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Vernon Jordan, Civil Rights Activist And Power Broker, Dies At 85

Vernon Jordan has died at 85. He's seen here in November of 1992, when he led then-President-elect Bill Clinton's transition team.
Jennifer K. Law
AFP via Getty Images
Vernon Jordan has died at 85. He's seen here in November of 1992, when he led then-President-elect Bill Clinton's transition team.

Updated at 2:35 p.m. ET

Vernon Jordan, the civil rights lawyer who built a career as a power broker in politics and business, has died at age 85.

Jordan "passed away peacefully last evening surrounded by loved ones," his daughter, Vickee Jordan, said in a statement sent to NPR. "We appreciate all of the outpouring of love and affection."

A native of Atlanta, Jordan attended DePauw University before earning his law degree at Howard University. Soon after graduating, he devoted himself to ending discrimination against Black Americans in the fight for equal rights. In 1992-93, he chaired President Bill Clinton's transition team, and for decades he remained a friend and adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Jordan played an important role in desegregating education in the South, particularly at the college level. In the early 1960s, he became the Georgia field director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and he famously helped escort Charlayne Hunter through a crowd of white protesters at the University of Georgia in 1961.

"An icon to the world and a lifelong friend to the NAACP, his contribution to moving our society toward justice is unparalleled," NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said, noting that his organization had honored Jordan for his lifetime of activism.

"His exemplary life will shine as a guiding light for all that seek truth and justice for all people," Johnson said.

Reflecting on the arc of civil rights in his lifetime, Jordan once compared watching Nelson Mandela walking free from prison in South Africa to seeing Barack Obama being declared president-elect of the U.S.

Jordan said he watched both of those major events alone, sitting in front of a television.

"I did not think I would live to see this day," he told NPR's Michel Martin in the weeks after Obama's victory in 2008.

During his long career, Jordan had stints leading both the National Urban League and the United Negro College Fund. He also worked in voter education and was an attorney consultant for the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity.

Jordan has received dozens of honorary degrees – including the University of Pennsylvania, where he delivered the commencement address to his daughter's graduating class. But that speech only happened after Vickee Jordan gave her approval.

As Jordan told NPR, his daughter initially told university administrators that she would rather have her father in the stands than on stage during her graduation.

Jordan recalled, "I was not surprised when she told President [Martin] Meyerson, 'Why can't my dad just sit in the audience like other daddies?'"

But then came a change of heart, and the speech went ahead.

"I said, 'Well listen, Vickee, what about all that is ordinary daddy stuff, me sitting like an ordinary dad?'

"And she said, 'Well, I've decided that you're not an ordinary daddy."

In the business world, Vernon was sought out to join corporate boards and advisory panels. He was a partner emeritus at the Akin Gump law firm and a senior managing director at Lazard Frères & Co., a financial company in New York.

"We have lost a great man today," said Kim Koopersmith, chairperson of Akin Gump, calling Jordan "a wise and trusted mentor and friend who, in all that he did, inspired us to be the best possible version of ourselves."

"His generosity was boundless, and his guidance was unassailable and delivered with a purposefulness and moral clarity that will never be equaled," Koopersmith said. "In so many respects, Vernon was one of a kind, and his enormous contributions — to our firm, to our country, and to us as individuals — will be greatly missed."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.