Civil rights activist Vernon Jordan died at the age of 85 Monday surrounded by family at his home in Washington, D.C. Jordan was a civil rights leader and a close adviser to former president Bill Clinton. A memorial is being hosted Tuesday at 12pm ET, to honor his life and accomplishments at Harvard University’s Cramton Auditorium and is available for live stream here.
A Tweet from former president Barack Obama said he and Michelle “benefited from Vernon Jordan's wise counsel and warm friendship—and deeply admired his tireless fight for civil rights.”
Former president Bill Clinton remembers Jordan as someone who "brought his big brain and strong heart to everything and everybody he touched," according to CNN. "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," Clinton said.
In a statement from the NAACP on Tuesday, Derrick Jonson, NAACP president, said, “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.”
Jordan was born August 15, 1935, in Atlanta, Georgia, which was heavily segregated. He attended DePauw University in Indiana and graduated in 1957 as the only Black student in his class, according to CNN. After graduating, Jordan attended Harvard University to study law.
According to NPR, he played a prominent role in desegregating schools in the South, especially at the collegiate level. In 1961, Jordan was part of a legal team that worked to desegregate the University of Georgia. He escorted the university's first Black students, Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes, past an angry crowd of white individuals to the admissions office on their first day.
Jordan also worked as a field director for the NAACP promoting voter education. He later became the president of the National Urban League in 1972, but left after 10 years to practice law in D.C.
He eventually became a Washington power broker, someone with means to influence important legislation through money or knowledge of a specific issue. This position allowed him to form connections with presidents, such as former presidents Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama, due to how closely they worked together.
Jordan was a guest speaker at the Equal Opportunity Dinner for the Urban League’s Fort Wayne chapter May 29, 1980. According to Ball State University, when the banquet was over, he went to another engagement with Martha Coleman, a white woman.
Coleman brought Jordan back to the Marriott Motor Inn and dropped him off at the side door of the hotel because it was closer to his room.
When he stepped out of the vehicle, Jordan immediately collapsed. He had been shot in the back with a bullet from a .30-06 rifle. The bullet left a hole the size of a man’s fist in Jordan's back, causing him to have five operations to remove fragments and close the wound.
Joseph Paul Franklin was arrested after a year of investigating the assassination attempt. Before getting arrested, Franklin was known as a violent racist was linked to eleven other racial killings in 1980 alone, according to the Ball State article.
Franklin was not charged after the assassination attempt because the state did not have enough evidence to put against him. Although he was acquitted for the attempt, Franklin was sentenced to serve four life sentences due to his other racially motivated killings.
Jordan was an iconic figure and has made his mark on America. After graduating from Depauw, his activism led him to change the world through integrating Southern schools. Jordan was recognized in the film Vernon Jordan: Make It Plain, released in December 2020, which recognizes prominent Black leaders in the U.S. and how their groundbreaking accomplishments changed the world. The film has been made available for streaming on KPBS as of Saturday.
Jordan will always be remembered throughout history as a pioneering civil rights leader, attorney, businessman, power broker and counselor to presidents.