Vernon Jordan, Jr., one of the major civil rights figures in American history and a presidential advisor, is also the author of Vernon Can Read! A Memoir (Public Affairs, written with Annette Gordon-Reed).
His memoir covers the life story of a larger than life American leader, from his early days, through the civil rights revolution, and to the halls of power. Most recently labeled by the national media as “mister inside” and former President Clinton’s “first friend,” Vernon Jordan’s life and career have followed a remarkable trajectory.
Growing up in the first federally funded housing project in the U.S., Jordan was exposed to Atlanta’s elite while helping his mother in her catering business. As part of one summer Jordan drove a white banker around town. During the man’s afternoon naps, Jordan passed the time reading books, a fact that astounded his boss. “Vernon can read!” the man exclaimed to his relatives.
Encouraged by his mother to be educated in the North, Jordan worked his way through college at DePauw University in Indiana. Becoming a noted speaker, Jordan won a top state award and placed third nationally for a speech entitled “The Negro in America.” After earning a J.D. from Howard University, Jordan became involved in the civil rights movement. Over the course of the 1960s, Jordan emerged as an important leader of the moderate wing of the movement, advocating progress through the system. He led the voter education project to register black voters in the South and escorted Charlayne Hunter, the first African-American student to enroll at the University of Georgia, through crowds of angry whites.
Jordan’s instrumental role in integrating American businesses and providing economic and social support to the expanding black middle class reached an early pinnacle when he became president of the National Urban League in 1972. Jordan became a pillar of America’s legal, corporate and political worlds, fostering ties with the civil rights movement. He also became the target of a white racist’s assassination attempt in 1980, a crime still without a conviction.
After recovery, Jordan assumed a less public role in the practice of law, but still acted as an intimate advisor to civil rights groups and political leaders. His long relationship with Bill Clinton led to a key role in Clinton’s campaign for the presidency, helping to select Al Gore as running mate, and chairing his transition team. Jordan turned down an appointment as attorney general but attempted to balance roles as an unofficial presidential advisor and Washington corporate lawyer, becoming a figure in the Lewinsky affair.
Jordan is now a senior managing director of the investment firm Lazard Freres & Co. Annette Gordon-Reed is a professor at New York Law School and author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings: An American Controversy.
Vernon Jordan was interviewed at Kentucky Author Forum by Ronald Brownstein, Senior Correspondent for the Los Angeles Times in Washington, D.C. Brownstein is also a political analyst for CNN, appearing weekly on the CNN program “Inside Politics.” In 2001, Brownstein was named by Washingtonian Magazine as one of the best and most influential journalists in the nation’s capital.