JEFF DAVIS, Executive Director State Bar of Georgia.
Vernon Jordan: Inspired to “Keep at it”
A prominent civil rights leader, political mover and shaker, corporate advisor and presidential confidante, Vernon Jordan has been a familiar face and voice on the American scene for more than half a century. His rise to notoriety and influence is a product of his upbringing in the segregated South, his trailblazing sojourn to a prestigious higher-learning institution in the Midwest and his role in one of Georgia’s most famous civil rights cases at the very start of his legal career.
Vernon E. Jordan Jr. was born Aug. 15, 1935, in Atlanta, according to his New Georgia Encyclopedia biography written by W. Michael Kirkland. His father was a mail carrier at Fort McPherson who later served in World War II, and his mother owned a catering business. The family moved to University Homes, which Jordan called “the first public housing project for black people in America,” funded by the New Deal and so named because of its proximity to the campuses of Spelman College, Clark College, Morehouse College and the Atlanta University Center.
In a February 2019 interview program at the Clinton Foundation headquarters in New York, Jordan talked about his childhood and his inspiration to become a lawyer and civil rights advocate. He said his introduction to politics came in 1943, when the 8-year-old heard then-Gov. Eugene Talmadge use a racial slur on WSB Radio and pledge that Georgia would continue to be a segregated state on his watch.
“About the same time,” Jordan said, “an itinerant Baptist preacher in Muscogee County, that’s Columbus, Georgia, went to the courthouse, to the voter registration office and said ‘I want to register to vote in the white primary,’ and he was told he could not register to vote in the white primary because he was colored . . . . He leaves the courthouse, gets in his car, drives to Atlanta to see Austin Thomas Walden, the first black admitted to the bar in Georgia. Walden called Thurgood Marshall, and they filed a lawsuit called King v. Chapman. And in King v. Chapman, along with Smith v. Allright in about 1944 or 1945, the Supreme Court ruled that blacks had a right to vote in the primary.
“So I grew up with Talmadge on the one hand, but this itinerant Baptist preacher on the other . . . . I got to know Primus King, and I got to spend time with him. He is one of my heroes, and one of the most important things in my life is that I got to know Primus King, who by himself, unaccompanied, went to the Muscogee County Courthouse to register to vote and filed a lawsuit and won it.”
After graduating with honors from David T. Howard High School in 1953, Jordan had a broad choice of options for higher education—despite the fact that Georgia’s university system was segregated at the time. “As a junior in high school,” Jordan recalled, “I thought I was going to Howard University. I applied and got accepted. All of my teachers wanted me to go to Morehouse, which was across t he street from the housing project where I lived. There used to be an organization called the National Service and Scholarship Fund for Negro Students. It was based on the project at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., where they took the best students and sent them to Ivy League schools. So I got very interested in it, and I applied to Yale, I applied to Dartmouth, I applied to Lafayette, and I applied to DePauw . . . . I went to DePauw in Indiana, and I caught hell from my teachers. They would say, ‘Morehouse was good enough for me. It ought to be good enough for you.’ My counselor said, ‘How can your mother afford to send you to that school way up in Indiana?’ I said, ‘Just write the recommendation, please.’” When he arrived in Greencastle, Indiana, and enrolled at DePauw University, Jordan was the only African-American student in his class. “I went up there in June to a conference for kids going to college,” he said. “I was the...