Vernon Jordan: More than a “First Friend”

Dec-03-2001 by

Vernon Jordan has a remarkable story, and last Monday he came to the Kennedy School Forum to tell it. Jordan is a rare individual; an African-American who can lay claim to both a distinguished career in the civil rights movement and a seat in the top rank of the American legal and financial establishment. He is the first African-American to have been credibly described as the best friend of a sitting President of the United States, and unlike most of his peers in the white-shoe law firms, investment banks and corporate boardrooms that are now his milieu, Jordan grew up on the wrong side of Jim Crow laws in the Deep South.
Although Jordan is probably best known today as Bill Clinton’s favorite golfing buddy (and for an alleged bit-role in the Lewinsky cover-up), he is of course much more than that. Over the course of a lifetime, he has been a leading civil rights lawyer, the head of two major civil rights organizations, a senior partner of a powerful law firm and a managing director at a venerable investment bank. He currently sits on the boards of some of the world’s largest corporations, including American Express, Dow Jones and DaimlerChrysler.

Jordan, a 1969 Fellow of the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, returned there to promote his new memoir. The book, titled, Vernon Can Read! and co-authored by Annette Gordon-Reed, traces Jordan’s career up to 1981, when he left the non-profit world to join the law firm, Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld. The story behind the book’s title, which he related last Monday, reveals just how long the odds were that Vernon Jordan would ever succeed.

Born to working-class parents in Atlanta, Jordan went to Indiana to attend DePauw University in 1953, where he was the only African-American in his class. He returned to Atlanta after his sophomore year to take up a summer internship with the Continental Insurance Company. Jordan presented himself at the firm’s headquarters, causing a minor commotion as Continental discovered its summer intern from DePauw was in fact, “a colored boy.” The firm scrambled to find him a position selling its policies from the offices of a black-owned insurance business in another part of town, but he soon quit in frustration. His mother, a caterer to wealthy families, managed to secure him a job working as a butler and chauffeur for Robert Maddox, a retired bank president and former mayor of Atlanta.

Jordan’s duties that summer consisted mainly of driving Maddox to and from appointments and serving his meals when he was home. As Maddox was retired, Jordan was idle for a good part of the time. One day Maddox was shocked to find Jordan in his well-appointed library, reading a book. “I’ve never had one of you that can read,” he told Jordan. When Jordan further announced his intention to study law, Maddox replied, “Y’all aren’t supposed to be lawyers,” to which the young Jordan replied, “I’m going to be a lawyer, Mr. Maddox.” A shaken Maddox thereafter took to announcing his disturbing discovery to family and friends in Jordan’s presence, declaring after a dramatic pause for effect: “Vernon can read.”
The hostility of this pillar of the establishment towards his very literacy and his dream of becoming a lawyer left a deep impression on Jordan and steeled his resolve to succeed. His path was, however, a long and sometimes difficult one. He tasted triumph early in his career when he personally escorted a young Charlayne Hunter (later Hunter-Gault) onto campus in 1961, desegregating the University of Georgia. The civil rights phase of his career ended in 1981 on a less happy note, however, several months after he was shot by a white supremacist. He embarked on a second career in private practice and quickly made a name for himself as a consummate Washington insider. Asked his thoughts on civil rights and African-American leadership today, Jordan told the audience, “If you go back to 1963, you saw black leadership at its highest and best. Civil rights cannot be like it was then. There was a time when there was nowhere to turn. Today issues are not so black and white.”

HBS was well represented at the Forum on Monday night and Jordan’s story and example seemed to find particular resonance with this section of the audience. Noted Rod Norman (OC), “As a native Atlantan, I grew up hearing about Vernon Jordan from my parents and their friends, so it was good to finally see him in person. He is a legend in my book because he understood that even though the civil rights movement would open doors, it would take economic empowerment to walk through them. He has shaped his professional career in that manner.”

Rayford Davis (NK), another native Atlantan, attended a school on the same road that Jordan drove Maddox along every day in that summer of 1955. Davis noted Jordan’s reference to Gomillion vs. Lightfoot, a landmark civil rights-era gerrymandering case. “My grandfather was a plaintiff in that case, so it touched me directly.” Asked what Jordan’s example meant to him as an African-American at HBS, Davis said, “It means that since you’re here, you’re receiving a gift that obliges you to be both a business leader and a civil servant.”

Jordan wrote this memoir, he said, because he realized that his daughter had no idea of the horrors that came with being black in the South in the 1950s. Towards the end of the evening, he told the poignant story of E.D. Nixon, an early voting rights pioneer whose courageous example had been forgotten even in his own hometown. He hinted at another reason for writing the book as well: “People in America think I was born on January 20, 1993. I had a full, rich life before that!”

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