The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, March 03, 2021 1:00 am

Civil rights leader Vernon Jordan dies

Was 85; survived sniper's bullet at city hotel in 1980

TOM PELLEGRENE JR. | The Journal Gazette

Vernon Jordan, the civil rights leader and former National Urban League president who was nearly slain during a May 1980 shooting in Fort Wayne, has died at age 85.

Jordan died Monday, according to a statement from his daughter, Vickee.

In 1980, Jordan was shot outside the Fort Wayne Marriott by Joseph Paul Franklin, a sniper who used a high-powered hunting rifle and who was acquitted of federal civil rights charges in a 1982 trial in South Bend. But in 1996, Franklin admitted the shooting in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, saying he planned the ambush after he heard on the radio that Jordan was speaking there.

Jordan spent 10 days at Parkview Hospital, where Dr. Jeffrey Towles led the surgical team that saved his life. President Jimmy Carter and Sen. Edward Kennedy were among his visitors; a story about Carter's visit was the first item ever used on the new cable news broadcaster CNN.

The 1957 DePauw University graduate left the Urban League the year after the shooting and pursued a law career.

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.

“Had it not been for the skillful hands of local African American physician Dr. Jeff Towles, Vernon Jordan quite likely would not have been there to become an important senior adviser to President Bill Clinton, or join the board of corporations like Revlon and Xerox,” said Quinton Dixie, who served as interim president and CEO of the Fort Wayne Urban League, in a statement.

Dixie is associate research professor of the history of Christianity in the United States and Black church studies at Duke University.

Jordan was a key campaign adviser to Clinton during his presidential campaign and co-chaired Clinton's transition team. He was the first Black to be assigned such a role.

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 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.

In 2000, Jordan joined the New York investment firm of Lazard Freres & Co. as a senior managing partner. The following year, he released an autobiography, “Vernon Can Read!: A Memoir.” Also in 2001, Jordan was awarded the Spingarn Medal, the highest honor given to a Black American for outstanding achievement.

He has received more than 55 honorary degrees, including ones from both of his alma maters and sat on several boards of directors.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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