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Vernon Jordan, civil rights activist and close Bill Clinton ally, dead at 85

Jordan rose to prominence as a civil rights leader working with presidents Clinton, Barack Obama and Lyndon Johnson.
Credit: AP
Civil rights activist Vernon Jordan introduces former President Bill Clinton during the Civil Rights Summit on Wednesday, April 9, 2014, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Jack Plunkett)

WASHINGTON — Civil rights activist and leader Vernon Jordan died Monday night, He was 85.

Jordan, who became a well-known name in politics and with his civil rights work was the former president of the National Urban League and worked with multiple presidents including Lyndon Johnson, Barack Obama and was a close ally and advisor to former president Bill Clinton. 

Jordan advised former president Clinton during his 1992 presidential campaign, and became close friends with him and his wife Hillary Clinton. He later endorsed both of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaigns. 

His friendship with Clinton, which began in the 1970s, evolved into a partnership and political alliance. He met Clinton as a young politician in Arkansas, and the two connected over their Southern roots and poor upbringings.

Although Jordan held held no official role in the Clinton White House, he was highly influential and had such labels as the “first friend.” He approached Colin Powell about becoming Secretary of State and encouraged Clinton to pass the NAFTA agreement in 1993. Jordan also secured a job at Revlon for Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern whose sexual encounters with the president spawned a scandal.

Jordan’s actions briefly drew the attention of federal prosecutors investigating Clinton’s actions, but he ultimately was not mentioned in a final report issued by special prosecutor Ken Starr.

Jordan's daughter Vickee Jordan Adams confirmed the news to CBS of her father's passing saying, "My father passed away last night around 10p surrounded by loved ones his wife and daughter by his side." 

Jordan later studied law at Howard University and started out his career fighting segregation with a lawsuit filed against the University of Georgia regarding their integration policy in 1961. 

Before becoming president of the National Urban League, Jordan filled the role of field director for the NAACP working as the director of the Southern Regional Council for their Voter Education Project, CNN reported

Credit: AP
Vernon Jordan leaves his Washington law office after being named as chairman of President-elect Clinton's transition board, Nov. 6, 1992. Warren Christopher was named to manage the day-to-day details as transition director. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

After growing up in the Jim Crow South and living much of his life in a segregated America, Jordan took a strategic view of race issues.

“My view on all this business about race is never to get angry, no, but to get even,” Jordan said in a July 2000 New York Times interview. “You don’t take it out in anger; you take it out in achievement.”

Jordan was the first lawyer to head the Urban League, which had traditionally been led by social workers. Under Jordan’s leadership, the Urban League added 17 more chapters and its budget swelled to more than $100 million. The organization also broadened its focus to include voter registration drives and conflict resolution between blacks and law enforcement.

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Vernon Eulion Jordan Jr., was born in Atlanta on Aug. 15, 1935, the second of Vernon and Mary Belle Jordan’s three sons. Until Jordan was 13, the family lived in public housing. But he was exposed to Atlanta’s elite through his mother, who worked as a caterer for many of the city’s affluent citizens.

Jordan went to DePauw University in Indiana, where he was the only black in his class and one of five at the college. Distinguishing himself through academics, oratory and athletics, he graduated in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and went on to attend Howard University School of Law in Washington. While there, he married his first wife, Shirley Yarbrough.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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