The Morning Call
Champion of civil rights, the ‘first friend’ to Clinton
ATLANTA — Vernon Jordan, 85, who rose from humble beginnings in the segregated South to become a champion of civil rights before reinventing himself as a Washington insider and corporate influencer, died Monday, his daughter said.
“My father passed away last night around 10p surrounded by loved ones his wife and daughter by his side,” Jordan’s daughter, Vickee Jordan Adams, said in a statement released Tuesday to CBS News.
After stints as field secretary for the Georgia NAACP and executive director of the United Negro College Fund, he became head of the National Urban League, becoming the face of Black America’s modern struggle for jobs and justice for more than a decade. He was nearly killed by a racist’s bullet in 1980 before transitioning to business and politics.
His friendship with Bill Clinton took them both to the White House. Jordan was an unofficial Clinton aide, drawing him into controversy during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Jordan “never gave up on his friends or his country,” Clinton said Tuesday.
“From his instrumental role in desegregating the University of Georgia in 1961, to his work with the NAACP, the Southern Regional Council, the Voter Education Project, the United Negro College Fund, and the National Urban League, to his successful career in law and business, Vernon Jordan brought his big brain and strong heart to everything and everybody he touched. And he made them better,” Clinton and his wife, Hillary, said in a statement.
Former President Barack Obama said that “like so many others, Michelle and I benefited from Vernon Jordan’s wise counsel and warm friendship — and deeply admired his tireless fight for civil rights.”
After growing up in the Jim Crow South and living much of his life in a segregated America, Jordan took a strategic view of race issues.
“My view on all this business about race is never to get angry, no, but to get even,” Jordan said in a July 2000 New York Times interview. “You don’t take it out in anger; you take it out in achievement.”
Although Jordan held no official role in the Clinton White House, he was highly influential and had such labels as the “first friend.” He approached Colin Powell about becoming secretary of state and encouraged Clinton to pass NAFTA in 1993.
Jordan also secured a job at Revlon for Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern whose sexual encounters with the president spawned a scandal.
Jordan’s actions briefly drew the attention of federal prosecutors investigating Clinton’s actions, but he ultimately was not mentioned in a final report issued by special prosecutor Ken Starr.
In 1971, after the death of Whitney Young Jr., Jordan was named the fifth president of the National Urban League. The high-profile position landed him in the crosshairs of a racist in May 1980 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Jordan was shot with a hunter’s rifle outside his hotel after returning from dinner following a speaking engagement.
Jordan had five surgeries during his three-month recovery in the hospital.
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.