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Biography of Vernon Jordan

Name: Vernon Jordan
Bith Date: August 15, 1935
Death Date:
Place of Birth: Atlanta, Georgia, United States
Nationality: American
Gender: Male
Occupations: civil rights leader, attorney, political adviser
Vernon Jordan

An American civil rights leader, Vernon Jordan (born 1935) was executive director of the National Urban League from 1972 to 1982 and later one of the few African American partners in a major law firm in the United States.

Vernon E. Jordan was born August 15, 1935, in Atlanta, Georgia. His father was a mail clerk in the U.S. Army and his mother ran a local catering service. Jordan was educated in the Atlanta public schools and graduated from DePauw University in 1957. For his legal training Jordan attended the Howard University Law School where he received the J.D. in 1960.

Jordan then returned to Atlanta to practice law. Almost immediately he became involved in a landmark civil rights case of the era. Jordan and two other Atlanta attorneys sued the University of Georgia for failing to admit African American students. The suit, on behalf of Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter, resulted in a federal court order directing their admission. Jordan received national attention in 1961 when he escorted Hunter through a violent mob of whites as she became the first African American student to attend classes at the University of Georgia. (Charlayne Hunter-Gault later became a newscaster on public television.)

Shortly after the university was desegregated, Jordan left private practice and devoted full time to work in the civil rights movement. In 1962 he was appointed Georgia field director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), leading a boycott of Augusta, Georgia, merchants who refused to serve African Americans. After four years as NAACP field director, Jordan in 1966 became director of the Southern Regional Council's Voter Education Project. The project sponsored voter registration campaigns in 11 southern states and conducted seminars, workshops, and conferences for candidates and office holders. After four years, Jordan took a six-month appointment as a fellow at the Kennedy Institute of Politics at Harvard and then, in 1970, became executive director of the United Negro College Fund. When Whitney Young, executive director of the National Urban League, died in 1972 Jordan was appointed his successor.

As director of the league, Jordan continued its emphasis on African American uplift through training, employment, and social service programs, but the organization also began to emphasize research and advocacy as part of its thrust toward implementing promises of the 1960s civil rights reforms. For example, during Jordan's administration the league developed a highly regarded research and information dissemination capability, including a policy journal--The Urban League Review--and the annual State of Black America reports. The State of Black America, issued each January to coincide with the president's State of the Union address, became a principal source of systematic data on the African American condition in the United States and an important resource for identifying African American policy perspectives.

During his tenure at the League Jordan was recognized as a leading African American spokesman, writing a weekly syndicated column, lecturing, and appearing on national television interview programs. A frequent adviser to government, corporate, and labor leaders, Jordan also was frequently appointed to presidential advisory boards and commissions.

In May of 1980 Jordan was shot in the back and wounded by a lone gunman waiting in ambush outside a Fort Wayne, Indiana, motel. Although Joseph Paul Franklin, an avowed white racist, was charged in the shooting, he denied involvement and was acquitted. Fourteen years later, awaiting trial on other charges, Franklin admitted he had shot Jordan.

Shortly after recovering from the attempted assassination, Jordan resigned as director of the Urban League and became a partner in the Washington, D.C., offices of the Dallas-based firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld, and began serving on the boards of directors of nine major American corporations. From the vantage point of his influential law firm Jordan continued to be an important behind-the-scenes operative and advocate for civil rights interests. The 1992 election of Jordan's longtime friend Bill Clinton, after 12 years of Republican presidencies, propelled Jordan to more influence.

In 1998 independent counsel Kenneth Starr received permission to probe the alleged sexual affair between President Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky. During the investigation, Starr determined that Jordan had attempted to find Lewinsky a job in the weeks before the scandal became public. Starr questioned the reason for Jordan's involvement and whether or not Jordan had encouraged Lewinsky to lie while under oath and to cover up her affair with the president. Jordan stated that he had attempted to find a job for Lewinsky after being asked by President Clinton's secretary Betty Currie. Jordan allegedly asked both Lewinsky and the president if the nature of their affair was sexual and both denied it. He also stated that he was not aware that Lewinsky had been called as a witness in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case against President Clinton. Jordan was escalated to celebrity status for his alleged involvement in the circumstances surrounding the presidential scandal. The allegation that Jordan told Lewinsky to lie to investigators about her relationship with the President was not addressed, however, in the report that independent counsel Kenneth Starr delivered to Congress.

In 2000, Jordan gave up his position as senior executive partner at the Washington law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, to join the Wall Street firm of Lazard Freres & Co. as an investment banker. Jordan's contract with Lazard Freres reportedly gave him $5 million per year for five years, an allowance toward an expensive suite at New York's Regency Hotel and a bonus based on performance. One former Lazard Freres partner, apparently miffed that Jordan would command such stellar compensation, reportedly sniffed, "Don't forget, he has absolutely no investment banking experience." Jordan, did not respond directly but said, "In banking terms, I view my job [at Lazard Freres] as accretive."

In 2001, the NAACP awarded Jordan its highest honor, the Spingarn Award. According to the NAACP, the medal was designed to highlight distinguished merit and achievement among African Americans, and also serves as a reward for such achievement and as a stimulus to the ambition of African American youth."

Associated Organizations

Further Reading

  • Jordan's life and career are profiled in Karen DeWitt's "Vernon Jordan: Urbane Urban League" in Washington Post (July 28, 1977); and in Robert Meyers, "Vernon Jordan: Using Old Contacts in a New Setting" in National Law Journal (October 3, 1983); a lengthy New York Times analysis (July 14, 1996) discusses Jordan's uncommon position and power within civil rights, corporate and government circles. Jordan's entry into the field of investment banking is discussed in "Pique at a Wall Street Powerhouse," in Washington Post (January 22, 2000).

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