Vernon Jordan, the civil rights leader and Washington power broker whose private counsel was sought by the powerful at the top levels of government and the corporate world, died Monday at his home in Washington. He was 85.
His death was confirmed in a statement by Vickee Jordan, his daughter.
Mr. Jordan, who was raised in segregation-era Atlanta, got his first inkling of the world of power and influence that had largely been denied Black Americans while waiting tables at dinners held at one of the city’s private clubs, which his mother catered, and as a driver for a wealthy white banker, who was startled to discover that the tall Black youth at the wheel could read.
Mr. Jordan went on to a dazzlingly successful career as a civil rights leader and then a high-powered Washington lawyer in the mold of past capital insiders such as Clark Clifford, Robert Strauss and Lloyd Cutler.
Along the way he cultivated a who’s who of younger Black leaders, inviting them to monthly one-on-one lunches, dispensing advice on everything from what to read to what to wear, and using his unmatched influence to promote their careers in business, politics and the non-profit world.
“When Vernon Jordan came into your life, he fully embraced you,” said Darren Walker, a close friend and president of the Ford Foundation. “This was a man who saw it as his job to advance the next generation of African Americans in this country.”
Mr. Jordan began his civil rights career after graduating from Howard University School of Law in 1960. He was in his 30s when he was selected to head the National Urban League, an embodiment of the Black establishment, and was in that post when he survived an assassination attempt in 1980.
While leading the organization he began to provide advice to leading political figures and socialize with them, often inviting them to join him on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where he had a summer home and was a long-time member of the seasonal community of the wealthy and powerful who frequent the island.
As his network of connections grew, he moved away from the league to become a highly paid lawyer-lobbyist at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, one of Washington’s most politically engaged law firms.
His closest relationship was with Bill Clinton, whom he had befriended years before Mr. Clinton was elected U.S. president in 1992. Mr. Jordan was named co-chairman of the Clinton transition effort and became at once a confidant and golfing buddy of the president’s.
Mr. Jordan turned down Mr. Clinton’s offer to be nominated for attorney-general, but he remained in the president’s orbit, recruited to handle sensitive issues for the White House, in one case sounding out General Colin Powell about joining the administration as secretary of state. (Mr. Powell chose to continue as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, having taken the post under Mr. Clinton’s predecessor, George H.W. Bush.)
But Mr. Clinton’s reliance on him also entangled Mr. Jordan in the scandal arising from the president’s sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern, that led to Mr. Clinton’s impeachment. At the president’s behest, he tried to find Ms. Lewinsky a job in New York and was investigated by the special prosecutor in the matter for possibly assisting Mr. Clinton in covering up the affair. Mr. Jordan testified five times before the grand jury and before the House impeachment committee, but no action was taken against him.
Mr. Jordan survived the scandal, and went on to serve on more than a dozen corporate and non-profit boards. And he used his decades of amassed influence to groom the next generation of Black executives, becoming instrumental in the diversification of America’s corporate leadership over the past 20 years.
“I would see these guys get their friends’ children jobs,” he told the Financial Times in 2018, “so I learned the process and I got my people jobs.”
Vernon Eulion Jordan Jr. was born in Atlanta on Aug. 15, 1935. He wrote that he had admired Vernon Sr., a postal worker, but that he had no doubt who the catalyst was for his life of achievement: his entrepreneurial mother, Mary Belle Jordan. She was the “architect, general contractor and bricklayer” for the whole project, he wrote.
Running her own catering business, his mother oversaw the monthly dinners of the exclusive Lawyers Club in Atlanta from 1948 to 1960, and young Vernon often waited tables. He recalled paying great attention to the speakers and being impressed with the confident bearing of the lawyers in attendance — a manner he would later emulate as a Washington insider, always a commanding, supremely self-assured 6-foot-4 presence, whether in boardrooms or at Georgetown dinner parties.
After graduating from an all-Black Atlanta high school, he enrolled at DePauw University, an almost entirely white school in Indiana, at his mother’s urging, passing up an opportunity to go to Howard University in Washington. He would later go to Howard’s law school at a time, in the late 1950s, when the school served as an informal headquarters for a cadre of lawyers who were the architects of the legal strategy of the civil rights movement. He wrote that attending a white college and then a Black law school had provided perfect bookends to his education.
At DePauw he began taking part in college oratory contests and listening to local Black preachers, part of a life-long fascination with the art of public speaking. He resisted what he described as his own mild urges and the exhortations of others to become a preacher himself.
In his summers during college, he worked as a driver for Robert F. Maddox, a former Atlanta mayor and president of both the First National Bank of Atlanta and the American Bankers Association.
Mr. Jordan wrote that he had been an inexplicable creature to someone like Mr. Maddox. After discovering the young Mr. Jordan taking his break in the Maddox home’s sumptuous library, Mr. Maddox was stunned to discover that his driver could read, Mr. Jordan wrote — a revelation that Mr. Maddox would repeatedly relate to friends and relatives, telling them, “Vernon can read.” Mr. Jordan used the phrase as the title of his set of memoirs, which he wrote with historian Annette Gordon-Reed and published in 2001.
After graduating from law school in 1960, he became a law clerk to Donald Hollowell, who had a busy one-man civil rights practice in Atlanta. Mr. Jordan worked closely on the case that desegregated the University of Georgia and grew close to Charlayne Hunter (later journalist and author Charlayne Hunter-Gault), one of two young Black plaintiffs who gained admission after winning in court. On her first day of classes, Mr. Jordan was photographed escorting her onto the campus surrounded by a hostile crowd.
After the Georgia case, he served as Georgia field director of the NAACP. The job required him to travel throughout the Southeast to oversee civil rights cases both large and small. He said he had tried to model himself after his friend Medgar Evers, the admired director of the Mississippi office who was later assassinated.
In short order, Mr. Jordan became director of the Voter Education Project of the Southern Regional Council and was named executive director of the United Negro College Fund in 1970. A year later his friend Whitney Young, head of the National Urban League, drowned on a trip to Lagos, Nigeria, and Mr. Jordan was recruited to fill the unexpected vacancy.
The organization brought Mr. Jordan to New York and exposed him to a wider world. The league drew on a wide range of prominent citizens, both white and Black, and was closely associated with corporate America. During his tenure the group began issuing a widely read annual report titled The State of Black America.
While holding that leadership post, on a trip to Fort Wayne, Ind., in May, 1980, Mr. Jordan was in the company of a white local member of the National Urban League board, Martha Coleman, when a group of white teenagers in a car passed them and taunted them. Later, as Ms. Coleman was letting him off at his hotel, he was shot in the back by a man with a hunting rifle. Mr. Jordan nearly died on the operating table, underwent six surgeries and remained hospitalized for 89 days.
Joseph Paul Franklin, an avowed racist, was charged with the crime but acquitted at trial, though he would go on to boast of having been the gunman. He was later convicted of other crimes, including fatally shooting two Black joggers who were running with white women, and executed in Missouri in 2013.
Working with leading corporate figures on the National Urban League board fueled in Mr. Jordan an ambition to serve on corporate boards himself and break their colour barriers, he said. He began pivoting away from active leadership in the organization to take on the role of lawyer and counsellor for banks and corporations. In the following years he joined the boards of the Celanese Corp., Bankers Trust, American Express and Xerox, among other businesses, forging a network of connections that would serve him well for years to come as his influence grew.
“I often describe Vernon as the first crossover artist,” Kenneth Chenault, a close friend and the former chief executive of American Express, said in a phone interview Tuesday. “He was able to go from being a leader in the civil rights movement to being a leader in business, but never losing his commitment to racial equality.”
Mr. Jordan’s perch in the capital was at the Texas and Washington-based law firm Akin, Gump, to which he had been recruited in 1982 by Robert Strauss, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee and capital power broker in his own right. In 1999, Mr. Jordan joined the Wall Street investment firm Lazard while remaining associated with Akin, Gump.
Last year, Mr. Jordan was the subject of an hour-long PBS documentary, Vernon Jordan: Make It Plain.
His first wife, Shirley (Yarbrough) Jordan, whom he had met when they were students at Howard University, died of multiple sclerosis in December, 1985, at 48. He married Ann Dibble Cook in November, 1986.
In addition to his daughter, Vickee, he leaves his wife, two grandsons and three stepchildren.