BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Vernon Jordan, what
do you hope to accomplish by writing
Mr. VERNON JORDAN, AUTHOR, "VERNON CAN READ!: A MEMOIR": What I hope,
Brian, is that people will read it and
come away with a better understanding
of what life was like
for young black people in the South, a
greater appreciation of the civil rights movement and its
accomplishments in the '60s, a perspective on not only
America changing, but how it, in fact, changed, and how it
was difficult for some and about some heroes in that process,
like Donald Hollowell.
LAMB: Three years ago, right there in that chair, someone
who was sitting there had something to say about all this.
And I wanted to run that clip to go back and make the
Mr. JORDAN: Sure.
LAMB: Here's somebody you might know.
(Excerpts from February 21, 1999, BOOKNOTES)
Ms. ANNETTE GORDON-REED, AUTHOR, "THOMAS JEFFERSON & SALLY HEMINGS: AN AMERICAN CONTROVERSY": I got a phone call
from Washington, you know, `This is Vernon Jordan. I'm a
lawyer in Washington, and I know who you are.' And he said
he liked the book and asked me if I would help him write his
memories, and I said, `Yes.' So that's his bid to sort
of help his collaborator get some good press.
Yeah, I can't think of anybody else that I would want to do it
with because he's a--he's had a fascinating life, you know. I
mean, from the civil rights era to business, to being a
figure on the world scene, there's not quite--there's no one
like him in a way. And that's--to get the opportunity to do
something with the unique individual is fascinating.
(End of excerpts)
LAMB: How did you find Annette Gordon-Reed to be your
Mr. JORDAN: What is fascinating about that is that I found
Annette Gordon-Reed in a bookstore--Politics and Prose here
in Washington up on Connecticut Avenue. I had just left my
grandchildren, two of them, exhausted by them, and so I
decided to go get lost in Politics and Prose. And almost
invariably when I go into a bookstore, I go to the biography
section, I walk to the biography section. I've been a Jefferson
devotee forever, and I saw this new blue book, "Thomas
Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy," by
Annette Gordon-Reed, whom I'd never heard of. And so I
stood there in Politics and Prose and read the introduction to
her book, and it was like an epiphany. I knew right then and
there that this Annette Gordon-Reed person who had written
about Jefferson and Sally was a person I wanted to help me
with this memoir. And so Monday morning, I called her up.
Tuesday, we had lunch, and the rest is history. We have a
LAMB: What happened to you on May 29th, 1980?
Mr. JORDAN: I got shot in the back in Ft. Wayne, Indiana,
about 1:00 in the morning, I guess, after having addressed
the Ft. Wayne Urban League Equal Opportunity Day dinner.
LAMB: How did it happen?
Mr. JORDAN: Well, I got out of a car with a member of the
local Urban League board, and as I got out of the car, all of a
sudden, something hit me in my back and I was sort of sailing
up in the air. The next thing I knew, I was on the ground. The
next thing I knew, I was bleeding. And the next thing I knew,
I was hearing a wonderful sound--it's called a siren.
LAMB: Ninety-eight days in the hospitals.
Mr. JORDAN: Ninety-eight days.
LAMB: What--who shot you?
Mr. JORDAN: A man named Joseph Paul Franklin, by his own
LAMB: Did he say why?
Mr. JORDAN: We never had a conversation, Brian.
LAMB: What happened, though? You say in the book he was
acquitted when he was tried.
Mr. JORDAN: He was acquitted in my case. The case took
place in a different venue from Ft. Wayne, in South Bend,
Indiana. And in that case, tried under Section 245 of the Civil
Rights Act, he was acquitted. Why he was acquitted, the
process, I didn't pay much attention to that because I had
only one concern. By the time that he was tried, I was
actually out of the hospital. I went and testified in the trial.
Not much I could say except that I got shot. And the best
part about going to the trial is that I had an opportunity to
spend time with Dr. Jeffrey Towles, the black surgeon who
actually saved my life.
LAMB: Pictured in this picture we have right now.
Mr. JORDAN: Yes. He's a tall, dark guy in the back behind the
nurse. And it was Jeffrey Towles, who, in fact, saved my life.
And there was this marvelous story about Jeffrey Towles,
whose mother cleaned the doctors' offices in a small
town in West Virginia, and she, being a single mother, took
him with her. And he, as she cleaned, sort of thumbed
through these medical books and got carried away with the
diagrams and the pictures, went to school at West Virginia
State, went to medical school at the University of Louisville
and did his residency in trauma surgery at Detroit General
Hospital. And he told me that night--we had dinner the night
before I was to testify, and he said, `When I was at Detroit
General and in Louisville, I saw all kinds of wounds. I've never
seen a wound like yours. And based on what I saw, you were
not supposed to make it.' But because of his expertise, here
we are having a conversation.
LAMB: How big a wound was it?
Mr. JORDAN: About that big in the left side of my
back. It missed my spine about a fourth of an inch.
LAMB: Now this man went on to his own death. He was
Mr. JORDAN: No, not Joseph Paul Franklin. My understanding is
that he is doing two consecutive life terms in a federal
LAMB: But wasn't he stabbed?
Mr. JORDAN: He was stabbed in prison.
LAMB: You mean he didn't die of those--What was it?--38
times he was stabbed?
Mr. JORDAN: No, no. No. The intention, as I understand it,
was not to kill him...
LAMB: Oh, I thought he died.
Mr. JORDAN: ...but to hurt him. He was stabbed 38 times by
prisoners, black prisoners.
Mr. JORDAN: He befriended, as I understand it from Bill
Webster, who was then head of the FBI--he befriended a
black prisoner, and the black prisoner befriended him. And at
some point, the black prisoner, after he got close to him, said,
`Did you shoot Vernon Jordan?' Franklin, as I understand it,
said, `Yes.' A couple of nights later, Franklin was cornered in
the prison by four or five black prisoners with prison-made
knives from tin cans, and they stabbed him 38 times.
LAMB: Did he...
Mr. JORDAN: I didn't see it. It's reported to me.
LAMB: Did he ever tell anybody why he had done it?
Mr. JORDAN: I don't know the answer to that. He has given
some press interviews, and--wherein he has admitted that he,
in fact, shot me in Ft. Wayne.
LAMB: There's a lot around that incident that has to do
with the race issue, and--including the fact--let's start with
this. You were there for the Urban League.
Mr. JORDAN: Yes.
LAMB: What does the Urban League do, and what were you
doing for the Urban League?
Mr. JORDAN: Well, I was the president and chief executive
officer of the Urban League, founded in 1910 in New York City
with the express purpose of helping blacks who had migrated
from the North--from the South, rather, to the northern cities
to find work and to adjust to city life. I was the fifth
executive of the Urban League; the first of that group to be a
lawyer, not a social worker. My predecessors, Whitney Young,
Lester Granger, Eugene Kinckle Jones, George Edmund Haynes,
they were all social workers. I sort of broke the mold in that I
was a lawyer. My successor, John Jacob, was, in fact, a
social worker. So it was a social service agency, historically,
providing social services to black people in employment and in
training and in education. Huge program in vocational training.
At the time that I succeeded Whitney Young, I inherited a
baton that Whitney had taken beyond social services into
advocacy and made it a real civil rights organization.
It's a great American institution, the Urban League,
and I'm very grateful for my stewardship there.
LAMB: You tell in your book about the controversy around
Mr. JORDAN: Yes.
LAMB: What was that?
Mr. JORDAN: Well, simply because Martha Coleman was an
Urban League member, a white woman, I think, divorced.
And after the dinner, we went to her home. And what people
must understand about that, if you traveled as much as I did
in those days, 180 days after what is generally not the best
dinner, and generally, you don't have time really to eat it.
You're shaking hands and you're greeting and you're taking
photographs and you're thinking about what you're going to
say. So on any given night in any given town, I could be with
10 people, 20 people, or as in this case, one people. And I've
never sort of selected people based on race, one way or the
other, and so there we were. And I think that the notion that
I was a civil rights leader and was out late at night with a
white woman, that some people tried to read in that--into
that something that was not there, whatever that was. The
fact is that it is my judgment that I was shot in my back by
Joseph Paul Franklin with a 30-06 because I was black and
because I was a civil rights leader.
LAMB: What impact did that have on your life?
Mr. JORDAN: Well, it hurt.
LAMB: For how long?
Mr. JORDAN: That's for sure. Well, it hurt for a long time. I
was in the hospital for 98 days. I was moved from Ft. Wayne
after 10 days. President Carter sent a plane for me that
brought me to New York, and I was in New York Hospital for
88 days. And the first--oh, first month, I was in trouble
because I kept running a low-grade fever, and they could not
figure out what that was until I went into the scat can--CAT
scan for the second time. And they brought me back upstairs
and stuck something like a gun in my back and found about a
pint of what looked like spoiled orange juice. And that
dissipated the low-grade fever, and I began to get better and
better. And in September, I was out. Late October, I was
LAMB: Now President Carter was president at the time,
as you say, but you had told him sometime earlier that he
would not be president, that he couldn't get elected
president. What were the circumstances around that?
Mr. JORDAN: That was in 1974. C. Peter McCullough, who was
the chairman and CEO of the Xerox Corporation, of which I
was a director, was my corporate campaign chairman at the
National Urban League, which meant that he and I traveled
around the country to raise money for the Urban League. And
we were going to Atlanta, and I called my friend, then
Governor Carter, and said that Peter McCullough and I were
coming to Atlanta; that Peter, in addition to being chairman of
Xerox, was also the treasurer of the Democratic Party, one of
the few CEOs in the country who was an acknowledged active
Democrat. And Carter was at that time chairman of the
Democratic Campaign Committee.
And so I said, `Why don't I bring him by for--to say hello, a
photo-op?' And Carter said, `Great.' He called back and
suggested that Peter and I come the night before and spend
the night at the mansion, the governor's mansion. Well, if you
grew up in Georgia, as I did, an opportunity to spend the night
at the governor's mansion is quite a nice thing. So I called
Peter McCullough, I said, `You want to go the night before
and spend the night with Governor Carter?' Peter agreed, and
we went, had a wonderful dinner. And after dinner, he spent a
good part of the evening talking about his presidency to the
point that Peter was exhausted, went to bed, and he kept
talking to me, followed me into the bedroom. And I finally said,
`Listen, Governor, you're not going to be president for three
reasons. Number one, you won't be in office. Number two,
nobody knows who you are, really. And number three, you're
from the South.' And he said to me, `Vernon, I'm going to be
president of the United States.' I was wrong, and President
Carter was right.
LAMB: Well, after he became president, this picture was taken
right down here.
Mr. JORDAN: That's right.
LAMB: What's this from?
Mr. JORDAN: That was after the August 1977 National Urban
League Conference, and it was the morning after my keynote
address, which attacked the president's policies on race. And
it was a speech based on the disappointment of black people
in America with the then-President Carter, given the fact that
we've made a huge difference, especially in the South, in his
re-election. And I was echoing the sentiment that once
inaugurated, he had sort of--as my grandfather would
say, `disremembered' the constituents that had meant so
much to his election. So that's what that speech was about.
And it had nothing to do with my personal relationships with
the president. It had everything to do with the fact that I
was head of the Urban League, a constituent leader in the
black community, and he was the president of the United
States, whose election he owed partially to us. And so this
was--this was pay-up time, and he had to be reminded.
Obviously, he was not happy. And I don't look too happy
myself, I don't think.
LAMB: What are we seeing here with this body language?
Mr. JORDAN: Tension.
LAMB: Did it ever dissipate?
Mr. JORDAN: It did. We're still friends. That happens in this
town and in this country, that from time to time, you do have
a public dispute with your friend. It doesn't end the friendship.
And, you know, he had some not-so-good things to say, but
he apologized, and we're still fellow Georgians and friends.
We've known each other since 1966.
LAMB: That was '77. You talked about '74 when you told him
he wasn't going to be president. Then you dropped back to
'69 or thereabouts, he was going to run for an office in
the state, and you were going to run for an office.
Mr. JORDAN: Yeah. In 1966, he lost the governorship. And it
was shortly after that that David Gambrell, who ultimately
became a United States senator, taking Senator Russell's
seat, appointed by Jimmy Carter, brought the then-defeated
candidate for governor to my office. And David Gambrell
was--he had a vision. He said, `You two should meet because
both of you are going places in this country.' How David
Gambrell knew that, I don't know. His daddy I knew very well,
E. Smythe Gambrell, former president of the American Bar
Association. And David left Jimmy Carter and I alone in my
offices at the Voter Education Project, and we
became friends. And then in 1969, Paul and Carol Muldawer in
Atlanta, two very good friends, hosted a cocktail party at
which Jimmy Carter announced for governor. And I demanded
equal time, and I announced that I was going to be a
candidate for the Fifth Congressional District seat of Georgia
that had been held by Charles Longstreet Weltner. The
present incumbent was a Republican, Fletcher Thompson.
LAMB: Why didn't you run, then, eventually?
Mr. JORDAN: Because two weeks subsequent to my
announcement, I was offered the job as executive director of
the United Negro College Fund. And it was my judgment that
there were many, many black men and women who could be
able candidates for Congress, but I was the only one being
asked to run the College Fund, and it was a unique
opportunity, and I wouldn't have to run for re-election, I
wouldn't have to campaign, the job was mine. So it was an
LAMB: I want to ask you about two pictures. This is the
picture on the back of your book. I want to ask you what you
see in this picture. And then when I flip it around, what you
see in that picture.
Mr. JORDAN: Well, in one picture, I see sort of a bald-headed
old guy, right, and--who's serious. And then the other picture,
that picture was an eighth-grade school-day picture when I
was a student at Walker Street School. And there's a little
devilishness there, I think, in my smile. But what I most like
about the picture is the star in my lapel. And that little star
suggests that I was a pretty good student. And there was
also a slight part in my hair, which was in fashion then. You
got your hair parted. And I sort of like that photograph. At
least I had hair.
LAMB: Now in this photograph here, how many boards does
this man belong to--boards of directors?
Mr. JORDAN: I think about eight or nine right now,
LAMB: How much education does he have?
Mr. JORDAN: He has a law degree. He has a bachelor's degree
and about 60 honorary degrees.
LAMB: What are the major jobs he's had in his life?
Mr. JORDAN: NAACP, clerkship with Donald Hollowell, assistant
to Leslie Dunbar at the Southern Regional Council, deputy to
Wiley Branton at the Voter Education Project, director of the
Voter Education Project, attorney council to the US Office of
Economic Opportunity, back to be the director of the Voter
Education Project, then the executive directorship of the
United Negro College Fund, and then the big job of my life was
succeeding Whitney Young as head of the National Urban
LAMB: How long were you there?
Mr. JORDAN: I was at the Urban League for 10 years. And
that was the end of my 501(c)(3) stewardship. And after
that, I left the non-profit (unintelligible) arena and became a
lawyer at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, where I'm still of
counsel. But I've spent most of my time as a senior managing
director at Lazard Frères in New York.
LAMB: Now you tell a story about a man--I--from listening
to the language in the story, I think you were as surprised as
the reader would be about a man named Abram, Morris Abram,
am I right about that?
Mr. JORDAN: Yes.
LAMB: And it relates to this picture right here because it's
when you got the job eventually with Bob Strauss at Akin
Mr. JORDAN: Right, right.
LAMB: What is the Abram story?
Mr. JORDAN: Well, we were great friends for a very long time.
We were both from Atlanta. We played tennis weekly in New
York. We had breakfast. He sponsored me for the United--I
mean, for the University Club of New York. He's responsible for
my first honorary degree from Brandeis University in 1969, just
after he stepped down as president. He was the chairman of
my board at the United Negro College Fund, per my request. I
was friends with his first wife and his second wife and knew all
of his kids. And we really had a very good friendship. And our
friendship did not end. We just had a very serious sort of
parting of the ways when I raised with him a year or so before
I was shot about the possibility of being his partner at his law
firm in New York.
LAMB: What firm?
Mr. JORDAN: Paul, Weiss. And he said, when I raised it
with him at breakfast, at our traditional place, the University
Club, he said, `We don't take laterals.' And I reminded him
that he was a lateral. He came up from Atlanta to join that
law firm; that Arthur Goldberg, Ramsey Clark, Ted Sorensen
and others were lateral. And his response was, `But that's
different.' And while it did not end our friendship, it made a
difference in it. But that happens in life.
LAMB: Were you surprised?
Mr. JORDAN: I was.
LAMB: How often has that kind of thing happened to you?
Mr. JORDAN: From time to time. But that was--it's never
happened in that way from someone whose proximity was
what Morris' and I were to each other.
LAMB: Did you ever have it out with him over this?
Mr. JORDAN: Well, a little bit. We talked about it, and he had
one explanation. I had several letters for him. And Ely
Callaway, who recently died, who founded Callaway Golf
Company, another Georgian and also active with me in the
United Negro College Fund, knew about this breach, and Ely
said to me, he said, `Vernon, you ought to do something
about it and you ought to go see Morris.' And so I was in
Europe; Morris was living in Geneva. And I called him up and
told him I was coming to Geneva. And we arranged for
breakfast, and we had breakfast and it was a very pleasant
breakfast. We did not spend a whole lot of time on this
issue, but we had a pleasant time. Morris is now deceased,
and I'm very sorry about that. And I valued the
friendship that I had with him. It did take an unusual path at
LAMB: Would you have written about it had he been alive?
Mr. JORDAN: Yes.
LAMB: You say on page 239--no, you don't say on page
239. Now I've got to find it--somewhere--oh, here it is. `I
have never'--it's actually on page 269--`I have never
been one for indiscriminately sharing my innermost thoughts
and feelings. I always had the sense that people wanted me
to do that, that they wanted to hear me complain about the
problems I faced in my job or talk or cry openly about Shirley's
illness, but that is not my way, either because of my
upbringing or because I had--was hard wired by my DNA not
to do that.' How hard was this book to do, then?
Mr. JORDAN: The book was not hard to do. I talked into a
tape recorder, prodded endlessly almost like a prosecutor by
Annette, and that was a very good process. But it was not
difficult, emotionally. And as it relates to my late wife, Shirley,
that was not difficult because this was a story
about her and her courage as a very young person afflicted
with multiple sclerosis at sort of the embryonic stage of her
career with a young girl. And she was courageous throughout,
and she tried to be sure that her illness was not a
burden to the family. That was almost impossible, but she was
courageous, she was funny, she was fun, she enjoyed
life to the extent that her illness would permit her to. So in
that sense, it was not sad. It's a proud story that she had a
good life, that she looked after our daughter, that
she planned things for us to do together, that she made a
home despite her limitations.
LAMB: Here you are with your daughter, Vickee. How old is
she in this picture, and where does she live, and what's she
Mr. JORDAN: Vickee is--lives in Larchmont, New York. She's a
senior managing director at Hill and Knowlton in charge of their
LAMB: How long did Shirley live? How long were you two
Mr. JORDAN: We were together about 27 years. She died in
19--December of 1985.
LAMB: And her illness, multiple sclerosis, what happened to
her at the end?
Mr. JORDAN: Multiple sclerosis is a disease that sort of
operates like this. (Indicates descending stair step motion) Just like that.
And she went from really being able to walk to needing a
cane, to a wheelchair, a scooter, a van with a lift, so she
could get up in it in the wheelchair. And even with the
scooter and even a cane, she was--she was quite
independent. There is a characteristic, an interesting
characteristic of multiple sclerosis patients, as I have
experienced it, and that is that the patient is always in a
state of euphoria. I don't ever remember Shirley being
depressed about her circumstances. She had a positive,
happy outlook, and, of course, I viewed my responsibility to
work to be sure that that would happen, that we could have
what we needed to make her as comfortable as possible. And
my ally in this was Vickee, our daughter, Shirley's
parents, Mr. and Mrs. Yarbrough, her sister Darlene, my
mother, my father, my family. And when we left to go to New
York--I talk about it in the book--at the airport, it was as if
we were going away forever--four grandparents at the
airplane, all weeping as we departed New York, which was a
bit courageous because in Atlanta, we had the support of
family; in New York, we had no family. But we did OK.
LAMB: What was the impact on you of her death?
Mr. JORDAN: Death is--is never easy. It was hard. It was sad.
It was--it was the end, and it's still sad.
LAMB: When did you remarry?
Mr. JORDAN: I remarried Ann Dibble Cook 11 months after
LAMB: Who's in this picture?
Mr. JORDAN: In that picture is my current wife, Ann...
Mr. JORDAN: Her three chi--seated, and next to her, seated,
is Janice, her daughter, her daughter Toni, her son, Mercer,
Vickee's husband, Barry, and Vickee, my daughter, and me. It's
a happy occasion, Vickee's wedding.
LAMB: In your book you're constantly mentioning people that
we all know and when you first met them, and I want to go
down the list. Ron Brown.
Mr. JORDAN: Ron Brown I met when I went to New York to
head the United Negro College Fund. He was then working at
the National Urban League for Whitney Young. We were both
headquartered in the same building, and he was a young
staffer going to law school. And when Whitney Young passed
on and I began to reorganize the administrative structure of
the Urban League, I felt, being a lawyer, that I needed a
full-time general counsel, and Ron Brown was my selection.
LAMB: You tell us that you were the first story ever on CNN
when you were sick after your being shot.
Mr. JORDAN: When I was shot.
LAMB: But then later on--or at some point in the book, you
tell us that you first met the--just former president of CNN,
Tom Johnson, in Macon, Georgia.
Mr. JORDAN: In Macon, Georgia. He was a reporter for the
Macon Telegraph, and he was reporting on the case of a
young 15-year-old black man, Preston Cobb, who had been
sentenced to die in the electric chair for having allegedly killed
a white man on whose plantation--for lack of a better word; it
wasn't really a plantation, but whose place,
as we say it in the South--Preston Cobb lived on, and that's
where I first met Tom Johnson. Charlayne Hunter-Gault, now,
met him when they were students at the University of
Georgia, and Tom Johnson was one of the students in the
journalism school who was very nice to her. Tom was a good
LAMB: And you mention Charlayne Hunter, and now
Hunter-Gault. Here's a picture of her. What role did she play in
your life and vice versa?
Mr. JORDAN: Well, I was working for Donald Hollowell as his
law clerk immediately after law school.
LAMB: What was he doing?
Mr. JORDAN: He was the civil rights lawyer in Atlanta at that
time and hired me right out of law school for $35 a week. And
what you see there is me, Don Hollowell's law clerk, escorting
Charlayne Hunter through the mobs at the University of
Georgia in January of 1961, after we had won a lawsuit in
Judge Bootle's court in Athens, Georgia, admitting Charlayne
Hunter and Hamilton Holmes to the University of Georgia, first
time black students had been admitted to that segregated
LAMB: Why Charlayne Hunter at the time? What was her role?
How did she get in...
Mr. JORDAN: Well, she was the plaintiff.
LAMB: How did she get into this? What was her motive?
Mr. JORDAN: Well, she was a student at Wayne State
University. She was born and reared in Georgia and wanted to
go to her state school, as did Hamilton Holmes, who was
reared and born in Georgia. He was a student at Morehouse
College. And they were plaintiffs already by the time I got out
of law school in June of 1960, and Hollowell was a lawyer,
Constance Baker Motley, Thurgood Marshall from the Legal
Defense Fund were their lawyers, and so I was just thrown
into it. And shortly after I was out of law school, there I was,
new degree in one hand and a subpoena for the governor in
LAMB: Now you had taken a different path when you went
to college yourself. Instead of going to Howard, which is the
historically black college here in Washington, you somehow
ended up at DePauw University in Indiana.
Mr. JORDAN: I did.
LAMB: How'd you do that, and why?
Mr. JORDAN: There was an organization in New York called the
National Service and Scholarship Fund for Negro Students,
and it had historically worked with Dunbar High School here in
Washington of sending their best students--some needing
help, some not needing help--to predominantly white, Ivy
League schools. A wonderful man, Paul Lawrence, an educator
from California, showed up for a meeting of the National Honor
Society at David T. Howard High School my senior year, and
he made this speech about going north to school, and I was
captivated by him and fascinated with the idea.
And it cost me some friendships, if you read the book,
from my buddies. We had all planned to come to
Washington and go to Howard. And I was fascinated by that,
Brian, and so I applied to DePauw, and I was accepted. Once
you're accepted at DePauw University, everybody writes to
you and says, `You must come here.'
LAMB: What year?
Mr. JORDAN: This is 1953.
LAMB: What kind of a place was it?
Mr. JORDAN: Very small. I was the only black in my class. In a
student body of 2,000, there were five blacks in the student
body. There were no black faculty, no blacks in the
administration. It was an institution where Percy Julian, the
famous chemist, had graduated and taught in the ‘30s. The
Lieder brothers from Terre Haute went to school there. It has
a rather distinguished but small black alumni.
LAMB: There's a picture in the book of you at DePauw. What
are the circumstances?
Mr. JORDAN: Well, I was the headwaiter at Longden Hall. I
convinced Mrs. DePonte that I could not just be a waiter, that
I knew enough about serving and food service that I should
be headwaiter, and she actually gave me the job. I was
headwaiter for about 2 1/2 years. And the Roy O. West
Library was being dedicated in 1956, and Mrs. DePonte--and
she became Mrs. Miller--wanted her two best headwaiters to
serve the head table, and so she selected Pat Sharpe, whom
you see photographed there, and me, and there I am with the
then-vice president of the United States, Richard Nixon and
President Humbert of the university. And I think that's a
sitting United States senator, but I'm not sure.
LAMB: But right in the corner here, over on the right-hand
corner, is Richard Nixon's signature, and you didn't get
Mr. JORDAN: No, I did not. I saved that picture. And in 1971,
when I was appointed head of the Urban League, President
Nixon, who had given Whitney Young's eulogy in the cemetery
in Kentucky where he was buried at that time, invited me to
the White House. And as the new head of the Urban League, I
really went as Whitney Young's successor more than I went
as Vernon Jordan, the new head of the Urban League, and I
understood that. And when we sat down on either side of the
fireplace, I said, `Mr. President, I brought something for
you,' and I showed him this photograph. And he asked,
`Where was this taken?' I explained to him DePauw University,
and that he had come out to dedicate the library, and he
loved it and he wrote on it. And then I said, `Mr. President,
this picture was taken at a time when both of us were on our
way up.' We had a big chuckle.
LAMB: What impact did DePauw have on you? What was it like
being one of only five blacks in that town?
Mr. JORDAN: There was some disadvantages. I couldn't get a
haircut. I couldn't get a haircut from the black barber in town
who actually cut all of the students' hair and the hair of white
businessmen in town.
LAMB: Why couldn't you?
Mr. JORDAN: He said that he--it would his hurt his business.
Now that was not quite true, but in any event, he wouldn't do
it. I forced him to do it once by lying to him and telling him
that my father was a lawyer and he was going to be in town
the Sunday of Old Gold Day weekend, and if he didn't cut my
hair by the time he got there, my dad was going to put him in
jail. He believed it and he cut my hair once. Actually, his refusal
to cut my hair lent itself to my creative entrepreneurial spirit,
because I became the local black barber for my classmates,
schoolmates, and for the 176 black people who lived in
Greencastle. And so on Saturday, with the clippers
and--double-aught clippers that my father sent to me and
some other electric clippers, I went around town on
Saturday and I cut hair. And I had the lotion to put on the
kids' heads. And I'd make sufficient money to go to
Indianapolis and get a first-class haircut for myself.
LAMB: How did you remember there were 176 black people in
Mr. JORDAN: I wrote a paper about it when I was in college,
about blacks in Greencastle, and I've never forgotten it. There
were 176 Negroes in Greencastle--or black people in
Greencastle when I was a student there. And there was a
time at DePauw when--blacks did not live in the dormitory at
DePauw until 1946, and so all the blacks prior to that lived
with the black families and were very much a part of the
community. And while we did not live there, we actually lived
in the dormitories, I went to church there and would go and
LAMB: But you had two white roommates?
Mr. JORDAN: I had two white roommates my freshmen year.
Both were seniors. Neither had expected that when they
came to share their senior year together that they would find
me in room 106 at Longdon Hall. And we each had a bed, a
chest, a desk, a closet, and we sort of existed for about two
weeks. I came home from the library, mind you, about 10:00
one night, and I walked in, and there were--was Roy Carlson
and Russ Foote, and they said, `Well, we were talking about
you.' I said, `OK, what about?' And they said, `We have
discovered something.' I said, `What's your discovery?' They
said, `We've discovered that you're no different than we are.'
One was from Valparaiso, Indiana. The other was from a small
industrial town just outside of Cleveland. And until their
roommate, Vern Jordan, as they called me, they had never
really known a black person. And so, this was for them an
educational experience, and I was sort of the teacher. But
they said, `You're no different. You snore in the bed.
You sing in the shower. You get mail every day. You get
a cake. You know, you don't--you go to sleep at your desk.
You know, you don't want to study for an exam.' I mean...
LAMB: You still see these two gentlemen?
Mr. JORDAN: One is dead, and the other--I don't know where
Roy is. I think he's in Valparaiso, Indiana.
LAMB: Let me jump from DePauw to the job of Urban
League director and your conversation with Lyndon Johnson,
and the reason I bring this up--I don't know that I've ever
seen this before. We run on our C-SPAN radio station the
Lyndon Johnson tapes. We've heard hour after
hour of discussions with Mac Bundy and Robert McNamara. Let
me read--well, set this--set it up, then I'll read exactly what
Lyndon Johnson told you. What were the circumstances?
Mr. JORDAN: The circumstances was this conference on civil
rights that he had in 1973 at the Johnson Library in Austin.
LAMB: He's gone from office.
Mr. JORDAN: He's out of office. And so we had this
conference on civil rights, and he asked me, as the new head
of the Urban League, to keynote it. But that was a great
honor. There was Chief Justice Warren--former Chief Justice
Warren, Hubert Humphrey, former Cabinet members in his
administration, the entire civil rights leadership. It was a great
honor. So we--after the speech in the green room--every
ex-president has his own green room in this library, and we
were there, and I have a photograph, it's--I don't think it's in
this book, but I have a photograph where we are talking,
and--maybe it is in that book, but any...
LAMB: The photograph of Lyndon Johnson is with Whitney
Mr. JORDAN: But there may be one with me, too. I just
LAMB: I don't think so.
Mr. JORDAN: Yeah.
LAMB: Yeah, there is. I'm sorry. Yeah, there is a little one;
Mr. JORDAN: That's the photograph. That's in the green room
at the Johnson Library. And he's saying to me, he says, `You
know, you and I have a lot in common.' And I said, `What's
that, Mr. President?' And he said, `We were both born poor in
the South, you black, and me white,' and he said, `and we
both succeeded great men under tragic circumstances. I
succeeded John Kennedy after his assassination, and you
succeeded Whitney Young after he was drowned.' And he
said, `People didn't have that much confidence that we could
do a good job.' And he said, `I was a good president with the
possible exception of Vietnam. And I brought you here to
make sure you're going to be a good president of the Urban
League. That's why I wanted you to keynote this meeting.'
And then he said, `I have some advice for you,' and he said,
`it's advice that I couldn't use.' He said, `Get your own
people.' He said, `I couldn't get rid of Kennedy and I couldn't
get rid of McNamara and I couldn't get rid of Bundy because
the nation was in mourning and they were more in mourning
for this young president than they were pleased about this old
succeeding president. So I couldn't do that. But you can. Get
your own people.' Lyndon Johnson was right.
LAMB: Did you ever talk to--well, Mac Bundy's dead and
Bobby Kennedy's dead. Did you ever talk to Mr. McNamara
about this? Did you ever tell him that he'd said that to you?
Mr. JORDAN: I don't think I've ever had that conversation with
Bob McNamara. I did have that conversation with Mac Bundy.
We were very good friends, and he funded me at the National
Urban League. We did have that conversation. I think Mac
Bundy understood that, and I think he understood that, you
know, Johnson could not have done that at the time, or at
least certainly felt that way, and didn't.
LAMB: He kept Robert McNamara until 1968.
Mr. JORDAN: That's right.
LAMB: Later on on that same page, you talk about a
telephone conversation where you said, `Good morning, Mr.
President.' `Vernon?' `Yes, Mr. President?' `I did a lot for your
people.' `Yes, Mr. President.
Mr. JORDAN: Well, it was--that's when he--it's sort of like he's
calling a congressman whose vote he needs, and it's a
congressman whom he's helped to get elected and he's heard
that the congressman is wavering on this vote. Well, while I
was not wavering, the tactic was the same: `I've done a lot
for your people.' `Yes, sir.' `I've done a lot.' `Yes.' Then he
says, `I want you to go down to the University of Virginia and
speak for my boy Chuck, who's running that forum.' And I
said, `I'm on my way out of the door, Mr. President.' And I
LAMB: Another name in the middle of your book is Nancy
Wilson, the singer.
Mr. JORDAN: Yes.
LAMB: What's that story?
Mr. JORDAN: We had to figure out a way at the Urban League,
always a way to raise money, and while we had the attention
and sort of the pocketbooks of an elder generation, we
did not have the enthusiasm nor the financial commitment
from the next generation. And so we conceived the idea of a
party at the Plaza...
LAMB: New York?
Mr. JORDAN: ...in New York. And we had our first party at the
Plaza and it was chaired by Mrs. Mathilde Krim and it was a
great black-tie event, and we hired Nancy Wilson to sing. And
Nancy was a marvelous singer, and I love her singing. But it
was at that time in the movement where entertainers not only
wanted to sing, they wanted to talk about their views of
the movement, and Nancy was doing more talking than
singing, so we had to have a conversation.
LAMB: Right in front of everybody else?
Mr. JORDAN: No, no. Just went up on stage and quietly said,
`Hey, you know, we want to hear you sing, not talk.' Then
she was fine.
LAMB: Were you surprised that she was talking?
Mr. JORDAN: No. You've seen it happen but--and I've seen it
happen in other places. I did not want it to happen at my
fund-raiser because people had come not to visit with the
issues, they had come to have fun, and you have to do that
sometimes. And so, she was fine with it.
LAMB: On page 268, you write, `A lot of what went on was
essentially a form of political theater, making extreme
comments, advocating utopian programs that had no chance
of coming to fruition, all for the purpose of making the
audience feel good for that moment and making the proponent
seem progressive and ahead of his or her time.' What are you
Mr. JORDAN: Well, I'm talking about excessive rhetoric,
rhetoric that was far in excess of the circumstance.
LAMB: Who's doing it?
Mr. JORDAN: And...
LAMB: Who's the rhetorician?
Mr. JORDAN: Well, in that particular case, that's about
Malcolm X University, where my friend Howard Fuller was--had
convinced black kids to leave all of the surrounding schools
there in North Carolina to come to Malcolm X University. And I
fundamentally disagreed with it, and voiced that
disagreement, but I voiced it in a different way by saying to
my colleagues there who were very enthusiastic about the
idea, `How many of you are prepared to take your kids out of
these fine schools and send them to Malcolm X?' And they
said--and so they had to think about that, because I knew
that I would not have done that for my children, and I'm not
sure that you can decide what is best for others if you're not
prepared to do it yourself.
LAMB: Other people, names that you mention early in your
Mr. JORDAN: Clinton.
LAMB: No. Hillary Rodham when you first met her in 1969.
Mr. JORDAN: When I first met her in 1969, she was then
Hillary Rodham. She was--we were attending a League of
Women Voters meeting in Ft. Collins, Colorado. And she was in
her senior year, I believe, at Radcliffe, and Willie Brown, the
current mayor of San Francisco, and I were sort of the
speakers from the black movement. He was an elected official
and I was then head of the Voter Education Project, and
that's the first time I met Hillary Rodham.
LAMB: 1973, Bill Clinton.
Mr. JORDAN: Yes. Dinner, Urban League in Little Rock, where I
was a speaker and this young law professor shows up. I knew
then, based on my own intuitive notions, that he not only
wanted to be president but would be.
LAMB: Now what did you see in him about being president
that you didn't see in Jimmy Carter?
Mr. JORDAN: Youthfulness, drive, ambition, caring. And I
don't--I didn't--it's not that I didn't see all of that in Jimmy
Carter. I just thought at the time, 1969, that Jimmy Carter
would not be president. I just didn't believe it, and I was very
LAMB: You have...
Mr. JORDAN: But I was very right about William Jefferson
LAMB: You have this picture from the 1992 election,
transition. You were...
Mr. JORDAN: Head of transition. Right.
LAMB: You were the head of the transition team. Why didn't
you work in the administration?
Mr. JORDAN: I wanted to continue my time in the private
sector. I had done my pro bono time from the time I got out
of law school through the Urban League, and I wanted to
continue on that track. I was very content, very happy with
the practice of the law, did not want to interrupt it. Secondly,
I did not want during the time that I was chairman of the
transition to be in play for a job, thinking that I could do a
better job of the transition. And I thought it very important to
say to the president-elect early on what my decision was
about service in the administration. And I think I was right
LAMB: How much do you see Bill Clinton today?
Mr. JORDAN: Oh, a good bit. We're either on the phone or
we're having lunch at the Sugar Hill Restaurant or we're
having supper or a drink at his house or mine, or we're on the
golf course. So, we will always be friends.
LAMB: How did you get to be close friends?
Mr. JORDAN: It evolved. I was in Atlanta or I was in New York.
He was in Little Rock. We always stayed in touch, always
stayed in touch with Senator Clinton, and we were just
friends, interested in the same issues, interested in the same
region, and that common interest kept us bound together, and
we still are.
LAMB: How important do you think it was to his image in the
black community that people saw you playing golf with him?
Mr. JORDAN: Oh, I think it was a reinforcement of his
friendship with me, of his attachment to and understanding of
the needs and aspirations of black people.
LAMB: Did you ever talk about the value of that when--all
those clips over the years?
Mr. JORDAN: He and I? No, not really. We just did or things as
buddies and friends.
LAMB: Why did you choose not to write about your friendship
with him in the book?
Mr. JORDAN: Well, simply because this book covers my civil
rights time. Another reason is that to some extent my life
in the public view was defined by the Clinton presidency, and
it was very important to me for people to understand that
I--that the most exciting time in my life was before Clinton
was president. It was the Civil Rights Movement. It was the
Voter Education Project, the Urban League, the College Fund,
working for Hollowell, organizing for the NAACP. That's a part
of my life and a part of my time that I have had to--time to
reflect and think about, and so I wrote about it.
LAMB: During the time that you were invisible in the Clinton
years and the controversy in the last couple years, what did
you learn about how to deal with the media?
Mr. JORDAN: Only talk when you had something to say, and
most times, not even then.
LAMB: So, looking back on this book's experience, what did
you like about it and what didn't you like about it?
Mr. JORDAN: I liked everything about writing the book. I
enjoyed my partnership with Annette Gordon-Reed.
That was terrific, and is terrific. I gained a friend and a
co-author. But it was also interesting talking to, about this
book, a young black female lawyer from another generation.
Annette Gordon-Reed could be my daughter. She's about the
same age as my Vickee or my Toni or my Janice. And so,
I'm dealing with another generation, and so, there were times
when she said, `No, no, no, no.' Or I said, `You can't--you
don't really believe that.' And so there was
debate, argument, even at times creative tension in this
process, and we learned from each other, and I got to
know a little bit about what she thought, she got to know a
lot about what I thought. So that was not hard.
Even when we got pushed for more, when we thought we
were giving all that we had, from Peter Osnos and Paul Golob,
that was all good.
I did the audio for this book, and while I was doing the
audio, I thought I was back at Walker Street School dealing
with my teacher, because Sue, who was the producer of the
audio said, `Read it again. Take a deep breath. Drink a glass
of water.' But even that was exhilarating. And so
it's been a wonderful experience.
LAMB: In the end, what's been, in your opinion,
the secret to your success?
Mr. JORDAN: I'm the beneficiary of unique parents, the
beneficiary of wonderful institutions--St. Paul AME Church,
the Butler Street YMCA, the Gates City Day Nursery, the
elementary schools, the David D. Howard High schools, the
counselors at the YMCA and the teachers in those schools
who cared about me and who taught me and who pushed me.
I have also been very blessed with a line of mentors--Don
Hollowell, Leslie Dunbar, Wiley Branton, Ruby Hurley, Gardner
Taylor, Howard Thurman, who--and also friendships--Franklin
Thomas, whom I talk about in the book, and Ron Brown, John
Jacob. Also I have been the beneficiary of having marvelous
compatriots in every organization--the NAACP, the Urban
League, people who work with me, who worked for me,
who--we worked together. And so, what I know is that I
did not get here by myself. I stand on many, many shoulders.
LAMB: The cover of the book looks like this. Our guest has
been the author, Vernon Jordan Jr., and the book is "Vernon
Can Read!." Thank you very much.
Mr. JORDAN: Thank you very much.
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