Catalyst: Vernon Jordan
By Kenrya Rankin
Talk about nine lives.
Vernon Eulion Jordan Jr.’s catlike curiosity is matched only by his ability to recreate himself. The author of Vernon Can Read! and Make It Plain: Standing Up and Speaking Out went from a young black boy in Jim Crow Atlanta to a national powerbroker. Nicknamed “Man” by his mother at an early age, Jordan constantly worked to prove himself worthy of the moniker, even at a time when most black men were denied the not-so-simple courtesy of that title.
Now 75, the Washington, D.C.–based attorney stands in the gap between the corporate world and the political one. He has several presidential appointments on his CV, including the President’s Advisory Committee for the Points of Light Initiative Foundation, the Advisory Council on Social Security, the Secretary of State’s Advisory Committee on South Africa and the Presidential Clemency Board—plus he headed President Clinton’s transition team in 1992. He’s also served on various corporate boards, including American Express, Xerox, Dow Jones and Company, J.C. Penney Corporation, Sara Lee and Revlon.
But no one (except maybe Jordan himself) would have guessed that that was his destiny back in 1953, when he became the only black student in his class at
DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. He finished his degree in political science and moved on to his third life at Howard University Law School, fighting at the forefront of the civil rights movement.
Name a major organization and Jordan has worked within it: as Georgia field director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, director of the Voter Education Project for the Southern Regional Council, executive director of the United Negro College Fund, president and CEO of the National Urban League for 10 years (where he created the State of Black America report, which the organization still publishes annually) and a member of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s White House Conference on Civil Rights.
A racially motivated attempt on his life outside a Marriott Hotel in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in May 1980 prompted Jordan to resign from the National Urban League. Two years later, he headed to the law firm Akin Gump, where he is currently senior counsel. He also serves as director of global investment bank Lazard Ltd. Three decades after embracing corporate America, Jordan doesn’t show signs of slowing down. And why should he? By our count, he still has at least four lives to go.