Vernon Jordan Jr.

Vernon Jordan Jr. is an attorney, civil rights leader, business consultant and influential power broker.


Vernon Jordan Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1935. He became field secretary for the NAACP in Georgia in 1961, and later ascended to prominent posts with the United Negro College Fund and the National Urban League. Jordan left the Urban League after surviving an assassination attempt in 1980, and served as an influential adviser to President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

Early Life

Vernon Eulion Jordan Jr. was born on August 15, 1935, in segregated Atlanta, Georgia. His father, Vernon Sr., was a postal worker and his mother, Mary Belle, ran a successful catering business. Addressed by his mother as "man," to counter the prejudicial term of "boy" often levied on black males, Jordan grew up in the nation's first government-funded housing project for African Americans.

Jordan excelled in high school and upon graduation in 1953, he enrolled at DePauw University, in Indiana, majoring in political science. Though many friends attended historically black colleges, Jordan said he chose the virtually all-white school to "change the way blacks lived in the United States."

Working to Advance Civil Rights

In 1957, Vernon Jordan Jr. enrolled at Howard University School of Law, where he met his first wife, Shirley Yarbrough. After receiving his J.D. in 1960, he returned to Atlanta to clerk for famed civil rights attorney Donald Hollowell, quickly finding himself on the front lines of actions to end Jim Crow laws.

Taking over as Georgia's NAACP field secretary in 1961, Jordan was tasked with expanding membership, opening new branches, and organizing boycotts and demonstrations. With his oratorical skills and level-headed thinking, he quickly moved into positions of greater authority and responsibility. In 1964, Jordan became director of the Southern Regional Council's Voter Education Project, helping to significantly increase the number of black voters in the Deep South.

In 1971, Jordan became president of the National Urban League. He developed close ties with key members of the Nixon Administration, including aide John Ehrlichman. This drew strong criticism from militant blacks, who accused Jordan of "selling out." Jordan countered that very little could be accomplished if people limited their interactions to others with similar backgrounds and interests. He added real racial equality would elude blacks if they remained on the margins.

Attempted Assassination

On May 29, 1980, Vernon Jordan Jr. was shot and seriously wounded by an alleged white supremacist named John Paul Franklin. After a long recovery, Jordan was able to resume a full work schedule. Although Franklin was acquitted, he later admitted to the shooting while imprisoned for another murder.

Private Law and Presidential Adviser

In 1981, Vernon Jordan Jr. left the Urban League and joined a powerful law firm in Washington, D.C. His wife, Shirley, died in 1985, and he remarried in 1986. 

Having become close to Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, Jordan aided Clinton's successful 1992 presidential campaign before becoming an unofficial adviser to the administration. In 1998, he was accused of helping to cover-up Clinton's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Jordan maintained his composure through hours of questioning by prosecutors and was later cleared of all allegations.

A member of several corporate boards, including American Express, J.C. Penny and the Dow Jones Company, Jordan has also served as senior managing director of investment firm Lazard Frères & Co. LLC since 2000. His autobiography, Vernon Can Read!: A Memoir, was published in 2001.

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