Vernon E. Jordan By Laraine E. Bryson

Many mourn the recent loss of one of the most influential civil rights leaders of our time, Mr. Vernon Jordan, who died at the age of 85 on March 1, 2021. While many knew him from a distance, his influence was personal for the Peoria community in general and the Tri-County Urban League, in particular.

In 1965, after receiving its affiliation from the National Urban League, the Peoria affiliate began its search for its first executive. They hired Frank Campbell, who worked at the St. Louis Urban League, and only planned to stay here a few years and then move on to a larger city. After some years, Vernon Jordan called to encourage Mr. Campbell to move to New York and work at the National Urban League, but Mr. Campbell stayed here and “played in Peoria” through retirement. Most would have jumped at the opportunity, especially based on a personal request, but Mr. Campbell had found a home in the Peoria community and was committed to making a difference here. During Mr. Campbell’s retirement dinner, Mr. Jordan sent video remarks where he reminded Mr. Campbell of his stubbornness and reminded all of us how lucky Peoria was that Mr. Campbell decided not to leave for 28 years.

Vernon Jordan came to Peoria to speak at the Equal Opportunity Dinner in the 1970s and supported our affiliate efforts. When I saw him at a National Urban League Conference years later and introduced myself as the new CEO from the Peoria Urban League, his face lit up and the first thing he said was, “How’s Frank? I tried to get him to come work for me but he wouldn’t leave Peoria!”

Six months out of law school, Mr. Jordan came to national prominence on the team of attorneys who filed a lawsuit against the University of Georgia to admit two Black students, Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter (now Hunter-Gault) in 1961. Mr. Jordan was then a senior director at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund who had worked as a law clerk in the office of lead attorney Donald Hollowell. As angry mobs of white students hurled vicious threats, national news covered Mr. Jordan guiding Holmes and Hunter to the admissions office.

Born Vernon Eulion Jordan in 1935 in Atlanta during legal segregation, he graduated with honors from David Tobias Howard High School. Born into an era when Black men were routinely addressed as “Boy,” Vernon’s mother pointedly nicknamed him “Man.”  He honored her faith in him with his bravery, his grace, his brilliance and his excellence. He attended DePauw University in Indiana then went to Howard University in Washington, D.C., for law school before returning to Atlanta to fight segregation.

Mr. Jordan was one of the founders of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and the 2005 recipient of the Joint Center’s highest honor—the Louis E. Martin Great American Award. Spencer Overton, President of the Joint Center stated, “Vernon Jordan was an incredible leader who championed for Black people as a lawyer, an activist, a leader in corporate boardrooms, and much more. He was committed to fighting for Black communities and worked to fulfill that mission in every aspect of his work. As Black communities moved from activism to governance, from political representation to economic influence, and from operating outside of power structures to navigating the corridors of power in ways that advance Black communities, Vernon Jordan was at the forefront. Thanks to his vision and that of our other founders, the Joint Center exists today.”

When he joined the National Urban League from 1971 to 1981, he vowed to build on the momentum of legal civil rights victories to create more economic opportunities for Black people. He became known as “an ambassador to the establishment,” in his efforts to increase partnerships to achieve the League’s goals.

During his decade long tenure, the National Urban League began releasing The State of Black America, a report that is still released every year. In the 1990s Mr. Jordan declined President Bill Clinton’s offer to be nominated for attorney general but continued to be one of his closest advisors and developed a lasting friendship.

As a political power broker, he also advised Richard Nixon and Barack Obama. Throughout his illustrious career, Mr. Jordan was well regarded as brilliant, compassionate, sophisticated, and insightful. After leaving the Urban League, he joined the law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in Washington, D.C., and served on several major corporate boards including American Express, Bankers Trust, and Xerox. He was a member of Sigma Pi Phi (the Boulé) and Omega Psi Phi fraternities.

But he remained a man of the people, speaking to groups of Black journalists, students, young leaders of nonprofits, and others to encourage their dedication to ridding society of the classism and racism that traps vast numbers of people in poverty. He believed if you stood on the shoulders of others, you had a reciprocal responsibility to live your life so that others could stand on your shoulders.

When Vernon Jordan walked into a room, he captivated the audience with his striking presence, resounding voice, and surprising wit. He will live on forever through what he has given to this country fighting for justice, decency and racial equality.

Marc Morial, the current National Urban League President stated, “The National Urban League would not be where it is today without Vernon Jordan. We have lost more than a leader; we have lost a brother. We send our prayers to his wife, Ann, his daughter, Vickee, and his entire family and extended family as we rededicate our commitment to his vision of justice and equality.” 

The Tri-County Urban League Board of Directors, staff and volunteers extends condolences to his family and pledge our commitment to honoring his legacy through the programs and services we will continue to provide “to empower our community and change lives.”