“Black people today, for all our righteous anger and forceful dissent, still believe in the American Dream. And we must, in this year of doubt and confusion, remind a forgetting nation that this land is ours, too. This nation too often forgets that this land is sprinkled with our sweat, watered with our tears, and fertilized with our blood … And so it is Black people who, by our belief in the ideals of American democracy, can help this nation to overcome its crisis of spirit and enter a new era of hope and fulfillment.” – Vernon E. Jordan, National Urban League Conference Keynote Address, 2010
The nation has lost one of its greatest champions of racial and economic justice. Vernon E. Jordan, who served as Executive Director of the National Urban League from 1971 to 1981, was a transformational leader who brought the movement into a new era. He was a personal mentor and dear friend. His passing leaves a tremendous void that can never be filled.
Jordan assumed leadership of the National Urban League at a crucial moment in history, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act. The broad, legal goals of the 20th Century Civil Rights Movement had been achieved. His mission, as he saw it, was to empower Black Americans to realize the promise of these victories. In his words, “Black people today can check into any hotel in America, but most do not have the wherewithal to check out.”
The exceptional poise and dignity with which he conducted himself was just as striking as his impressive height. He was born into an era when Black men in his native Georgia were routinely addressed as “Boy; ” his mother pointedly nicknamed him “Man.” He honored her faith in him with his bravery, his grace, his brilliance, and his excellence.
As a child, he heard Thurgood Marshall speak at an NAACP meeting and immediately told his father, “I’m going to be a lawyer like Thurgood Marshall.”
Graduating in 1953 from the same segregated Atlanta high school that Martin Luther King, Jr., had attended years before, Jordan defied expectations by enrolling at the virtually all-white DePauw University in Indiana. It was the beginning of a life spent challenging the boundaries of where Black people belonged.
The title of his memoir, Vernon Can Read, was inspired by an incident that occurred when he was a college student with a summer job as a chauffeur. He would spend his breaks reading, which amazed his employer.
He entered Howard Law School at the height of the desegregation movement and quickly took his place on the front lines. He went to work for civil rights attorney Donald Hollowell, which successfully sued the University of Georgia for racial discrimination in its admission policies. He personally escorted the first two Black students, Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton E. Holmes, past a mob of howling white protesters to the university admissions office.
“There were no thoughts about being afraid,” he later said. This is what I went to law school to do – and I’m now here, doing it.”
Before joining the National Urban League, Jordan served as the Georgia field director for the NAACP, director of the Voter Education Project of the Southern Regional Council, and executive director of the United Negro College Fund.
He was recruited to lead the League after the unexpected drowning of Whitney M. Young in Nigeria; Martin Luther King, Jr., had died just three years earlier. “It was a challenge to be walking in his shoes,” he said. “After the losses of King and Young, and the turn towards conservatism that really began in the seventies, both the League and Black America were in a state of sadness, of disappointment.”
After hearing no mention of the crisis facing Black Americans in either President Gerald Ford’s State of the Union Address or Sen. Edmund Muskie’s response, Jordan produced the first State of Black America® report in 1976.
The National Urban League would not be where it is today without Vernon Jordan. We have lost more than a leader; we have lost a brother. We send our prayers to his wife, Ann, his daughter, Vickee, and his entire family and extended family as we rededicate our commitment to his vision of justice and equality.
Marc Morial is President and CEO of the National Urban League.