The Renowned Vernon Jordan

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Before he went to college, civil rights veteran and businessman Vernon Jordan’s mother told him to join the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), according to his book, “Vernon Can Read.” All the white people she had worked for made their children join ROTC, his mother reasoned. “There must be something to it,” she told the young Jordan.

Jordan was a strong-willed, determined young man who persevered in his quest to succeed. He got a good education, was a successful activist and then became a business executive as well as a consultant and friend to President Bill Clinton. Though many Americans know Jordan from his involvement in the Monica Lewinsky scenario, most African Americans know about his record of accomplishment.
On Feb. 15. 2002, Radio station WVON and weekly publication N’Digo presented their annual “Breakfast of Champions” featuring a dialogue with Jordan at the Hyatt Regency. The event was hosted by Melody Spann Copper, president of WVON, and Hermene Hartman, publisher of N’Digo, and sponsored by Northern Trust.

Hartman moderated the event. Jordan is one of the nation’s most distinguished businessmen and civil rights activists. Jordan held the following positions: president and chief executive office of the National Urban League, executive director of the United Negro College Fund, and Georgia field director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Jordan holds a number of corporate and other directorships, including 17 business and 12 presidential appointments, just to name a few. Jordan is a graduate of Depauw University of Greencastle, Indiana, and Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C. He holds honorary degrees from more than 50 colleges and universities in America.

The dialogue began when Jordan said, “When I think about the early part of my life and how it helped make me the man that I have become, how lucky I was to have been born and raised in a world of structures.

“There was the structure of my family, structure of the St. Paul Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, the Gate City day nursery, my schools and the Butter Street Colored YMCA but, above all else, I had my family.”

Jordan was asked about his mother’s strong motivation and guidance.

“My mother had no extensive formal education. What she did have going for her was natural intelligence and an almost superhuman drive and the fact that she was a very good cook. This combination made her the owner of one of the best catering businesses in Atlanta, Georgia.”

Jordan spoke very highly of his mother. “The principal architect, general contractor and bricklayer for the whole enterprise was my mother, Mary Belle Jordan, with strong assistance from my father, Vernon E. Jordan Sr. Although my father was a constant and steady presence, there was no question who was in charge of my brother and me. It was my mother’s plan that mattered.

“Her strategy for getting her Black sons through childhood in the segregated South grew out of her approach to life in general: Do the best you can and hope and expect good outcomes from your efforts.”

Vernon Jordan Jr. was born Aug. 15, 1935, in Atlanta, Georgia.

“At the time of my birth, Georgia – unreconstructed, unrepentant Georgia – the state was 70 years, one Biblical lifetime, away from the end of the legalized slavery. That was just a blink of an eye in history terms and the fallout from that history was everywhere to be seen.” Jordan talked about the times that his parents took him and his brother from the city to the country in the summer to visit their grandparents, Charlie and Anne Jordan, and their aunt, Jimme Lee. He talked about how they played games, climbed trees, and got into fights with their cousin Bobby and a white boy also named Bobby.

Jordan said, “In the summer of 1947, I came into my aunt Jimme Lee’s house as usual and after greeting the adults, I was ready to go outside. My cousin Bobby was already there. I said immediately, ‘Let’s go get Bobby,’ meaning the white boy. My aunt grabbed me by the arm, held it tightly, pulled me close and said, ‘Listen, you must understand that he’s no longer Bobby. He is 12 years old. He is Mr. Bobby now.’

“Her words stung me, making me think about the ways of that world in a way I had never before. ‘Mr. Bobby.’ I was 12 years old too. Why wasn’t I ‘Mr. Jordan?’ I said to my cousin, ‘Forget about going to see Bobby. We won’t do that anymore.’ That was the death of our little interracial summer band.”

In 1955, Jordan had completed his sophomore year in college when he was offered an opportunity to work as an intern with an insurance company in Atlanta. He was refused the position because he was “colored,” to use the term people used in those days. He did get a job in the summer of 1955 with the help of his mother. He became a chauffer for Robert Maddox.

Jordan said, “Robert Maddox was one of the leading figures in Atlanta’s white elites for most of the early part of the 20th century. Maddox had a wonderful library that soon became a place of refuge during the dead hours of the afternoon. Shakespeare, Thoreau, Emerson, it had everything.”

Jordan’s book, “Vernon Can Read,” continues the story: “One afternoon, as I sat reading, Maddox walked in on me. ‘What are you doing in the library, Vernon?’ ‘I’m reading, Mr. Maddox.’ ‘Reading? I’ve never had a n–r work for me who could read.’ ‘I can read. I go to college.’

“‘You go to college over there at the colored school?’ ‘No, sir. I go to Depauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.’ He pondered for a moment. ‘White children go to that school?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ Then the inevitable: ‘Do white girls go to that school?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘What are you supposed to be, a preacher or teacher?’ ‘I’m going to be a lawyer.’ ‘N—s aren’t supposed to be lawyers.’ ‘I’m going to be a lawyer, Mr. Maddox.’ Robert Maddox told everyone he came in contact with, ‘Vernon can read.'”

“This story does not have a happy ending with the old man coming to see the error of his ways and taking on the role of mentor to the young man. I would find mentors in other places. The story is told and I am not sure it is true that in 1961, when I escorted Charlayne Hunter through the mobs at the University of Georgia to desegregate that institution, Maddox was watching the well-publicized event on television. The nurse recognized me and said, ‘Mr. Maddox, do you know who that colored lawyer is?’ ‘I don’t believe so.’ ‘It’s your chauffer, Vernon.’ Maddox looked hard at the screen and said, ‘I always knew that n–r was up to no good.'”

Jordan was asked by the moderator why most Black businessmen seem to sell their businesses just when they begin to prosper.

“Robert Johnson sold his BET television station,” Hartman said. “Do you feel they have an obligation to the Black communities not to sell?”

Jordan said, “Well, that’s a funny question because I feel Black, red, green or white, none of you have the right to tell me what to do with my business because that is what an entrepreneur is, an entrepreneur. He or she decides to go into business. The first thing they do, they go and raise some capital. The people who are making the judgments whether they should sell or not were not around when the capital was being raised. I have always been careful about making judgments about other people’s businesses. Robert Johnson appears to have been a very good businessman. I will leave that to his business judgment what to do with his business.

When I went on my first corporate board, some of the brothers said, ‘Vernon Jordan has sold out.’ We have to decide who we are and what we want to be not based on some community standards but our own ideals. I don’t know if Robert Johnson should have sold his business or not sold his business. If I had a 10 percent stake in it, then I would have something to say, not because I am Black.”

The moderator asked Jordan why his book, “Vernon Can Read,” stopped in 1981 before Jordan’s relationship with President Bill Clinton.

He said, “My book stopped in 1981. That’s where my non-profit life ended and my for-profit life began. The first reason is my life growing up through 1981 was the most exciting time of my life. The second reason it was time that we heard about the inside up and the upside down. The third reason, had there been no civil rights movement, there would have been no corporate board meetings. The fourth reason is that most white people in America have the mistaken notion I was born Jan. 20, 1993, and I had a whole successful, happy life before that. The final reason for doing it is that it was my book and I did damn well what I pleased.”

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