BY WALTER OPINDE
On this day 15th August, 1935, an African-American civil rights leader, the executive director of the National Urban League from 1972 to 1982, and one of the few African-American partners in a major law firm in the U.S., Vernon E. Jordan, was born 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.
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 U.S. 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 the 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.
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