Vernon Jordan: Civil rights leader, close advisor to Bill Clinton, dies at age 85

ATLANTA — A political powerhouse and civil rights activist, Georgia-born Vernon Jordan has passed away at the age of 85.

Jordan rose from humble beginnings in the segregated South to become a champion of civil rights before reinventing himself as a Washington insider and corporate influencer.

Vernon Eulion Jordan Jr., was born in Atlanta on Aug. 15, 1935, the second of Vernon and Mary Belle Jordan’s three sons. 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 Indiana, where he was the only Black student 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 in Washington. While there, he married his first wife, Shirley Yarbrough.

The young couple moved to Atlanta after Jordan earned his law degree in 1960. 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.

One of those tweeted about the passing of Jordan on Monday, saying:

“Vernon was a young lawyer just getting his feet wet, but those feet went on to blaze many a trail. Long live!”

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In 1961, Jordan became Georgia field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. During his two years in the role, Jordan built new chapters, coordinated demonstrations and boycotted businesses that would not employ Blacks.

“All of us in Black America are the beneficiaries of his work,” Atlanta NAACP president Richard Rose said.

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 $10 million to help students at historically Black colleges and universities.

In 1971, after the death of Whitney Young Jr., Jordan was named the fifth president of the National Urban League.

“He called not only for civil rights, but for economic justice for African Americans,” said longtime friend, former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes.

He said Jordan had something special.

“In politics we call it ‘the gift.’ He had the charisma and he never forgot where he came from,” Barnes said.

In a statement from Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms laid claim to the native son.

“He spent a lifetime fighting injustice—from the marching band of David T. Howard High School, to the court room, to the White House, to the boardroom and beyond, he made Atlanta proud to call him our own.”

Jordan advised numerous presidents but was closest to the Clintons.

Former President Bill Clinton remembered Jordan as someone who “never gave up on his friends or his country.”

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.

“He 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 said in a statement.

Former President Barack Obama said that “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.”

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday on Twitter that “Jordan’s leadership took our nation closer to its Founding promise: all are created equal.”

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

“He became the model for boards of directors; sitting on countless boards,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. said Tuesday on Twitter. “He became a renowned international lawyer. I miss him so much already.”

Jordan’s first wife died in 1985. He married Ann Dibble Cook in 1986.

Full statements on the passing of Jordan:

The NAACP released a statement on death of Jordan:

“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. In 2001, Jordan received the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal for a lifetime of social justice activism. His exemplary life will shine as a guiding light for all that seek truth and justice for all people.”

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued the following statement:

“Derek and I are deeply saddened by the passing of Vernon E. Jordan, Jr. Like many others in Atlanta, there is a deep and abiding personal connection to Mr. Jordan. He spent a lifetime fighting injustice—from the marching band of David T. Howard High School, to the court room, to the White House, to the boardroom and beyond, he made Atlanta proud to call him our own. Our family’s thoughts, prayers and love are with his family during the difficult days ahead.”

Statement from President Clinton and Secretary Clinton on the Passing of Vernon Jordan:

From his instrumental role in desegregating the University of Georgia in 1961, to his work with the NAACP, the Southern Regional Council, the Voter Education Project, the United Negro College Fund, and the National Urban League, to his successful career in law and business, Vernon Jordan brought his big brain and strong heart to everything and everybody he touched. And he made them better. He was never too busy to give good advice and encouragement to young people. And he never gave up on his friends or his country.He 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.Our thoughts prayers are with Ann, Vickee, Toni, Janice, Mercer, his grandchildren, and all those whose lives he enriched.

Other notable local figures reacted to Jordan’s death:

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.