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Vernon Jordan, Activist, Former Clinton Adviser, Has Died

Vernon Jordan

Vernon Jordan at DePauw University. (Courtesy of DePauw University)

Vernon Jordan, 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, has died, according to a statement from his daughter. He was 85.

“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."

Jordan's death comes months after the deaths of two other civil rights icons: U.S. Rep. John Lewis and C.T. Vivian.

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.”

Jordan was the first lawyer to head the Urban League, which had traditionally been led by social workers. Under Jordan’s leadership, the Urban League added 17 more chapters and its budget swelled to more than $100 million. The organization also broadened its focus to include voter registration drives and conflict resolution between Blacks and law enforcement.

He resigned from the Urban League in 1982 to become a partner at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld.

Jordan was a key campaign adviser to Clinton during his first presidential campaign and co-chaired Clinton’s transition team. He was the first Black to be assigned such a role.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday on Twitter that “Jordan's leadership took our nation closer to its Founding promise: all are created equal."

His friendship with Clinton, which began in the 1970s, evolved into a partnership and political alliance. He met Clinton as a young politician in Arkansas, and the two connected over their Southern roots and poor upbringings.

Although Jordan held 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 the NAFTA agreement 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.

Vernon Eulion Jordan Jr., was born in Atlanta on Aug. 15, 1935, the second of Vernon and Mary Belle Jordan’s three sons. Until Jordan was 13, the family lived in public housing. But he was exposed to Atlanta’s elite through his mother, who worked as a caterer for many of the city’s affluent citizens.

Jordan went to DePauw University in Indiana, where he was the only Black student in his class and one of five at the college. Distinguishing himself through academics, oratory and athletics, he graduated in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and went on to attend Howard University School of Law in Washington.

While there, he married his first wife, Shirley Yarbrough.

The young couple moved to Atlanta after Jordan earned his law degree in 1960, and Jordan became a clerk for civil rights attorney Donald Hollowell, who successfully represented two Black students — Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter — attempting to integrate the University of Georgia. In an iconic photograph, Jordan, an imposing 6 feet, 4 inches, is seen holding at bay the white mob that tried to block Hunter from starting her first day of classes.

In 1961, Jordan became Georgia field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. During his two years in the role, Jordan built new chapters, coordinated demonstrations and boycotted businesses that would not employ Blacks.

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