Civil rights activist and lawyer Vernon Jordan dies at 85

U.S.

WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — U.S. civil rights leader Vernon Jordan, who was a close adviser to former President Bill Clinton, died Monday night, according to a statement from his daughter. He was 85.

Jordan’s daughter, Vickee Jordan Adams, released the statement Tuesday to CBS News.

“My father passed away last night around 10p surrounded by loved ones his wife and daughter by his side,” she said.

Jordan grew up in the segregated South, living in one of the first public housing projects specifically built for African Americans in Atlanta, Georgia. He went on to study at DePauw University in rural Greencastle, Indiana, where he was the only Black student in his class.

After graduating, Jordan earned a law degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C. While there, he married his first wife, Shirley Yarbrough. The young couple moved to Atlanta, and Jordan went on to work for a civil rights attorney. Among his cases was one that integrated the University of Georgia and Jordan helped escort his two young Black clients past jeering protesters on their first day of class.

Jordan joined the nation’s leading civil rights organizations, the NAACP and the United Negro College Fund, before becoming head of the National Urban League in 1971. He was the first lawyer to lead the Urban League, a role that had traditionally been held by social workers.

In this position, Jordan brought attention to Black America’s modern struggle for jobs and justice for more than a decade. Under his leadership, the Urban League added 17 more chapters and its budget swelled to more than $100 million. The organization also broadened its focus to include voter registration drives and conflict resolution between Black residents and law enforcement.

“I believe that working with the Urban League, the NAACP, PUSH and SCLC is the highest form of service that you can perform for Black people,” Jordan said in a December 1980 interview in Ebony Magazine. “And if you serve Black people you serve the country as well. So if I do a good job here, the Black people are not the only beneficiary; so is the country. The country has a vested interest in black people doing well.”

In a statement Tuesday, Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams said Jordan “battled the demons of voter suppression and racial degradation, winning more than he lost.”

“He brought others w/him. And left a map so more could find their way,” Abrams said on Twitter. “Love to his family. Travel on with God’s grace.”

In 1980, Jordan was badly wounded by a white supremacist sniper in Indiana. He was shot outside his hotel in Fort Wayne after returning from dinner following a speaking engagement.

Jordan had five surgeries and was visited by President Jimmy Carter during his 3-month recovery in the hospital.

“I’m not afraid and I won’t quit,” Jordan told Ebony after the shooting.

Joseph Paul Franklin, an avowed white supremacist who targeted blacks and Jews in a cross-country killing spree from 1977 to 1980, later admitted to shooting Jordan. He was never prosecuted in Jordan’s case, but was put to death in 2013 for another slaying in Missouri.

Jordan left the organization in 1981, but said his departure was not related to the shooting.

While he never held an official role within the U.S. government, Jordan was a Washington insider who became a close friend, golfing buddy and adviser to former President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. He helped out with Clinton’s first presidential campaign and co-chaired Clinton’s transition team. 

Clinton’s Health and Human Services director, Donna Shalala, called Jordan a great friend who was “larger than life.”

“A wise counselor, a patriot and generous citizen,” Shalala said Tuesday on Twitter. “His star will never be diminished.”

Jordan worked well into his 80s, going back and forth between the jobs at the Gump Akin international law and lobbying firm in Washington and the Lazard financial management firm in New York.

In 2001, Jordan released an autobiography, “Vernon Can Read!: A Memoir,” and that same year he was awarded the Spingarn Medal, the highest honor given to a Black American for outstanding achievement.

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

President Joe Biden issued the following statement in part:

Vernon Jordan began life in one of the first public housing projects in America and ended life as a fixture in our country’s halls of power. Along the way, he became a foot soldier for civil rights, a trusted friend and counselor to presidents, and a loving husband, father, and grandfather. 

Read his full statement here.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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