Vernon Evlion Jordan Jr. is his name. He is one of the most powerful men in the country. At age 62, Jordan sits on the board of 11 major corporations. He spends his leisure time with his buddy, the President of the most powerful nation in the world. Vernon Jordan has never held public office. How did the grandson of Georgia sharecroppers come to the apex of world power and influence?
Born in the 1935 Atlanta family of Vernon and Mary Jordan, Vernon Jr. learned to appreciate the good life at an early age. His father worked as a mail carrier and his mother operated a catering business that served some of Atlanta’s richest residents. Young Vernon worked alongside Mary Jordan, serving food and drinks in the fine Atlanta homes of wealthy white folks. He saw how they lived, how they dressed what they ate and drank. He learned to appreciate the privileged life of the wealthy.
At a time when few black kids went to college, and those that did chose traditionally black schools, Jordan went to DePauw University in Green Castle, Indiana. At DePauw, he was the only black in his class. Upon graduating in 1957, he went to Howard University, a traditionally black college, where he obtained a law degree.
Like many young black college graduates of the era, Jordan involved himself in the Civil Rights Movement. He walked into the nation’s spotlight in 1961. He was the young lawyer escorting Charlayne Hunter (she is now Hunter-Gault) when she braved an angry white mob to become the first black student to attend the University of Georgia.
Jordan worked within the system to effect change, unlike many others in the movement who took a more confrontational approach. In 1970, his leadership style landed him in the position of Executive Director of the Negro College Fund. In 1972, he followed Whitney Young and became head of the National Urban League, a moderate mainstream organization interested in motivating corporate America to educate, employ, and support programs for non-white Americans.
Jordan spent 10 years as head of the National Urban League. It was there, as the chief fundraiser, that he met many of America’s corporate chieftains. In this position, Jordan noticed how few blacks were at the higher levels of power in corporate America and he began to advocate change by recommending young black college graduates for positions within these corporations.
In 1980, a bullet from a deer rifle ripped through Jordan’s back while he sat in a car parked at a Ft. Wayne, Indiana hotel. In 1982 authorities charged Joseph Paul Franklin, an avowed racist, but a jury acquitted him. Franklin later admitted attempting to assassinate Jordan but could not be tried again for the crime because of constitutional constraints.
Jordan recovered from the assassination attempt and in 1982 he joined the Washington office of the Texas law firm of Akin, Gump, Hauer & Feld. This is the past home of former of Democratic Party Chairman Robert Strauss. The firm values Jordan for his ability to attract clients from the nation’s large corporations.
Vernon Jordan is personally known and trusted by many of the heads of these corporations. David Hardee, a former partner at his law firm, is quoted as having said of Jordan: “The last thing you’d want is to have Vernon spending time on routine matters of law.”
How did Jordan become First Buddy to President Clinton? He knew Hillary Rodham. He first met her in 1969 at a League of Women Voters function in Ft Collins, Colorado. Four years later while speaking on behalf of the Urban League in Little Rock, Arkansas he met Bill Clinton and they clicked. Their friendship evolved from there.
I could end this piece here. But if I did, I wouldn’t be able to tell where I first met Vernon Jordan. It was the occasion of Virginia Durr’s 90th birthday celebration on Martha’s Vineyard. He was there joining with the others to celebrate this wonderful woman from Montgomery, Alabama.
Originally Published: 25 March 1998, Montgomery Advertiser