Vernon Jordan, civil rights leader and adviser to Bill Clinton, dies aged 85

Martin Pengelly and Victoria Bekiempis in New York
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Khue Bui/AP</span>
Photograph: Khue Bui/AP

Vernon Jordan, a leading civil rights activist who became a close adviser to President Bill Clinton, has died. He was 85.

Jordan worked for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and campaigned for voting rights before becoming president of the National Urban League.

“Today, the world lost an influential figure in the fight for civil rights and American politics,” said Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, in a statement.

“An icon to the world and a lifelong friend to the NAACP, his contribution to moving our society toward justice is unparalleled. In 2001, Jordan received the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal for a lifetime of social justice activism. His exemplary life will shine as a guiding light for all that seek truth and justice for all people.”

In their own statement, Bill and Hillary Clinton said: “From his instrumental role in desegregating the University of Georgia in 1961, to his work with the NAACP, the Southern Regional Council, the Voter Education Project, the United Negro College Fund, and the National Urban League, to his successful career in law and business, Vernon Jordan brought his big brain and strong heart to everything and everybody he touched. And he made them better.

“He was never too busy to give good advice and encouragement to young people. And he never gave up on his friends or his country. He was a wonderful friend … in good times and bad. We worked and played, laughed and cried, won and lost together. We loved him very much and always will.”

Jordan advised Bill Clinton in his run for the presidency in 1992, while governor of Arkansas. He also endorsed Hillary Clinton in her run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 and her run for the White House in 2016.

In 1999, Jordan became entangled in the impeachment drama over Bill Clinton’s sexual liaison with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern whom Jordan helped find a job.

Alongside Lewinsky and Sidney Blumenthal, another close adviser to Clinton, he became a key witness in impeachment proceedings which ended in acquittal.

On Tuesday, the Rev Al Sharpton, another leading civil rights activist, said he was “saddened at hearing of the passing of Vernon Jordan, a true civil rights giant. He made a difference. I’ll always treasure his guidance.”

Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate who now campaigns for voting rights, wrote on Twitter: “Mourning the passage of my friend, the extraordinary Vernon Jordan. He battled the demons of voter suppression and racial degradation, winning more than he lost. He brought others with him. And left a map so more could find their way. Love to his family. Travel on with God’s grace.”

The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said Jordan’s “leadership took our nation closer to its founding promise: all are created equal. May it be a comfort to his family that so many across America mourn with and pray for them at this time.”

Jaime Harrison, chair of the Democratic National Committee, said: “From civil rights to business, Mr Jordan demonstrated the highest quality of leadership and created a path forward for African Americans where there were none. He will be missed.”

CNN first reported Jordan’s death. Jordan’s daughter, Vickee Jordan Adams, told CBS News: “My father passed away last night around 10pm surrounded by loved ones, his wife and daughter by his side.” The cause of death was not immediately known.

“We appreciate all of the outpouring of love and affection,” NBC News quoted Jordan Adams as saying.

Following roles as field secretary for the Georgia NAACP and executive director of the United Negro College Fund, Jordan became leader of the National Urban League and thus the face of Black Americans’ fight for justice and jobs.

Having grown up in the Jim Crow south, under segregation, he was the first attorney to lead the Urban League, which prior to his tenure was mostly led by social workers. During his time in this role, the League expanded by 17 chapters and its budget increased to more than $100m. It also expanded its work to include voter registration efforts and conflict resolution between the Black community and law enforcement.

“My view on all this business about race is never to get angry, no, but to get even,” Jordan told the New York Times in 2000. “You don’t take it out in anger; you take it out in achievement.”

In 1980, Jordan was shot outside a hotel in Fort Wayne, Indiana, after a speaking engagement. He underwent five operations. During a three-month recovery at hospital, he was visited by President Jimmy Carter.

Joseph Paul Franklin, a white supremacist who attacked African Americans and Jews in a killing spree across the US from 1977 to 1980, ultimately admitted the shooting.