Point of View: Remembering Vernon Jordan, a different kind of civil rights leader
His outsize personality, courtly manner, commanding presence, historic impact, strategic thinking and robust — occasionally ribald — humor were not easily contained in the shorthand of daily journalism.
Jordan, who died Monday at age 85, was often classified as a “civil rights leader.” That was not incorrect, just inadequate. Following the path of such greats as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, he graduated from Howard University Law School (the same historically Black law school as Marshall) and joined the Atlanta civil rights law firm that successfully sued to desegregate the University of Georgia.
Like countless others, I watched him on the evening news in 1961, escorting the university’s first two Black students, Charlayne Hunter (Now Charlayne Hunter-Gault) and Hamilton Holmes, past a crowd of angry white protesters to the university’s admissions office.
He left private practice to take other leadership positions in Georgia’s NAACP, the Voter Education Project and later as executive director of the United Negro College Fund and president of the National Urban League — all by his mid-30s.
But he stood out among other civil rights leaders during those days of racial landmark achievements because, for one thing, he was not a clergyman. As a lawyer who focused on both civil rights and the Urban League’s economy-focused agenda, he represented another important front in the battle for equal opportunity: economic and educational development through public-private partnerships with business leaders.
“Some of us are tree shakers, some are jelly makers,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson told me more than once in those days. By that model, Jackson saw himself as more of an agitator for change, preparing the way for others like Jordan to develop action plans and programs for jobs, education, housing and other community development.
Yet, when the time was right and the occasion appropriate, he could preach. He could preach with the stentorian eloquence of Marshall or Clarence Darrow or any of the other great orators of his profession.
Jordan was a “social justice warrior” in an era when that descriptor was not used with the sarcasm applied to it by the most brash and cynical of today’s conservatives.
He also came perilously close to martyrdom himself. I was on the Chicago Tribune’s local news desk in 1980, when he was shot and seriously wounded outside a Marriott Inn in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Fortunately, he survived, and a white supremacist named Joseph Paul Franklin admitted to the shooting and was later executed after being convicted of murder in another case.
Jordan left the Urban League and the civil rights movement the following year to join the politically well-connected law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, where he truthfully earned the unofficial title of “Washington insider” — and his friendship with President Bill Clinton also brought the unofficial title of “First Buddy.”
Here again, he defied the usual expectations. His passing brings to mind the dust-up raised after a photo of him chauffeuring the president in a golf cart during a weekend game wound up on the front page of The New York Times.
Some of my newsroom friends, Black and white, buzzed with mixed reactions to “the president’s new chauffeur.” As I wrote at the time, what the heck; Just imagine how much the zillionaires of this world would pay to be in that driver’s seat?
I was thinking of how Jordan probably got his first taste of the world of power and influence as a waiter at lawyers’ club dinners working in Atlanta for his mother, who, like mine, had a catering business.
He also worked one summer in college as a driver for a wealthy, politically connected banker, who was startled to discover he could read. His exclamation to his family became the title of his 2008 autobiography, co-authored with award-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed: “Vernon Can Read!”
Yes, he could. He also gave us a lot to read about.
His life illustrated the power that education, plus effort, can bring, once the doors of opportunity have opened up to those who prepare themselves to step inside.