(1935 - )
Washington, D.C. - February 14, 1978
Vernon Jordan was a powerful civil rights leader with unprecedented access to America's business and government elite. From 1971 to 1981, Jordan served as president of the National Urban League, a mainstream civil rights organization dedicated to attacking urban poverty through programs that included job training and early childhood education. Its funding came from the federal government, foundations and private corporations. Jordan's tremendous skills as a public speaker, organizer, political operator and fundraiser helped make him the civil rights movement's "ambassador to the establishment, a man of the boardrooms and the rarefied world of power and money."1
Jordan was born in 1935 and raised in the segregated world of Atlanta, Georgia. His father was a postal worker and his mother ran a successful catering business. The family lived in the nation's first government-funded housing project, populated by a mix of hard-working, ambitious African Americans. Jordan's mother raised her three sons to believe they could do anything. As Jordan recalls in his 2001 memoir, Jordan Can Read, his mother nicknamed him "Man." She always addressed him that way, even in the letters she wrote him when he was away at camp or in college. In an era when whites routinely called black men "boy," Jordan said his mother's nickname for him "was her positive way to counteract what she knew would be the outside world's – the white world's – view of me even after I had officially passed into manhood."2
Jordan did not fail his mother. He excelled in school and was a talented public speaker from an early age. In the late 1940s, his father took him to an NAACP mass meeting where the nation's most famous civil rights lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, was speaking. As Jordan recalls, Marshall's "determination and confidence that blacks would gain their civil rights were so thrilling that I said to my father as we were walking from the church, 'Daddy, I'm going to be a lawyer like Thurgood Marshall.'"3 Jordan says his father looked at him like he was crazy, but Jordan was quite serious.
Jordan graduated from high school in 1953 and enrolled at DePauw University, a virtually all-white school in Indiana. While his college-bound friends headed for the historically black Howard University, Jordan was drawn to the challenge of trying something completely different and, as he wrote, going places where blacks weren't expected to go. The decision was, in part, "a natural outgrowth of my desire to change the way blacks lived in the United States."4
Nevertheless, when it was time for Jordan to choose a law school, there was no doubt it would be Howard University, Thurgood Marshall's alma mater. Howard was the intellectual hub of the NAACP's decades-long court battle to outlaw segregation. Jordan earned his law degree in 1960 and moved back to Atlanta to begin his career as a civil rights attorney. He took a job with one of the city's most revered civil rights lawyers, Donald Hollowell. Jordan quickly found himself on the front lines of the fight to end Jim Crow discrimination. Hollowell represented two black students suing the University of Georgia to be allowed in. When they won the case, it fell to Jordan to escort one of them, Charlayne Hunter, through a menacing mob of students (Charlayne Hunter-Gault would later become a prominent journalist). The image of Jordan's towering, 6'4" body shielding Hunter from assault is one of the classic photos of the civil rights era. For Jordan, this and other photographs capture not just the "ugliness of the scene," but also the "great dignity that stood in marked contrast to the baseness of those who came out to jeer."5
After a year clerking for Hollowell, Jordan was recruited by the NAACP to serve as the organization's Georgia field director. It was a high-profile position that involved opening new branches, expanding membership, and organizing boycotts and demonstrations. Jordan excelled at the job and, over the next decade, moved steadily into positions of greater power and responsibility in the national civil rights movement. In 1964, he joined the Southern Regional Council and became director of its Voter Education Project. As Time magazine later reported, "By 1968 the South had nearly 2 million new black voters, the number of black elected officials in the region had jumped almost eightfold, to 564, and Vernon Jordan was a nationally known civil rights leader."6 In 1970 Jordan was tapped to run the United Negro College Fund, an organization that raises money to fund a consortium of black colleges nationwide. One year later, Jordan was recruited to head up the National Urban League.
Jordan was president of the League for 10 years. In that time he controlled an annual budget of more than $100 million. The federal government supplied much of the money, thanks in part to Jordan's close ties to the administrations of Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. Jordan sometimes played tennis on the White House courts with Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, a practice that infuriated some militant civil rights activists who disliked the Republican White House. A young man who worked at the League headquarters in New York City confronted Jordan about it one day. He said he couldn't work for Jordan knowing he played tennis with Ehrlichman. According to Jordan, he asked the man how much he earned and the man told him $27,000 a year, a middle-class salary at the time. Jordan said, "You know what? I'm down there playing tennis with John Ehrlichman so you can continue to be a $27,000-a-year militant giving me hell about it."7 Jordan's response to the man reflected one of his basic beliefs: "It is possible, and sometimes absolutely imperative, to work with people with whom you have fundamental disagreements. Very little would be accomplished in the world – in government, business, family, anywhere - if this were not true."8 In Jordan's view, his tennis games at the White House helped to keep federal dollars flowing to the Urban League.
As Jordan expanded his efforts to raise money from corporate America, he was recruited to serve on the boards of several major firms, including Bankers Trust and Celanese Corporation, a chemical company. His decision to accept these lucrative positions drew scorn from militants such as the writer Amiri Baraka, who called the Urban League "a vehicle for allowing the interests and thinking of white racist monopoly capital to penetrate the black movement."9 But Jordan believed that real racial equality would elude African Americans so long as they remained on the margins of the business world. Besides, Jordan reasoned in his memoir, "Why should we just be the beneficiaries of corporate largesse but not have a say in how that largesse would be distributed? If members of corporate America could be on our boards, why couldn't we be on theirs?"10
As head of the Urban League, Jordan often spoke about the crucial need for black economic advancement. In this speech, delivered at the National Press Club in 1978, Jordan says his focus on the nation's economic problems and urban policies has drawn criticism from people on the left and the right who argue that civil rights leaders should stay focused on civil rights, rather than other national issues. Jordan responds that civil rights, alone, will not allow African Americans to advance: "The masses of black people did not witness significant changes in their lives because of the rights they won in the 1960s. We were poor then, we are poor today. We were disadvantaged then, we remain so today."
Two years after delivering this speech, Jordan was shot and nearly killed by a white racist in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He spent months recovering, but was eventually able to resume a full life. In 1981, after a decade at the helm of the Urban League and 20 years in the civil rights movement, Jordan retired from his role as public servant to join a powerful, private law firm in Washington, D.C. He was again criticized for selling out the cause. Jordan said he wasn't abandoning the principles of the movement, just his role as a leader.
The suggestion that he should have remained in the movement irked Jordan. The point of the black freedom struggle was "to remove barriers and let black people listen to that voice inside that tells them what their honorable life's pursuit should be. No black movement worth its salt would ever attempt to still that voice," he wrote in his memoir. Sounding a theme he once heard from Ruth Simmons, the first black woman to run an Ivy League school, he writes, "Everything in the world belongs to black people, and there is much in this world…There are 30 million black people in America, and there is a role and a function (perhaps even several over a lifetime) for each of us."11
In the fall of 2001, Jordan went on a national tour to promote his memoir. He said one reason he wrote the book was that "people in America think I was born on January 20, 1993," the day Bill Clinton was sworn in as President.12 Jordan and Clinton had been friends for more than a decade and Jordan was one of the president's closest confidants. Their relationship – and Jordan's influence – drew a great deal of press. Jordan headed up Clinton's 1992 transition team and served as an unofficial adviser for the rest of Clinton's presidency. Jordan struggled to protect his reputation when he allegedly tried to help Clinton cover up a sex scandal that engulfed the White House in 1998. Jordan was never convicted of wrongdoing. Since 2000, he has served as a senior managing director at the investment firm Lazard Ltd in New York.
Mr. President, dearest guests, ladies and gentleman, it's a great pleasure to be with you here today and to be at the National Press Club again. I'd like to wish all of you, especially the ladies, Happy Valentine's Day.
I may disappoint many among you today, because while I will discuss some aspects of the administration's policies, I have not come to Washington today to criticize President Carter, nor do I intend to play the game of issuing a score card on the administration's record. I'd like to talk about something that's even more important in the long run, something that is increasingly a topic of press discussion. I know it's "soft" news, less sexy than attacking political leaders, or making proposals to bring peace in the Middle East. But there is so much misunderstanding of the proper role of civil rights agencies, that I think it is important to discuss it in this forum today.
Some weeks back, I was a guest on William Buckley's Firing Line and the one theme he kept coming back to and later devoted several columns to was this: Why do civil rights leaders concentrate on national economic policy, urban policies, and other issues when their proper role is to stick to civil rights? I thought this was a theme peculiar to the specific ideological viewpoint Buckley and other conservatives cling to. By the way, this new concern for civil rights is heartening. Back in the '60s the same people were upset because civil rights seemed to infringe on property rights, to which they give higher priority. Since most black leaders favor expanded government efforts and increased domestic spending, I could see where there would now be a reluctance to see greater black involvement in issues perceived as general economic ones.
But since then, I have come across liberals who make the same point. They've told me that blacks – as blacks – shouldn't be taking public positions on energy, tax cuts, unemployment and other key issues. We should be concentrating on the moral aspects of securing full civil rights for minorities, and leave the other issues to experts more qualified to deal with them, they say. Two Sundays ago, the New York Times made that point in effect when it said, and I quote:
Increasingly, black leaders have taken up economic issues and other matters whose relationship to the welfare of minorities, while real, is not as direct or as clear cut as before. In so doing, those leaders have raised difficult questions about whom they represent, who their allies are, and whether the moral banner they once held so high still carries the same inspiration.
Today I hope to answer some of those difficult questions.
Frankly, I find it difficult to understand why sophisticated analysts – people presumably familiar with the realities of American life – should have doubts about the changed direction of the civil rights movement. It would seem self-evident that change in conditions demand changed strategy and tactics. In the 1950s and '60s, the basic thrust of blacks and other minorities was to achieve the equality under the law that had been denied then. Eating at the lunch-counter; the right to sit anywhere on the bus; the right to drink water, rather than "colored" water; the right to vote; or to check into a hotel are all easily understandable. The denial of those simple rights was an affront to human rights and to the democratic system.
The issues then were clear-cut. The actors in the civil rights drama were clearly identified. The good guys and the bad guys. The good guys marched peacefully, were non-violent, suffered death, violence, jail, and other indignities. The bad guys looked mean and acted mean. They used cattle prods, water hoses, and dogs on women and children. The bad guys promised never, "No, not one," massive resistance, and segregation today, tomorrow, and forever. Behind the discussion about what the real nature of what today's civil rights movement should be is a lingering nostalgia for those good old days of clear-cut moral decisions and easily defined issues.
But that phase of the movement is over. The basic rights were won through judicial decisions, legislation, and executive orders. But the reality behind those rights has not kept pace. Black people today can check into any hotel in America, but most do not have the wherewithal to check out. It is too often forgotten that the 1963 March on Washington was for more than just abstract rights. It was for jobs and freedom. To a large extent, we won the freedoms, but we still do not have the jobs. There are today a half million more black people unemployed than at the time of the March on Washington in 1963. So economics was always a part of civil rights movement's concerns. So too were housing, urban policies, health, and a whole range of issues that affected blacks disproportionately because we were and are disproportionately poor, in bad housing, in bad health, and in deteriorating urban centers.
But are those properly civil rights issues? Yes they are. Because the disproportionate and disadvantaged borne by blacks and other minorities is the heritage of centuries of oppression. It is the residue of a society that practiced institutional discrimination and racism. It is the result of a complex web of federal, local, and private sector practices that operated to the exclusion of blacks and their interests. The rights granted in the 1960s left that structure largely intact. The National Urban League's report, "The State of Black America 1978," documents the fact that "black progress has been limited." In the report's words, "There is a disturbing duality of the black economy, a slowly growing black middle class, and an increasingly jobless lower economic class."
So despite some gains in employment and in education, the masses of black people did not witness significant changes in their lives because of the rights they won in the 1960s. We were poor then; we are poor today. We were disadvantaged then; we remain so today.
There is a moral dimension in this. We are saying to the American people, "You cannot simply say, 'You have your rights. We won't discriminate in an overt fashion anymore,' and then just walk away from the problem." We are saying that there is a moral imperative to right the wrongs of the past.
Black people were placed on a lower track and continue to struggle for survival on that same track. We are saying that the rights granted in the '60s are hollow, unless we are given the opportunity to compete on the same track as whites. The reluctance of our society to understand the simple point that black people want equality in real life and not just on the law books is mute testimony to the undercurrent of racism that still survives in America.
So I would contend there is a straight line that runs through the civil rights movement's history; a line of concern with improving the life chances of black people. Economics, urban policy, and related issues were always at the forefront of our concerns, but the first line of attack had to be overtly discriminatory barriers. Once those barriers were lowered, we could then pursue our basic goal of achieving black equality in the realities of American life. And that is why civil rights leadership has in the 1970s become so concerned with jobs and urban policy, to mention just two basic areas. To some, it may seem as though we are now no different from any other group asking for an improved economy, for urban revitalization, or for similar goals; but we are different.
We bring a specifically black viewpoint and experience to those issues, and we are concerned with bringing to the nation's attention the simple fact that generalized answers to national problems will perpetuate black disadvantage. Let me illustrate this. The unemployment rate is supposed to be trending downward, the overall official rates are now at 6.3 percent level. There is a widespread feeling that unemployment is coming under control and is no longer the pressing problem it was a while back when a tenth of the labor force was out of work. But from a black perspective, that's not true at all. The black unemployment rate is not only well over double the white rate, but it is slightly higher than it was a year ago. The white rate has improved; the black rate has continued to rise. We don't even discuss here how the official statistics don't include many of the black unemployed, at all. My point is, that while white Americans are talking about how well the economic recovery is progressing, black people in America are still in an economic depression.
Urban revitalization is another issue demanding a black perspective. Many people say the cities can be restored to economic health by attracting the middle class back. But what about the largely poor, black urban population? Not a word. The implication is that they'll have to be moved out somewhere else. Some of the urban proposals I've heard remind me of the old urban renewal programs that became tagged "black removal" because blacks were bulldozed out of their homes to make way for luxury housing and for office centers.
Let me quote that Times article again. It says: "The National Urban League denounced the presidential plan for a $25 billion tax cut. At first glance, it might seem that a reduction would benefit minorities by expanding the economy." Well, first glances are very misleading. The National Urban League opposes the tax cut because it would not solve the problems of minorities. There is little evidence to conclude that the job-stimulation effect of the tax cut would trickle down to minorities. We think the white unemployment rate would drop a little but the high, astronomically high, black rate would be largely unaffected.
There are those who believe in John Kennedy's phrase that a rising tide lifts all boats, but we must remind them that a rising tide lifts only those boats in the water, and black people are in the dry dock of this economy. Rather than scatter $25 billion to the winds, we want that money, or a large part of it, used to create jobs directly, either in public service employment, in public works, or in creative incentives to private industry to hire and train the unemployed. A broad tax cut would not only defeat our goal of lowering black unemployment, but would create a large deficit that would, in itself, become the excuse for not undertaking urban programs the nation needs.
But then there is something else in those tax proposals, something virtually no one has latched onto. The administration is proposing to extend investment tax credit to new construction as well as to machinery. What that means is that the government, through the tax laws, would offer incentives to industry to accelerate the abandonment of older cities. In effect, it is a subsidy to increase black unemployed. It is ironic that this proposal comes at a time when the administration is about to announce its national urban policy. Whatever positive measures that policy will include are likely to be offset by tax policies that drain more jobs from the cities. In the light of this, how can anyone claim that civil-rights leaders ought to be tending to the business of fighting for abstract civil rights when our constituents face economic policies that leave them destitute, without jobs, without the human dignity we preach to other nations?
Civil rights don't take place in a vacuum. They are meaningful only in the real world – the world where people have to survive to work, to raise their families, to instill in their children hope for the future and the skills to function in a society where a broad back and the desire to work are no longer enough. That is why we are concerned with tax cuts, with energy, with a multitude of issues some white people think are not the concern of blacks. That is why we see our present efforts as being the logical outcome of those struggles for basic rights of the 1960s. And that is why we insist there is a vital, moral component to the current struggle.
The Times story asks whether the moral banner they once held so high still carries the same inspiration. And the unequivocal answer is, "Yes it does." It does because the struggle for equality is identical with the struggle for jobs, for housing, for education, for urban vitality. When a third of the poor are drawn from the tenth of a population, that's a moral issue. When a third of the jobless are drawn from a tenth of the population, that's a moral issue. When public and private policies strangle the cities in which the majority of blacks live, that's a moral issue. When a nation that subjected its black people first to slavery and then to persistent oppression, and now subjects them to disproportionate disadvantage, that's a moral issue. And it is a moral issue when people label limited affirmative action to help blacks overcome past and present discriminatory practices as reverse discrimination.
Every statistic in every field shows continued white advantage. Where is this "reverse discrimination?" In an economy where blacks with some college have the same unemployment rates as white high school dropouts, where blacks with some high school education have double the unemployment rates of whites who never got past elementary school. It's a moral issue when welfare is labeled a black program while the majority of welfare recipients are white. It's a moral issue when every halting step of black progress is fought, when policies that would perpetuate a system that locks blacks into the bottom of our society are proposed. And, it is that moral factor that continues to distinguish the civil rights movement. It is that moral factor that makes our views on tax policy different from those of clearly defined interest groups. And it is that moral factor so many people refuse to acknowledge today. Their refusal is based on the desire to avoid the necessary steps to modify the function of our society in a way that would help blacks and other minorities overcome their present disadvantage. Steps like a national full employment policy, a Marshall Plan for the cities, a national health plan, and others.
And what we ask for ourselves, in a spirit of enlightened self-interest, and in a spirit of desperate need, will also benefit the white poor. Everything we got in the '60s, everything we won through bitter struggles and moral suasion helped more white people than black people.
So I'm here today to say that the moral banner is still unfurled. It still waves high above the current struggle. The issues are more complex; and the resistance, more entrenched. But the civil rights movement is still about the business about bringing America's minorities into the mainstream of our national life, with all of the rewards and responsibilities others take for granted. In the 1960s, we fought, bled, and died to build an open, pluralistic, integrated society. In the 1970s, that is still our goal, that is still our moral burden. Thank you very much. [applause]