Remembering Civil Rights Leader Vernon Jordan, Friend of the Humphrey School

March 3, 2021
Vernon Jordan speaks at the Humphrey School in October 2018
Vernon Jordan speaks at the Humphrey School in October 2018, at the launch of the School's Josie Robinson Johnson Fellowship. Jordan, who died this week at age 85, helped establish the fund in honor of Johnson, a close friend. Photo: Bruce Silcox

Vernon Jordan, civil rights icon, business consultant, and influential power broker who died this week at age 85, is remembered at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs for his support of the School’s efforts to address racial inequities and injustice. 

Jordan helped establish the School’s Josie Robinson Johnson Fellowship, which the School launched in 2018 in honor of Johnson, a Minnesota civil rights activist and close friend of Jordan. He also received the School’s Hubert H. Humphrey Public Leadership Award in 2014. 

Jordan was a leading figure in the civil rights movement beginning in the 1960s, serving in a range of critical positions, including Georgia field director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; executive director of the United Negro College Fund; and president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League. In those capacities, he played key roles in legal challenges to segregation, in expansion of the organized civil rights movement, and in voter education and registration, among other issues. 

Later in his career Jordan became one of the most influential figures in Washington, DC, and a close advisor to former President Bill Clinton and other political leaders. 

 Josie Robinson Johnson Fellowship

Vernon Jordan and Josie Johnson in 2018
Vernon Jordan embraces Josie Johnson following his remarks at an event launching a Humphrey School fellowship in her name, in October 2018. Photo: Bruce Silcox

Dean Laura Bloomberg described Jordan as a “terrific friend of the Humphrey School,” and a generous supporter of the Josie Robinson Johnson Fellowship.

“Once, when Mr. Jordan and I were having lunch together at his favorite Georgetown haunt (where everyone stopped to greet him), he told me that he would do anything to honor his dear friend Josie Johnson because she was the kindest, wisest, and most generous person he knew,” Bloomberg recalled. “If that is true, then Mr. Jordan was a close second. I feel very blessed to have known this remarkable civil rights icon.”

Jordan spoke at a 2018 reception hosted by the Humphrey School in Josie Johnson’s honor, where he described the fellowship as a fitting tribute to her lifelong commitment to equity and justice and to "the historical impact she has made at the University of Minnesota." 

"While many things happening in our country are not normal, they also are not new," said Jordan. "And because we have been here before, we know what we need—more Josie Johnsons. This fellowship will give the next generation of Josie Johnsons the tools they need to keep fighting for the justice we all seek, and bring us closer to the world Josie has always been pushing us toward."

Public Leadership Award

Jordan received the Public Leadership Award in 2014 as a recognition of "his lifelong efforts and accomplishments in the promotion of equal rights and social justice," given as the Humphrey School reflected on the 50th anniversary of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Eric Schwartz, the Humphrey School’s dean at the time, said Jordan’s contributions to civil rights and social justice also extended to his long career in the private sector: while working at high-profile law firms and serving on private and non-profit boards and commissions, Jordan advocated for African American economic empowerment.   

Vernon Jordan and Eric Schwartz in 2014
Vernon Jordan with Humphrey School Dean Eric Schwartz in 2014, when Jordan received the School's Public Leadership Award. Photo: Paula Keller

“Vernon Jordan has commented, ‘Why should we just be the beneficiaries of corporate largesse, but not have a say in how that largesse would be distributed? If members of corporate America could be on our boards, why couldn't we be on theirs?’  Why not indeed,” said Schwartz.

In accepting the award, Jordan said he was influenced by Hubert Humphrey’s advocacy for civil rights even as a child.

Jordan said he was 13 years old when he watched TV coverage of the 1948 Democratic National Convention, at which Humphrey, then mayor of Minneapolis, set forth a strong civil rights agenda for the Democratic Party, causing southern segregationist delegates to walk out of the convention. 

As Jordan became involved in the civil rights movement, their paths would cross often.  

“I loved, admired, and greatly respected Hubert Humphrey,” Jordan said in his remarks. “I had the great privilege of coming to know Hubert Humphrey, and he was quite a man.” 

Jordan called the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act Humphrey’s greatest accomplishment; Humphrey led the fight for the bill in the U.S. Senate, months before he was elected vice president under Lyndon Johnson. 

Video: Vernon Jordan's 2014 remarks

In 2014, Jordan emphasized the importance of vigilance against injustice and inequality, which are on the rise across the country. He made similar comments four years later, saying “we live in perilous times.” 

He held up Hubert Humphrey and Josie Johnson as examples for individuals to follow, to be our “lights in the darkness, our legends in the fight for justice.” Vernon Jordan is another of those legends. 

Read more about his life and legacy in The New York Times