Vernon E. Jordan Jr. always knew that he belonged, even if others did not.
Growing up in segregated Atlanta, he worked as a waiter at lawyers club dinners catered by his mother and soaking in the ways of the movers and shakers around him. As a college student, he spent a summer as a chauffeur and butler for Robert F. Maddox, an aging banker and former mayor of Atlanta. When Maddox found Jordan relaxing with a book from the banker’s voluminous home library, he seemed surprised. That evening, Jordan said Maddox marveled to his family, “Vernon can read!” — a phrase that Jordan appropriated as the title of his 2001 memoir.
The joke, as it turned out, was on Maddox.
Jordan, who died Monday at 85, could read, and much, much more. He went on to be a lawyer, civil rights leader, adviser to presidents and corporations, and mentor to a long roster of leaders and executives. Tall, charming and self-assured, Jordan was the ultimate Washington insider, a wise man in a town where almost every other wise man was white.
“Vernon Jordan was a wonderful friend to Hillary, Chelsea, and me, in good times and bad,” tweeted former President Bill Clinton, who relied on Jordan to help steer him through both political and personal troubles. “We worked and played, laughed and cried, won and lost together. We loved him very much and always will.”
The eternal wonder of Jordan’s life is how he, born an outsider in a world constructed to keep him there, managed to become an insider.
Jordan’s father was a postal worker and his mother ran a catering business. The family, which also included his two brothers, lived in public housing until Jordan was 13. By the time he graduated from Atlanta’s all-Black David T. Howard High School, he was a standout basketball player and student. Despite an opportunity to attend historically Black Howard University, he went to DePauw University in Indiana, where he was the only Black student in his class and just one of five on campus.
Jordan always spoke of his years at DePauw fondly, recalling in a recent documentary that despite some early awkwardness, his white classmates learned as much from him as he did from them. On several occasions, he invited white classmates to come home with him on school breaks, something that he said raised eyebrows among his neighbors and surprised his father, even as it forged connections and understanding.
“Our neighbors wondered at this curious sight: a white college boy staying at the home of his black classmate, right in the middle of a segregated neighborhood. Surely, nothing like that had ever happened in our little corner of the world,” Jordan wrote in his memoir. “It was all just light years away from the backwoods of Georgia – that had helped shape [my father’s] expectations. That a son of his would come home from college with a white classmate and interact with him as an equal was beyond anything he could ever have contemplated.”
During his time in college, Jordan worked as an on-campus waiter, once serving then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon at a luncheon held to dedicate a new library. A photograph captured the young Jordan serving Nixon. Jordan held onto the picture, and years later when he was invited to the Nixon White House after being named president of the National Urban League, he showed it to the president of the United States.
“Mr. President, this photograph was taken at a time when both of us were on our way up,” Jordan recalled telling Nixon. He said Nixon got a “great kick” out of the story.
After graduating from DePauw in 1957, Jordan went to Howard University School of Law before returning to Atlanta to join a small civil rights law firm.
Jordan worked on the case that desegregated the University of Georgia, and in 1961 he escorted one of the plaintiffs, Charlayne Hunter, who went on to become one of the nation’s leading journalists, onto campus through a hostile white crowd.
Through the years, Jordan held a series of increasingly prominent civil rights jobs, including field director of the Georgia NAACP, director of the Voter Education Project of the Southern Regional Council and executive director of the United Negro College Fund before being named executive director of the National Urban League in 1971.
His civil rights credentials are unquestionable, but Jordan preferred making change by dealing directly with powerful people, eye to eye, peer to peer.
As head of the Urban League, he traveled the country extensively to raise money from corporate leaders. Over time, he was invited to join the boards of corporations, including American Express, Dow Jones & Co., Xerox and Union Carbide. He used his access to press major companies to hire Black and female executives and other employees.
In 1980, Jordan was shot in the back with a high-powered rifle after stepping out of a car in a parking lot in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The assassination attempt almost killed him, and he underwent six surgeries and spent three months in the hospital before regaining his health. Among his hospital visitors were then-President Jimmy Carter, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and future President Ronald Reagan.
Indiana authorities charged avowed white supremacist Joseph Paul Franklin with the shooting. Franklin was acquitted at trial, though he would later acknowledge having been the gunman. He was later convicted of other crimes, including fatally shooting two Black joggers who were running with white women, and was executed in 2013.
Jordan stepped down from his Urban League post in 1981, and went to work for the Washington office of the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, advising corporate and international clients and burnishing his reputation as a Washington power broker. He later became a partner in the investment firm Lazard Freres & Co.
Through it all, any insecurities Jordan might have harbored remained well hidden. He was self-confident in a way that made him impervious to stereotype and petty racial insults. At times, he appeared to mock them. When The HistoryMakers, the African American oral history collection, asked him his favorite food, he said fried chicken.
During Clinton’s presidency, Jordan turned down an offer to be the nation’s first Black attorney general, preferring to hold onto his lucrative corporate work and behind-the-scenes influence as the president’s consigliere and regular golf partner.
Asked in a 2001 interview to reflect on his journey from segregated Atlanta to the power corridors of Washington, Jordan saw a clear trajectory. “I would describe it as sort of a continuum of ups and downs,” he said. “But always ups and downs going up.”