, Martha Coleman, a white woman, when a group of white teenagers in a car passsed them and taunted them. Later, as Ms. Coleman was letting him off at his hotel, he was shot in the back by a man wielding a hunting rifle. Mr. Jordan nearly died on the operating table, underwent six surgeries and remained hospitalized for 89 days.

Joseph Paul Franklin, an avowed racist, was charged with the crime but acquitted at trial, though he would later boast of having been the gunman. He was later convicted of other crimes, including fatally shooting two Black joggers who were running with white women, and executed in Missouri in 2013.

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Credit…Win McNamee/Getty Images

Working with leading corporate figures on the Urban League board, Mr. Jordan recalled, fueled an ambition in him to serve on corporate boards himself and break their color barriers. He began pivoting away from active leadership in the Urban League toward the role of lawyer and counselor for banks and corporations. In the following years he joined the boards of the Celanese Corporation, Bankers Trust, American Express and Xerox, among others, forging a network of connections that would serve him well for years to come as his influence grew.

His perch in the capital was at the Texas and Washington-based law firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, to which he had been recruited in 1982 by Robert Strauss, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and capital power broker in his own right. In 1999 Mr. Jordan joined the Wall Street investment firm Lazard Frères while remaining associated with Akin, Gump.

Last year Mr. Jordan was the subject of an hourlong PBS documentary, “Vernon Jordan: Make It Plain.”

His first wife, Shirley (Yarbrough) Jordan, whom he had met when they were fellow students at Howard University, died of multiple sclerosis in December 1985 at 48. He married Ann Dibble Cook in November 1986.

In addition to his daughter, Vickee, he is survived by his wife, two grandsons and three stepchildren.

Clay Risen contributed reporting.

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