LDF Mourns the Loss of Board Member and Civil Rights Leader Vernon Jordan

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) deeply mourns the loss of Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., a Senior Director member of LDF’s Board of Directors and esteemed attorney who helped drive the advancement of civil rights in America over a venerable career that included leadership roles at the National Urban League, the United Negro College Fund, the NAACP, the Southern Regional Council, and LDF. Mr. Jordan died at his home in Washington, D.C., on March 1, 2021. He was 85.

“Mr. Jordan was an exceptional civil rights leader and champion for LDF. He lifted up our work and revered our history. Earning his respect as the leader of LDF meant everything to me. That he so powerfully touched the work of the Urban League, the United Negro College Fund, LDF and other civil rights organizations reflects his extraordinary reach and commitment to justice and equality. Anyone who knew Vernon knows what a storyteller he was. I will miss this the most. His rich, moving, often amusing memories about storied civil rights leaders and events were gifts to me that I will treasure always. I will miss him immensely.”

Vernon Jordan pictured with LDF President and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill, and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. | LDF Archives

My entire life, Vernon Jordan’s name has been synonymous with excellence, civil rights leadership, political power, and legal prowess,” said Janai Nelson, LDF’s Associate Director-Counsel. “He inspired an entire generation of civil rights advocates with his greatness and grace. We are immensely grateful for his long, generous, and unwavering support of LDF, its mission, and its staff. He is a giant among men and will be greatly missed.”

“Vernon Jordan was a dear friend, colleague, and mentor,” said David Mills, Co-Chair of LDF’s Board of Directors. “Vernon’s judgment was so incredibly important and valuable to LDF: his loss will be felt for many years. LDF has lost its best friend.”

Vernon Eulion Jordan, Jr. was born on August 15, 1935, in Atlanta, Georgia, to Vernon E. Jordan, Sr., a postal worker, and Mary Belle Jordan, the owner of a catering business. His family lived in the now-demolished University Homes, which was the first public housing project for African Americans in the country. Though living in a strictly segregated South, Mr. Jordan found inspiration in his surroundings – University Homes was in close proximity to a number of historically black colleges and universities, including Morehouse College, Clark College, Atlanta University, Spelman College, and Morris Brown College.

“I was awestruck by the buildings, by the activities. That had a huge impact on me,” said Mr. Jordan in 2019, speaking to the Atlanta History Center about the environments of excellence he was surrounded by as a child.

He also frequently credited his parents as being major contributors to his future success and would often specifically laud the counsel of his mother, who he called “the principle architect, general contractor and bricklayer” of his life.

“My mother would say, ‘just because you’re sitting back here does not mean the people sitting up front are better than you. You’re just as good as they are, and one day we won’t have to sit back here,’” Mr. Jordan told the National Portrait Gallery in 2012, describing what his mother once said to him as they were made to travel in the back of segregated streetcars in Atlanta. “She believed that, and she made me believe that.”

Vernon Jordan pictured with former LDF Director-Counsel Jack Greenberg, and former LDF Board Chair William Coleman, Jr. | LDF Archives
(l. to r.) Former LDF Board Co-Chair Ted Wells, Vernon Jordan, and Ken Chenault, former CEO of American Express. | LDF Archives
Vernon Jordan with Mrs. Cecilia Marshall, widow of the Hon. Thurgood Marshall, founder of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. | LDF Archives.

As a high school student, Mr. Jordan had to learn from outdated textbooks that had been used by white students decades before him. Despite this disadvantage, he doggedly pursued his education and went on to be accepted to study political science at Depauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, where he was the only Black student in his class.

During that time, he spent his summers away from school working as a chauffeur and butler for the then-president of the First National Bank of Atlanta. Mr. Jordan’s love of reading stunned his white employer, who—after discovering the young Black man reading from his extensive library—exclaimed to his family at the dinner table, “Vernon can read!” The phrase went on to become the title of Mr. Jordan’s memoir, published in 2001, which earned the Ainsfield-Wolf Book Award and accolades from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and the Metropolitan Black Bar Association.

Though an accomplished writer, the law was always Mr. Jordan’s first calling and primary vocation. In his second book, 2008’s Make It Plain, Standing Up and Speaking Out, he wrote of witnessing LDF’s founder and first Director-Counsel Thurgood Marshall at a mass NAACP meeting in Georgia when he was a child, and pointed to it as the moment that sparked his desire to become a civil rights lawyer.

Vernon Jordan at LDF’s National Equal Justice Award Dinner with former LDF President and Director-Counsels Jack Greenberg and Ted Shaw, former LDF attorney Constance Baker-Motley, former President and Director-Counsel Julius Chambers, and LDF Board member Martin Payson. | LDF Archives
Vernon Jordan escorts Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes to the University of Georgia’s registrar’s office to become the first Black students enrolled at the institution. | Getty Images 

After college, Mr. Jordan continued his journey towards that goal by attending Howard University Law School, where he earned his Juris Doctor in 1960. At Howard, he also met his first wife Shirley Yarbrough, with whom he had a daughter, Vickee Jordan Adams. Ms. Yarbrough died of multiple sclerosis at 48, a devastating experience for Mr. Jordan, who said he found courage to persevere through that difficult time with the help of his mother’s reassuring words, “The Lord only gives you as much as you can tote.” He later went on to remarry Ann Dibble, a former University of Chicago professor and corporate executive.

Courage characterized Mr. Jordan’s career early on. Fresh out of law school, he went to work as a law clerk for civil rights attorney Donald Holloway and joined Holloway and former LDF attorney Constance Baker-Motley in successfully representing two Black students in Holmes v. Danner, the landmark case that led to the desegregation of the University of Georgia in 1961. Following a federal court order directing the institution to admit the Black students, Mr. Jordan personally escorted one of the plaintiffs, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, past a hostile mob of protestors at the school protesting her admission.

Former LDF President and Director-Counsel John Payton and Vernon Jordan. | LDF Archives

Soon after that foray into the midst of the civil rights movement, Mr. Jordan was appointed Georgia Field Director for the NAACP in 1962 when he was only 26 years old. He would later say he received a “graduate education in the civil rights movement” while in that role due to the time he spent driving leaders like Roy Wilkins, Clarence Mitchell, Bob Carter, and Ruby Hurley to their various engagements across the South—during which they would spend hours sharing their insights and wisdom with the young Mr. Jordan. As field director for the NAACP, he began making his own mark on the movement by leading boycotts of merchants who refused service to Black Georgians, organizing voter registration drives, and launching fundraising campaigns. By 1964, Mr. Jordan had become director of the Southern Regional Council’s Voter Education Project, where he organized voter registration campaigns in 11 states across the South.

His legal and leadership acumen making a name for him beyond the South, during this time Mr. Jordan also served a stint as attorney consultant with the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity, a position he was personally hired for by the man behind the War on Poverty, Sargent Shriver. Mr. Jordan was also appointed as a delegate to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Conference on Civil Rights in 1966, affirming his status as a nationally-recognized force in the wider movement for economic and social justice for African Americans.

(l. to r.) Barbara Jordan, Vernon Jordan, and President Lyndon B. Johnson, December 12, 1972. | LBJ Library photo by Frank Wolfe.

In 1971, Mr. Jordan was recruited to succeed Whitney Young as President of the National Urban League (NUL). A prestigious role that underscored the illustrious career as a civil rights advocate he had established at that point, the offer to head the NUL was one that Mr. Jordan could not refuse. Of his decision to leave the UNCF for the NUL he said, “I had no idea what the benefits were, I had no idea what the salary was – but I accepted. I did know, if I had said no I would have regretted it for the rest of my life.”

While Executive Director of the NUL, a position he held for 10 years, Mr. Jordan was pivotal to helping maintain momentum in terms of national advocacy for the fair treatment of African Americans beyond the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

During his tenure, he bolstered the NUL’s research capacity and profile for thought leadership on racial equity and justice, overseeing the launch of The Urban League Review policy journal and The Strength of Black Families, a seminal book countering the negative stereotypes about African Americans proliferated by The Moynihan Report.

Vernon Jordan as Executive Director of the National Urban League | Getty Images

In 1976, Mr. Jordan established the NUL’s State of Black America report, a critical source of data and information on the economic and social progress of the African American community that continues to be published by the organization annually.

In 1980, tragedy nearly struck when Mr. Jordan was shot in the back by a white supremacist while visiting Fort Wayne, Indiana. Though Mr. Jordan survived, he spent several months in the hospital recuperating from the gunshot wound. The culprit in the attempted assassination denied involvement and escaped charges in the shooting of Mr. Jordan, but went on to claim responsibility for it over a decade later. After his recovery, Mr. Jordan went back to work at the NUL for another year, then resigned his post in 1981 to practice private law at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Jordan’s sphere of public influence continued, however. He served as a political advisor to his close friend, former President Bill Clinton, and though he eschewed a formal role in Clinton’s cabinet was chair of Clinton’s presidential transition team in 1992. Mr. Jordan was also frequently called upon for advisory roles in Washington, and at various times throughout his career contributed his policy expertise to taskforces including 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; the National Advisory Committee on Selective Service, and others.

“Twenty years after his stint as head of the Urban League, he was especially helpful during the administrations of Reagan and Bush in quietly helping to oppose actions detrimental to the advancement of civil rights and social justice,” said former LDF President and Director-Counsel Elaine Jones. “Vernon’s role depended on the need for his skillset to get the right meeting, making the important call, finding the unexpected ally, and helping to quietly secure corporate and other support. His work to promote and provide equal justice was especially needed at the highest levels of the corporate and business communities, and he gave fully his quiet unwavering support.”

Vernon Jordan working on a voter education project in 1967. | Photo by Warren K. Leffler for The Library of Congress
Vernon Jordan at a press conference. | LDF Archives

A member of the LDF board since 1992, Mr. Jordan maintained a lifelong belief in the power of the law to drive change – particularly given his own experiences in the civil rights movement. His contributions to LDF were legion. He introduced LDF to leaders in the business and political world, and was a fixture at LDF’s annual dinner and other organization events. He provided mentorship and friendship to successive Director-Counsels, who sought his advice and counsel. In 2009, LDF honored Mr. Jordan with its Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award.

“It is difficult to capture the significance of Vernon Jordan’s life. He made history in everything that he did. He was one of the great Americans of our time.  His loss is incalculable,” said former LDF President and Director-Counsel Ted Shaw. “As a long-time Board member of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, he gave invaluable assistance to each Director-Counsel who knew him. I am thankful for having been one of them. He was a role model and a mentor to generations of younger people, especially African Americans. He was one of a kind, and I am thankful to have known him.”

“The work to change this nation stretched far beyond its capital – lawyers across the country contributed to the movement,” he said while accepting the Harvard Law School’s Center for the Law Profession’s Award for Global Leadership in 2017. “Even though it was warped laws that defined and circumscribed laws in the Jim Crow South, it was also the law – far-sighted, fair-minded jurisprudence – that gave us the tools to dismantle segregation piece by rotten piece. And it has been lawyers, who have bent that arc of the universe towards justice.”

He also held an enduring faith in the power of individuals, and this nation, to transform.

“We endured the ‘black codes’ of Reconstruction,” Mr. Jordan continued. “We endured when the Supreme Court said, in Plessy v. Ferguson, that segregation was legal, that ‘separate’ was fine as long as it was ‘equal.’ We endured poll taxes at the voting booth and burned crosses in the churchyard. We endured dogs and fire hoses as we marched in Birmingham. And our history of endurance should give us faith that we shall once again endure.”

In 2007, he earned an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Georgia – the institution he helped desegregate over 40 years earlier.

“Change is possible. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. I’ve benefited from it,” he said to the Stanford University graduating class in 2015.

Courtesy of LDF Archives 

Mr. Jordan has received honorary degrees from more than 80 colleges and universities, as well as numerous honors including the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal; the Anti-Defamation League’s Lifetime Achievement Award; Barnard College’s Medal of Distinction; and the Alexis de Tocqueville Award from United Way of America. A successful business leader, Mr. Jordan was also Senior Managing Director with Lazard Freres & Co. LLC and served as a member of the Board of Directors for several corporations, including American Express, Dow Jones & Company, Revlon, and Xerox.

Mr. Jordan is survived by his wife, Ann, four children, and nine grandchildren. LDF sends our sincerest condolences to his family and friends as they grieve the loss of Mr. Jordan, who was a widely admired changemaker and their dear loved one.

We are grateful for Mr. Jordan’s immense contributions to the pursuit of racial justice and we are honored to continue building on his life’s work of leveraging the law in service of civil rights.