Web page: Remembering Vernon Jordan, a special type of civil rights chief | Ap

As someone who kept covering Vernon Jordan for several decades, I remember defying simple labels. You had to get to know him. There was a lot to know about him.

His oversized personality, courtly manner, commanding presence, historical impact, strategic thinking, and robust – occasionally biting – humor were not easy to find in the acronym of daily journalism.

Jordan, who died last week at the age of 85, has often been labeled a “civil rights activist”. That wasn’t wrong, just insufficient. En route from greats like Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, he graduated from Howard University Law School (the same historically black law school as Marshall) and joined the Atlanta Civil Rights Law Firm, which successfully promoted desegregation at the university of Georgia requested.

Like countless others, I watched him on the evening news in 1961 and escorted the university’s first two black students, Charlayne Hunter (now Charlayne Hunter-Gault) and Hamilton Holmes, past a crowd of angry white protesters to the university admissions office.

He left private practice to take on other leadership roles in the Georgian NAACP, the Voter Education Project, and later as Executive Director of the United Negro College Fund and President of the National Urban League – all in their mid-30s.

But he stood out from other civil rights leaders in these days of racist milestones because, for one thing, he was not a clergyman. As an attorney focused on both civil rights and the Urban League’s business-oriented agenda, he was another key front in the fight for equal opportunities: economic and educational development through public-private partnerships with business leaders.

“Some of us are tree shakers, some are jelly makers,” Rev. Jesse Jackson told me more than once at the time. According to this model, Jackson saw himself more as an agitator for change, paving the way for others like Jordan to develop action plans and programs for employment, education, housing and other community development.

But when the time was right and the occasion was right, he could preach. He could preach with the Stentorian eloquence of Marshall or Clarence Darrow or any of the other great speakers of his profession.

Jordan was a “warrior of social justice” at a time when this descriptor has not been used with the sarcasm exercised by the most brazen and cynical conservatives of today.

He also came dangerously close to martyrdom itself. I was at the local Chicago Tribune news desk in 1980 when he was shot and seriously wounded outside a Marriott Inn in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Fortunately, he survived and a white supremacist named Joseph Paul Franklin admitted the shooting and was later executed after being convicted of murder in another case.

Jordan left the Urban League and the civil rights movement the following year to join the politically well-connected law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, where he had truly earned the unofficial title of “Washington Insider” and his friendship with President Bill Clinton the unofficial title “First Buddy”.

Here, too, he defied usual expectations. His death is reminiscent of the cloud of dust that emerged from a photo of him chauffeuring the president in a golf cart during a weekend game on the front page of the New York Times.

Some of my newsroom friends, Black and White, had mixed reactions to the “new president’s chauffeur”. How the hell I wrote back then: imagine how much the zillionaires of this world would pay to sit in that driver’s seat?

I thought about how Jordan probably got his first taste of the world of power and influence as a waiter at dinners for the Atlanta attorneys who worked for his mother, who, like mine, ran a catering business.

He also worked a summer in college as a driver for a wealthy, politically connected banker who was shocked to discover he could read. His exclamation to his family became the title of his 2008 autobiography, co-authored with award-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed: “Vernon Can Read!”

Yes he could. He also gave us a lot to read.

His life illustrated the power that education and effort can bring when the doors of opportunity are opened to those who are preparing to enter.

Page received the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 and is a columnist and member of the editorial team of the Chicago Tribune. He entered the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame in 1992. His email address is [email protected].

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