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"A man in full": Civil rights icon Vernon Jordan remembered at memorial service

The National Urban League held a memorial service on Tuesday to honor civil rights leader Vernon Jordan. Jordan, who rose from humble beginnings in the segregated South to become a champion of civil rights, died last week. He was 85.

Jordan led the Urban League from 1971 to 1981, assuming leadership after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act. Jordan saw it as his mission to "empower Black Americans to realize the promise of these victories," according to the league. In his words, "Black people today can check into any hotel in America, but most do not have the wherewithal to check out."

Jordan was the first lawyer to head the organization, which had traditionally been led by social workers. Under his 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. 

"The nation has lost one of its greatest champions of racial and economic justice," the league said in a statement announcing the service. "... His passing leaves a tremendous void that can never be filled."  

Marc Morial, current president of the National Urban League, said Jordan should be remembered "as a man for others," who generously gave his time and attention everywhere he went. Morial said Jordan's success made his own possible — a sentiment echoed by others who knew him, and a pillar of Jordan's character. Another of his mentees and friends, Kenneth Chenault, the former CEO of American Express, said the best advice Jordan ever gave him was: "We're here because we stand on the shoulders of so many."

Kim Koopersmith, chairperson of Jordan's former law firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld, said she was able to rise in the firm because Jordan first "parted the waters." She recalled his "belief in you that knew no bounds," and magnanimous presence. "Every stripe of life would stop (for Vernon), and Vernon would stop for everyone." 

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.

He was nearly killed by a racist's bullet in 1980 before reinventing himself as a Washington insider and corporate influencer.  After resigning from the Urban League in 1982, Jordan became a partner at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld, and joined the New York investment firm of Lazard Freres & Co. as a senior managing partner in 2000.

Former President Bill Clinton, a friend, noted in his eulogy that Jordan spent almost 100 days in the hospital — where he was visited by then President Jimmy Carter — after the 1980 shooting, and the wounds stayed with him for the rest of his life. 

Mr. Clinton made him an informal White House adviser, a role Jordan continued as a confidant for former President Barack Obama.

"Like so many others, Michelle and I benefited from Vernon Jordan's wise counsel and warm friendship—and deeply admired his tireless fight for civil rights," Mr. Obama said in a tweet after Jordan's passing. "We hope the memory of his extraordinary presence and the legacy of his work bring comfort to Ann, Vickee, and his family."

Mr. Clinton described Jordan as "a man in full," a person who maximized his own abilities to help others. "In the end, Vernon Jordan was in the freedom business," the former president said of his neighbor and friend. "He realized, as Mandela did, that if he hated other people, he would never be free... that redemption was better than cancellation."

"Vernon tried to help us all be more free."

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