Vernon Jordan
Vernon Jordan
Vernon Can Read!  A Memoir
ISBN: 189162069X
Vernon Can Read! A Memoir
From the very beginning, I felt the tug of my mother's hope. It could not have been missed. I moved forward, propelled by her deep ambition and love for me-- two things I never had a moment's doubt about and which moved me to accept her guidance and to want to vindicate her faith in me. It's an almost irresistible challenge, when you have someone who thinks you are special and who works to see that you get the chance to shine. A bargain is struck, sometimes silent, sometimes spoken; their faith and commitment for your effort and success. If success is at all possible, you don't want to fail. You do everything you can not to fail. If there are times when things don't work out as you plan (and that often happens) a hard and honest effort fulfills the bargain. No matter what--you never break faith with those who support you.

This is not to say that I don't have a will of my own, or my own preferences. It just happened (nature or nurture?) that my mother and I were of the same mind on the main point: that I was to go as far as I could as quickly as I could. All children rebel at some points, but for the most part, I believed my mother was right. If she had a plan for my advancement, then I was all for it. I was so confident in my knowledge that, at the end of the day, she wanted what was best for me that I followed her instructions about the important things in life. Until she died, I never made a major decision without consulting her. Sometimes I didn't even get the chance to consult.

"Vernon, Jr., now wherever you go to college, you're going to join the ROTC."

"I don't want to be in the ROTC."

"It doesn't matter. Wherever you go to college, you're going to join the ROTC."

"Mama, what do you know about the ROTC."

"I don't know anything about the ROTC."

"Well then, why are you so insistent that I should join it?"

"All I can tell you is that all the white women I work for are sending their kids to the ROTC. There must be something to it."


"There must be something to it." That was how my mother thought about things. She hadn't figured out exactly why the ROTC was so important to the "white women." I don't believe she knew it was the upper class's method of keeping their young men out of harm's way as they performed their military service. But considering how things were between whites and blacks, the details didn't matter much. It was a simple, straightforward calculation. Whether you were talking about the ROTC, schools, medical care, political power--all the basics of life--white people were hoarding the best of the world and had frozen black people out. It just made good sense to pay attention to where whites were going and how they were using the enormous amount of resources and opportunities they had rounded up for themselves. Whatever was going on that could be good for us; Mama wanted us to be a part of it.
—from the publisher's website
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TRANSCRIPT
Vernon Can Read! A Memoir
Program Air Date: December 23, 2001

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Vernon Jordan, what do you hope to accomplish by writing this book?
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 connection.
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 collaborator?
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 book.
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 admission.
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 murdered himself.
Mr. JORDAN: No, not Joseph Paul Franklin. My understanding is that he is doing two consecutive life terms in a federal penitentiary.
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.
LAMB: Why?
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 Martha Coleman.
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 playing tennis.
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 easy choice.
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, corporate boards.
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 League.
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 Gump.
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 the end.
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 do?
Mr. JORDAN: Vickee is--lives in Larchmont, New York. She's a senior managing director at Hill and Knowlton in charge of their media practice.
LAMB: How long did Shirley live? How long were you two together?
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 Shirley's death.
LAMB: Who's in this picture?
Mr. JORDAN: In that picture is my current wife, Ann...
LAMB: Seated.
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 friend.
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 institution.
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 another.
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 that then.
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 that town?
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 hang out.
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 Young.
Mr. JORDAN: But there may be one with me, too. I just don't remember.
LAMB: I don't think so.
Mr. JORDAN: Yeah.
LAMB: Yeah, there is. I'm sorry. Yeah, there is a little one; small.
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 went.
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 talking about?
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 life--Hillary Rodham.
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 wrong.
LAMB: You have...
Mr. JORDAN: But I was very right about William Jefferson Clinton.
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 about that.
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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