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Biographical Details of Leadership
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BOND: Vernon Jordan, thank you for spending this time with us. I want to begin with some questions about the Brown decision in 1954. You were nineteen years old and a college sophomore?
BOND: -- freshman when the decision -- what did this -- when you heard the news, what did this mean to you?
JORDAN: It was an affirmation of what I heard in speeches from A.T. Walden to Thurgood Marshall and local NAACP meetings that one day we will win. It was -- it was -- I remember A.T. [Austin Thomas] Walden speaking at my church at vesper service, talking about segregation saying, "I'll be glad when you're dead, you rascal you." And it was -- it was a feeling that Mr. Walden was right. I was a freshman at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. I was the only black in my class. There were only five us in the student body. And it was also a reaffirmation that I was in the right place doing the right thing. Interestingly, my classmates at that time, they didn't quite know what it meant. And so I became the teacher, and to say this is overturning fifty years of Plessy v. Ferguson, which was a Supreme Court approval in much the same way that Dred Scott was of a separate, but unequal existence, for black people and much the same way that Dred Scott said that a black man had no rights that the white man was bound to respect. So it was -- it was progress. It was nine men on the highest court of the land affirming black aspirations and black hope for their future.
BOND: Now at the time when you heard about this and you have to interpret it for your white classmates, what did you think it would mean? What did you think Brown would -- what effect would it have?
JORDAN: I don't think I got to that point. What it was, it was a feeling that we needed this declaration from the highest court in the land that segregation was inherently unequal. And at that time I didn't give much thought to what the arguments would be in Aaron v. Cooper or that we would get concepts like with all deliberate speed or that the state of Virginia would be leading the South in massive resistance efforts or that governors would be standing in the doorway. And that did not occur to me at that time. It was -- it was about victory. And at the moment of celebration, there's not much thought about implementation. There was a great story about one reaction that I heard subsequent, about a great preacher who was at Dexter Avenue Church before Martin.
BOND: Vernon Johns.
JORDAN: Vernon Johns. And the story's told that Vernon Johns, in Virginia, in Prince Edward County, and another preacher at the time of the Supreme Court announcement were driving down a Virginia highway and the news came over the radio. And Dr. Vernon Johns pulled to the side of the road, and he and the preacher got out of the car and went around to the front of the car and kneeled at the bumper and prayed. And somehow that symbolizes for me what -- how black people reacted. That this distinguished theologian, this great preacher whom I heard as a student at Howard University, when the Supreme Court decision comes down, his instinct, his first thought is to pull to the side of the road and use the bumper as an altar and to give a prayer of thanksgiving. And I think that, too, was my reaction, that justice is being done and it's a good thing.
BOND: Now looking back from the advantage point of almost fifty years, what has Brown meant?
JORDAN: Brown helped change America. Brown laid the foundation for everything that was to happen after that, from Rosa Parks who, the next year, sat down on the bus, from the time that the students sat down in Greensboro on February 1st, 1961, from the time that you and Ben Brown and others, Lonnie King in Atlanta, led students at the Langley [...] Center in protest. Brown gave a framework for that.
BOND: Now let me take you back to your earlier years and try to pinpoint some people who influenced you and the ways they influenced you. You write about your parents, of course, who are everyone's initial framer. And you talked last night about the difference between your mother's aspirations for you, which were broad and grand, and your father's aspirations, which were fine but comparatively relatively limited.
JORDAN: Yep. I...
BOND: Did you fight between these two?
JORDAN: I did not.
BOND: Personally. I mean, did you, were you torn between these two?
JORDAN: I was never torn. Somehow I understand that my father, as I said in the book, was a man of his time and my mother was a woman ahead of her time. And in that context, based on his own experience, had I finished high school, gotten a job in the post office -- my Daddy was a postal man for the federal government, too -- and met a nice girl, had two kids, little white house with green shutters and the white picket fence, kept my grass cut and my hedges trimmed, my car washed, my shoes shined, went to church, taught Sunday school, listened to the news, voted, he would have said -- and he was not wrong -- that that was a good life. My mother, on the other hand, thought that there were bigger and broader things for me and encouraged me and pushed me. And she was sort of the CEO of our family. She was in charge of the money. She was the entrepreneur and she was in charge of the structure of our lives from church to school to choir rehearsal to piano lessons to the Butler Street YMCA to the GateCity Nursery. In addition to that and running her business, she was the president of every PTA of every school I attended: E.A. Ware, Walker Street, David T. Howard. When I was in high school, my youngest brother was in elementary school, she was president of both PTAs. So that was-- that was a lesson, number one, in leadership; it was also a lesson in community service. Now my father was not absent from that. He was very much involved in his Sunday school class. The best time of my week was walking to Sunday school with my father and my brothers. That was a tradition: a big breakfast in the morning and then the men in the house would walk to Sunday school. And my mother would join us after church. And he was very active in the YMCA and his T.J.…Bible Class at St. Paul Church.
BOND: Now, in all these schools, from E. A. Ware forward, obviously teachers touched you in some way or the other. But what did this environment mean to you? It strikes me that E. A. Ware, David T. Howard High School were very different places then than they may be now. Can you talk about differences if you see it the same way?
JORDAN: Well, first of all, if you -- when I was in the Atlanta public school system, the per pupil expenditure for black students was disproportionate to what it was for white students. We used old books handed down from white schools. We -- our teachers, though equally educated, were paid less. And so in every way, in terms of equipment and in terms of compensation, things were not equal. But what I believe was equal was the commitment of these teachers and these principals and these counselors to us as young people to teach us, to prepare us for world -- and this was a totally segregated world. And you did not come in contact with white people until you went downtown because there was a self-containment about segregation, about the black community. And in that context, I was a happy kid. I went to camp, I went to the YMCA, I went to day camp. We played football. We played basketball. We had our fights. It was a community. It also was greatly beneficial to me to live in the first public housing project in Atlanta, in this country for black people actually, which was adjacent to the Atlanta University Center Complex. I lived right across the street from Spelman College, Clark College. Two blocks from Morehouse College, two blocks from Atlanta University, five blocks from Morris Brown College. And as a small kid growing up, going to the movies and to piano lessons, the walking through these campuses and seeing these big buildings and seeing professors -- and Dr. [Benjamin] Mays and President [Rufus Early] Clement and President of Clark College, Dr. [James P.] Brawley -- it was a source of inspiration. I knew that something good was going on in these buildings. And I would watch the homecoming parades and go to the athletic field and watch the track meets. That atmosphere, certainly for me, was a huge source of inspiration. The manager of University Homes was Alonzo Moron who was a Harvard Law graduate. He was from the West Indies. He ended up as president of Hampton Institute. And Mr. Moron was a -- he lived in the housing project, too, though he was the manager. And he walked with authority. He wore a shirt and tie, and he was -- he was a leader. And I saw that, and it was an example of what -- tif I wanted to be something or what I wanted to be, if I did what I needed to do, if I listened to these teachers and I listened to these counselors and if I followed my parent's guidance.
BOND: In the neighborhood around the University Center -- University Homes -- it's a mixture of residential, a couple of businesses, Yates and Milton's Drug Store there on the corner.
JORDAN: Two of 'em.
BOND: This is a part of a chain. So unusual for a black people to own a chain of these kinds of businesses. Did you draw any thoughts from that, from the little businesses, Yates and Milton's, the other things you saw?
JORDAN: It was a source of confidence that you could do business. There was a Young's barber shop. They did their business. There was the Butz grocery store, the Johnson grocery store. These were all black businesses serving the black community. And then when you got to go the Butler Street Y on the other side of town, you saw the Mutual Federal Savings & Loan, you saw the Citizen's Trust Bank. There was WRD, the first black radio station. There were these huge churches on Auburn Avenue -- Big Bethel, Wheat Street, and Ebenezer. And then there were the nightclubs. I mean, in the context of segregation, there was a prospering, and there was a self-contained confidence about education, preparation, community service. As a kid going to the Butler Street YMCA, we would see all of the talented tenth leaders -- the businessmen, the doctors and the lawyers, the social workers. The Butler Street Y was a gathering place. When I was growing up, the Butler Street Y, under the leadership of a man named Warren Cochrane had the only interracial forum in the south at that time. It was called the Hungry Club. And I knew about the Hungry Club as a kid. And as a kid, I grew up believing that one day I would speak at the Hungry Club because that's what the big guys did. And that's what I wanted to do. And I am so grateful for those institutions that my parents exposed me to and the individuals in those institutions. They were great role models for me.
BOND: Now to get from where you lived to the Butler Street Y, you had to pass through downtown Atlanta.
JORDAN: You had to catch the streetcar.
BOND: And I'm wondering if you noted a transition between where you lived downtown and then the Y on the other side of town. Was this evident to you that these were really two worlds? When did you find that out?
JORDAN: What I knew, when I had to go to the Butler Street Y is that I had to get on the streetcar and that I had to sit in the back. And I knew that if I, somewhere downtown, had to go the bathroom, I would have to go to the colored bathroom, or if I wanted water, I had to drink colored water. But I was also trained by my mother to go to the bathroom before I left home, to drink whatever water I wanted so that I'd not -- did not have to confront the insult of inferiority or a statement about inferiority. So you sort of prepared yourself. Going through downtown Atlanta was -- it was -- it was -- it was getting through it, and you didn't worry about it because you went from University Homes on the streetcar, through downtown, you transferred, changed streetcars, and then when you got on the other side, you were back in the community. And so you went from one that was all yours through this sort of segregated village, and then back to where you were. And there was, I think, probably some comfort in that. "I just gotta go through this downtown, but I don't have to deal with these people. I don't have to look at 'em. They're not gonna look at me." But I also remember this, Julian -- my mother telling me that "despite the fact that you're sitting in the back, you're as good as anybody on that bus." And I never had any doubt that the white children sitting in front, because they were sitting in front were somehow better than me.
BOND: You talked last night about how your mother's leadership at these PTAs inspired you to aspire to leadership positions in school. What did you take away from these races for student body president and so on? What did that represent to you? Is it simply that your mother had said, "This is a preferable thing to do," or was there more involved?
JORDAN: I liked leadership.
BOND: What did you like about it? What did it mean?
JORDAN: In wanting to be a leader, you had to articulate a position. You had to convince people of your leadership. I made -- you remember I ran against our friend, Lonnie King, for president of the student body and I lost. I've never gotten over that. But I learned a great lesson. And the lesson was that you have to do more than make the best speech. The other lesson was that you have to give to people something that they can put into their hands. I made a great speech. Lonnie King put salt and pepper shakers in the cafeteria. And that was a huge lesson. I remember going home and saying to my mother that I had lost. And I remember my mother saying to me, "That's a very good thing." And so I said, "Why is that a very good thing that I lost?" She said, "A little defeat is good for you. You were getting cocky, you were getting arrogant," and said, "a little defeat will bring you down to size." She never blinked. And I think that she may have been right about that. I've not ever since run for public office either.
BOND: But it strikes me that the church, the school, the Y -- all of these give young people like yourself, boys and girls, a chance to have leadership positions or to serve in organizational settings that might not have been available in rural Georgia and might not have been available had there, in fact, been an integrated world. Had blacks and whites lived together, the chances for leadership diminished because the group's larger. So the opportunity you have to be a student body president is less than it would have been in this segregated setting, a smaller setting.
JORDAN: Yeah, but my sense of arrogance, my cockiness is such that had I been in a totally integrated situation...
BOND: You would have risen up.
JORDAN: I would have been a leader as I was at DePauw University as a student. I was very much involved in student activities. So that whatever leadership I was going to give would not have been relegated to an all-white or an all-black situation. And I think my life has proven that.
BOND: Now you go to DePauw. Why DePauw? It seems to me with both the collection of black colleges in Atlanta and the collection of colleges around the country out of the South you might have gone to, why this one?
JORDAN: It was different. And this marvelous man came to my school, Paul -- I can't remember his last name now. I just remember him. I've since met his daughter, who's a principal in Oakland, California. Representing the National Service and Scholarship Fund for Negro Students out of New York -- now defunct.
JORDAN: NSSFNS, it was called. And he spoke to the Honor Society and he talked about going North to school. And this was contrary to the plan with my then-buddies in high school. But it had great appeal to me. And I lost friends as a result of being different. And some of my teachers said to me, "Morehouse was good enough for me, why isn't it good enough for you?" But I was challenged by the opportunity to do something different and to go beyond Atlanta. I had already been accepted at Howard University and that's where I thought, at the moment, that I was going. But the difference in DePauw -- the DePauw climate, the challenge of it -- I went to Greencastle right after I finished high school. And the director of admissions suggested that I was not good enough for DePauw given my high school background, that I should go to a state school in Indiana maybe, but not to DePauw. And that, too, was a challenge. I said, "I'll be back." And I went back. And I have no regrets about it. I ultimately went to Howard University Law School. I have no regrets about that. I felt like that I got the best of both at DePauw University and at Howard University Law School. And that these two situations prepared me for the world in which I am living.
BOND: Now, you spoke last night and again today about seeing the university presidents, the college presidents -- and you talked last night about your mother's career exposing you to these lawyers, these really highfalutin lawyers in Atlanta. And I'm just -- it strikes me that your experiences are so different from the experiences of most black kids your age. If most black people in Atlanta ultimately worked for white people, most kids didn't see white people of that kind, of that status in life. I know it's not either historically correct to be counter-factual, but suppose your mother had operated a food store on the street, a cart or something, selling to working-class people, you would have had a different kind of exposure.
JORDAN: Maybe. I would have, but I think my aspiration would not have been any different.
JORDAN: I think there was some advantage to working in her catering business to seeing how the other side really lived. But most black people have had that experience in one way or another because their parents worked, for the most part, in domestic situations.
BOND: Yes, but the children didn't see that.
JORDAN: They didn't see it as intimately as I saw it. But I think you can make a case that they know a little bit about it. Not too much now, but back then. But I was exposed to these great big mansions where I served canapes and was bartender. And I was exposed to the Lawyer's Club of Atlanta. So I got to see how you do things. And I must confess to you that that did have some appeal to me in much the same way that seeing Dr. [Benjamin] Mays and Dr. [Rufus Early] Clement on these campuses, because they represented something good and big and helpful.
BOND: Now, what was it that they represented? I know you say "good" and "big" and "helpful," but if you see Dr. Mays, this erect, impressive, dignified figure -- you know he's the college president. You see Rufus Clement. You talked about his three-piece suits. What is it that they represent and how do you connect your aspiration and drive to them? You, obviously, had an opportunity later on to be a college president but you turned that away. So that's not it.
JORDAN: Smartest thing I did. But anyhow, they represented leadership, they represented success, they represented giving back to the community, they represented -- they validated what hard work and sacrifice could get you. They were -- you know, Bennie Mays could have been president. But by reason of his race and the circumstances of his life, he was -- he could only be president of Morehouse. But he could have been president of Harvard. And so they were just examples of what I could be if I was prepared to make the kind of sacrifices that my parents told me I had to make to do that. They also cared about what they were doing, and that was somehow obvious to me because I would see them at the Butler Street Y, I would hear their speeches, I would see them at the Atlanta Negro Voters League, I would see them at the NAACP. Their life was not restricted to the academy.
BOND: Now you talked about seeing them in these various contexts. These are essentially black contexts.
BOND: The NAACP, the Voters League and so on. But you also had to know that someone like Warren Cochrane, the director of the YMCA, served as a kind of middle man between black and white Atlanta, and that Mays and Clement and these other figures also had a necessity to deal with the larger white world. And I wonder if you had any recognition of that then, that there was a world outside of this black, circumscribed world, however rich and vibrant it was, that called to you or that you thought you might have some dealings with in some day in the future.
JORDAN: I don't think during my high school years I really fully comprehended the vastness of leadership, the integrated nature of it. But when I finished law school and came back and became a part of the community and began to take part in civic and political activities, I could see the value of the network, the value of talking to people. I would look at Bob Thompson, who ran the local Urban League, and see how he was operating, how -- what it meant to have that Hungry Club forum and the integrated nature of that. And then in my second job as state director of the NAACP, I had the opportunity to pick up Roy Wilkins at the Atlanta Airport and drive him to Macon. And so, two years out of law school you have Roy Wilkins hostage, actually, to your questions and to your inquiries. Two hours to Macon and two hours back. And you see him working on his speech and you ask him about things. Same thing with Clarence Mitchell or Gloster Current or Ruby Hurley. I mean, that, in and of itself, was a huge, informal training ground. It was like getting a graduate degree in black politics and in institutional politics and in personal relationships. I learned a lot that way.
BOND: Early on you talked about the Brown decision and having to be the interpreter of the Brown decision because you're the only black student in your class, one of five in the whole school. And I think your life has been as an interpreter, interpreting one world to the other, interpreting that world to this. But do you think you began doing that at an early age? At DePauw? Did the DePauw experience, being this real minority... The first time in your life you're a minority in a social setting -- in an organizational setting. Did that begin some path toward this role?
JORDAN: Yeah. By my very presence in Greencastle I was a teacher. By my very presence I was a source, for some people, of discomfort. But also by my very presence I got to learn things about people in ways that I did not know and vice versa. I can remember my roommates my freshman year as we existed, the three of us in this room. Two seniors and me, a freshman. And after the third week when I came in, once in the library, they said, "We're talking about you." And I said, "Okay. What's the subject?" He said, "We have made an amazing discovery." And I said, "What is that?" They said, "Well, we discovered that you're no different than we are." But they were seniors. One came from a small town in Indiana, another from a town just outside Cleveland. By the time of my senior year I had met a real buddy, who is here in this studio today, who was my roommate my freshman year. And we were just friends, buddies. And 45 years later we still are.
BOND: Now the experience of these two guys discovering you're like them, that's because, I'm guessing, you just went about your regular life as a student: studying, going to class, whatever. So you didn't have to convince them. You didn't have argue with them.
JORDAN: That was never...
JORDAN: ...my tactic. My view was that my presence was their problem.
BOND: If it was a problem at all, it was theirs.
JORDAN: It was... Yeah. I had a purpose and a mission to come and learn and prepare myself to do what I'm now doing. And so I did not view my... I was comfortable and I think my mother worried about that, my father worried about that. I was never discomforted by it, in part because growing up in a segregated situation, we always brought people home. And so my graduation present to my two white roommates my freshman year was to take them home to Atlanta.
BOND: Oh, really?
JORDAN: Yeah. They came and spent a week with me. And all during my time at DePauw I would catch rides with my white schoolmates going to drink beer in Fort Lauderdale. And they would stop and sometimes spend the night. There's a fascinating story of a young man who was on my waiting staff at Longden Hall at DePauw where I was head waiter. His name was Robert Smith. He was from South Carolina. He catches a ride with-- to Atlanta with a group of us. But because he's going to South Carolina, we'd get there in the middle of the night. He has to spend the night at my house. We finish eating. My mother made a great southern meal. The guys going to Florida kept going. And Bob Smith and I shared my bedroom. He slept on one twin bed, I slept in another. In the middle of the night my father comes into the room, turns on the light, literally weeps as he sees me sleeping in one bed and this white kid from South Carolina sleeping in the other bed. Goes back and my mother asks, "What's wrong?" and he says, "I never thought when I was growing up in Monticello, Georgia, Jasper County, that my life would come to this. That in the house that I own and the house that we pay the mortgage on that a white boy from the South with a very real southern twang would be my son's friend and sleeping in our house." So for my father it was a huge experience, so different from anything that he had experienced before and so different from anything that he had envisioned that he would experience. Here, again, it was a fallout of Brown v. Board of Education.
BOND: You talked a while ago about the high school teachers, "If Morehouse's good enough for me, why is it not good enough for you?" and the friendships. You write about friendships that are strained because you made this choice to step outside the mold. What other times have you felt this pressure to do what everybody else is doing and you've not done it?
JORDAN: Well, I think that social pressure just sort of goes along in a kind of situation. But it's not -- it's not unusual. Ray Mabus, a former governor of Mississippi, a friend of mine, went to the Navy, came back from the Navy. He had gone to undergraduate school in Mississippi. And there's a big party for him. And a great aunt is there and she comes and she says, "Now, Ray, darling, I understand you're going to law school." And he says, "Yes." She says, "Where are you going to law school?" She says -- he says, "Aunt So and So, I'm going to law school at Harvard University." And then she fanned. She said, "What's the matter? You couldn't get into Old Miss?"
My point is that -- is that there is provincialism where people expect you to follow a certain tradition. And so these high school teachers who had gone to Morehouse or Morris Brown or Clark [College] and were good teachers thought that my being a good student meant that I should follow in their footsteps. And so to step out of that tradition is jolting sometimes.
BOND: Yes, but how do you -- what makes you step out of it? I mean, someone else would have said, "Oh, okay. I will go to Morehouse or Clark or Morris Brown."
JORDAN: Well, I've just always followed my own intuition. It was -- it was different. It was a challenge. It was something out of the ordinary that I decided on my own to do. Mind you, Julian, that August 15th, my birthday, 1953, before I went, my mother wrote me a note, left it on my bed and said, "We want you to go wherever you want to go. But if you go to Howard -- socially, financially, academically, you might be better off. But you make your own decision." So even my -- the CEO of my life was concerned about my ability to adjust in that circumstance. Now, they took me to school. There's this incredible scene at East College the night that they're leaving me. My brother Windsor, my youngest brother, shakes my hand and rushes off in the car, happy that for the first time in his life --
BOND: He's the big man.
JORDAN: He's got the bed and the bathroom to himself, and the bedroom to himself. My mother, tears in her eyes, hugs me, slips $50 in my hand, and says, "God bless you, son." My father shakes my hand and says, "You can't come home." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "You can't come home." I said, "What do you mean, Daddy?" He says, "The counselor says that you're reading less than two hundred words a minute and your classmates are reading between six hundred, eight hundred a minute. Which means when you're reading history of civilization, they'll be in Chapter 6 and you'll be struggling to get out of the preface. But you can't come home." He said, "In 1951 you used a plane geometry book that had been used by a white student in 1935. But you can't come home." So I said, "What am I supposed to do, Daddy?" He said, "Read, boy. Read."
That's all he said. And that's how he left me before I went into that assembly at East College where I was the only black in my class. "Read, boy. Read."
And when I graduated four years ago [later], my brother came and shook my hand, my mother, tears in her eyes, gave me a hundred dollars. My father just walks up to me, shakes my hand and says, "You can come home now." Just -- I've never forgotten that. And that was -- I mean, I understood what I had to do.
BOND: You talked last night and [you] write about Walden -- Colonel A.T. Walden, the dean of black lawyers in Atlanta -- as a strong influence, and Thurgood Marshall, in setting a career for you. But at the same time, the other lawyers in Atlanta at the time -- tiny, tiny number-- but there are a couple of other lawyers -- what did Walden and Marshall represent as lawyers that these other real estate lawyers didn't?
JORDAN: Well, they were at the cutting edge. They were fighting the good fight. They were agents of change. They were advocates of change. And because they were, you read about them and you saw them. The real estate lawyers and insurance lawyers didn't make speeches in churches.
JORDAN: They were church members, but they weren't leaders in the ultimate cause for black people. And it's not a negative reflection on them...
JORDAN: As much as it is a positive reflection on Mr. Walden, Thurgood Marshall. And Don Hollowell who gave me my first job was not really on the scene until I was about to come out of law school. He was pretty much the successor to Mr. Walden as the civil rights lawyer. And to have had the pleasure and privilege of working with him, to carry his briefcase as it were...Same thing for Constance Baker Motley. It was a great thing.
BOND: Now, you go to Howard. Are you attracted to Howard because it is the black law school and the civil rights law school?
JORDAN: It was the only law school at the time that --
BOND: You could have gone someplace else.
JORDAN: Well --
BOND: Could have gone to Indiana.
JORDAN: I could have gone to Indiana. I could have gone to Michigan. I wanted for a time to come to the University of Virginia law school. 1957, the University of Virginia was only taking black students, to the extent that they did, who were residents of Virginia. I was a resident of Georgia. And my professor, Stephen Early, the son of President Roosevelt's secretary, had taught here and was sort of my investigator and -- to come into the University of Virginia. But at that time, 1957, that was not a possibility. And so I chose Howard because it was the only school that taught civil rights. I chose Howard because this was Thurgood Marshall's law school, this was Peanut [Oliver] Hill's law school, this was Robert Carter's law school. And it was the capstone. Mr. [L. D.] Milton, who was the president of our local bank, Citizens Trust Bank, was the chairman of the board. My dentist, Harvard Smith, was a graduate. My physician, Dr. R. A. Billings, was a graduate of Howard. So, I had good reason to want to come to Howard. And it was a delayed admission. I had been admitted to the undergraduate school, so it was right.
BOND: And the experience you had at Howard Law School -- did you envision then that you would become a Thurgood Marshall-like person or an A.T. Walden-like person that just --
JORDAN: I wanted to be.
BOND: You'd spend your life as a lawyer in the courtroom, as opposed to the path that you ultimately took. Was that your idea? That you'd be Thurgood Marshall?
JORDAN: My idea was that I would be a litigator in civil rights. And after law school, came back and went to work for Don Hollowell. And I worked for Don Hollowell for a year. Roy Wilkins offered me a job as field director for the NAACP. I took that. I did that for a couple of years. And Les Dunbar offered me a job at the Southern Regional Council. I did that for a little while. And then I went to work for the Poverty Program, to do something about my own poverty. I did that for a very short time. And then I succeeded Wiley Branton, a great civil rights lawyer who had come from Little Rock to run the -- from Pine Bluff, actually, to run the Voter Education Project. I worked for him and succeeded him as head of the Voter Education Project. And --
BOND: But at the same time, when you go to work for the NAACP, you step away from being a lawyer.
BOND: And you don't come back to it until you go to Akin Gump many, many years later.
JORDAN: I never came back to litigation.
BOND: No, you didn't come back to that, but you come back to the profession --
BOND: -- when you come to Akin Gump. So something happens to interrupt this vision of yourself as a litigator, and I'm guessing -- before we go to that, the big case that Hollowell's firm has is the case against the University of Georgia. And there's this great photo of you escorting Charlayne Hunter to the University of Georgia. That had to be tense beyond all imagination.
JORDAN: It was six months after I finished Howard University Law School. And Horace Ward, who had finished Northwestern, now Judge Ward, U.S. District Court Judge, escorted Hamilton Holmes. And my feeling at the time was "I am doing what I went to law school to do." That "this is why I went to Howard Law School. This is why I wanted to follow in the footsteps of A.T. Walden and Thurgood Marshall. This is -- this is the manifestation of my beliefs about why I wanted to be a lawyer." And in that process, we didn't have sense enough to be afraid. There was no fear attached. And we did that in January of '61. There were no federal troopers, there were no state troopers, we had no protection. But we had a court order that we had won in Judge [William] Bootle's court. And we were just acting pursuant to and consistent with that court order. And we never talked about protection. We just got in that car, drove down -- I did the driving -- drove down to Athens, and did what we had to do while Attorney Hollowell and Attorney Constance Baker Motley went to Macon to argue against the stay before Judge Bootle. And if you remember, Judge Bootle actually gave the stay, and stayed the implementation of his order in the middle of the process of registrating these two students. And then Hollowell and Motley went to Atlanta and Judge [Elbert] Tuttle, Chief Judge of the Circuit -- Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, overruled Bootle. And then the process continued.
BOND: Then it goes to the Supreme Court?
JORDAN: It did not go to the Supreme Court, I don't think.
BOND: Because I remember a great cartoon in The Constitution, "From Bootle to Tuttle to Black," a play on the old "Tinker to Evers to Chance."
JORDAN: Yeah. Right. Right. Yeah, that's right. But maybe that's -- yeah, but what was important is that the Supreme Court let the Bootle order stand. Let the Tuttle order stand, rather.
BOND: Talk a moment about your time with the Georgia NAACP as field director for Georgia. Now you are entering into what traditionally has been a hierarchical, traditional, and relatively speaking, conservative organization. How did you find it?
JORDAN: I liked it. I liked the mission. I liked the tradition and the history. I loved Ruby Hurley. I had great admiration for Roy Wilkins. And this was a job about organizing basically. And the time was right. It was 1961. There was a lot of fervor. What was exciting about it is that you could go to almost any town in Georgia, go to the local filling station and ask the black guy in the filling station, "Who is the NAACP man here?" And he always could tell you who it was. Now, the organization may not have had a meeting for two or three years, completely defunct. But there was a person who was considered the NAACP man because, at one point he really was, and it was active, and for whatever reason, it was dysfunctional. And so I found that and I would find that person and I would -- so, you know, "So, we got to get this started up again."
I shall never forget the Brunswick, Georgia NAACP was run by a preacher and Mrs. [Geneva] Lyde, who may still be alive I think. And it had gotten down to about ten people and they just met socially, had cake and ice cream and sold a few memberships. And I got there as a -- and I said, "We've got to revive this. We got to do better." And got Julius Caesar Hope -- who now is in Detroit -- interested. He was in the Pastor of Zion Baptist Church in Brunswick. And we just brought that back. We brought it back and we had mass meetings and we got a program. The same thing was true in Albany, Georgia, in the midst of all of that. It was defunct, SNCC was big, SCLC had come in. But we found that core group of older people who found a niche for the NAACP and that program. So that organizing the work of getting people to join the NAACP had a process that not many people know about.
And some of the small towns in 1961, to have your NAACP membership card come through the mail, could mean that you would lose your job, or otherwise be discomforted. So with W. W. Law, who was then the president of the state conference, after a membership campaign, we would have mass meeting. And we would pass out membership cards like a college president passes out diplomas and it was a big thing. "Brother Julian Bond, come and get your NAACP membership card." And it was, it was a marvelous experience. And many of them in those days never carried the NAACP card around in their pocket, they would leave it at home in the family Bible. Pretty good place for the NAACP membership card, it seems to me.
And so that was... that was the beginning of my testing as a leader. You had to have a state conference, you had to write a report. You had to go do investigations, you had to secure counsel for local people who needed lawyers. You had to organize mass meetings. And the one thing that you learned, is that you never select the biggest church in town. You select a medium-size church and then fill it up. It's better to have a medium-size church full, so that the press can say there was an overflowing crowd, than to have the biggest church and the crowd's half empty. And so things like that you learned, you learned about leaflets and pamphlets, and how to organize the community around an issue or around a mass meeting at which Roy Wilkins was going to speak, and you learned how to navigate and negotiate with the NAACP, without the NAACP. I remember once going -- being sent to Savannah to solve a dispute between Westley W. Law, the president of the branch, and Hosea Williams, the head of the Crusade of Women Voters. Well, I learned a lesson about that, and that is that you never go into a local community as an outsider to bring the two groups together. I remember getting there and putting Hosea on one side, W. W. Law on the other, and I sat in the middle. Before the meeting was over, Hosea Williams and W. W. Law were on the same side, against me. It was a fabulous lesson in local dispute resolution.
BOND: You talked last night, and you write about, Ruby Hurley who, you know, sadly is just a forgotten figure in the history of the movement. What did you learn from her? What did she teach you?
JORDAN: She taught me about the mechanics of organizing. She taught me about how to give leadership to people who were afraid, how to make them feel comfortable in their leadership. She taught me a lot, and you know this as chairman of the board of the NAACP, that there are local politics and there are regional politics and there are national politics. And these politics, you know, play against each other. She controlled Region 5. And she was Mr. Wilkins' person. She was a very loyal NAACP, and so she helped him withstand the attacks of Eugene Reed -- just died in New York -- who was sort of a radical, always on the other side. And Bill Booth from New York. I mean, these guys were genuinely NAACP people who had a different point of view. And that was a healthy tension in that dissent and dissention. But Ruby Hurley taught me how to manage dissent and how to be a leader.
BOND: And from the NAACP Arkansas and then to the Voter Education Project and here is another world for you, as opposed to the hierarchical NAACP and these regional, state, local branches and visions and politics. You're in a relatively brand new organization that has a board of directors, but really takes some direction from the foundations who originally funded it. So how has this changed?
JORDAN: The change was, it was very healthy change, because this was the interracial leaders of the South who cared, liberals and moderates, black college presidents, deans, lawyers who were brought together under the bankers, John Herbert Wheeler, but also liberal whites from the South who really cared, and that was a different dynamic. And it was a research organization and to bring facts to life about the horrors of segregation and discrimination. But it was a logical step for me, and I worked for this marvelous man, Leslie Dunbar, Ph.D., from Cornell, who was committed to research and that process at the Southern Regional Council, taught me the value of research and how to use it. And that's when I started reading the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Washington Post everyday, and I've been doing it ever since, because the fact-gathering and understanding of events was very important. And it was also the first job where I had clear administrative responsibilities. I was in charge of the budget and I had to present the budget and so -- and it was also the first time that I ever took a proposal to a foundation in New York to argue its merits and to defend it and to ultimately get funded. Leslie Dunbar sent me to the Ford Foundation during that time.
BOND: And you're also in charge of an interracial staff, which is new for you.
JORDAN: In charge of an interracial staff, managing that staff, resolving disputes within that staff, making decisions about hiring and firing. That was -- that was a necessary step in this process of growing up.
BOND: Now along this way you give the Emancipation Day speech for the Atlanta NAACP and the local paper raves over this speech. And in it, you talk about the necessity for these older institutions, like the Voter's League, to change and adapt to new circumstances, new people like the Young Turks, very much like Eugene Reed and Bill Booth. What prompted this? What made you think of this?
JORDAN: First of all, that was 1965. Ten years earlier, that speech had been given by Martin. And when we left Bethel Church, I said to my father, to his great disbelief -- I mean, he just looked at me like I was crazy. I said, "Daddy, you know what? I'm going to make that speech one day." And in 1965 I was fortunate enough to be true to my promise to my father. What most appealed to me -- and I'll get to your point -- about that speech is that I was really doing what I promised my dad that I was going to do. It took place at Union Baptist Church, sitting on the platform, in the pulpit that day, was A.T. Wallen, in braces. And when I finished, I got from him the blessing. He fixed his braces and he walked over to me and he said, "Son, you hit a home run." And I felt like that was the laying on of hands, that was Mr. Wallen saying that I had, as we would say in the fraternity, "Crossed the burning sands." It was -- it was a very special moment. I don't remember what I said in that speech, you've obviously read it. I remember the Atlanta Daily World wrote an editorial about it, and Sam Cook, who was then a professor at the political science department at Atlanta University, he said, if C.A. Scott an editorial about your speech, it must have been one hell of a speech. But it was -- it was a kind of affirmation, a confirmation process for me that I was on the leadership track. And to have been asked five years after law school to give -- the Atlanta Emancipation Proclamation Day speech was a big speech, it was a big event. And it was -- I was so honored and pleased to have been able to do that.
BOND: Now, then you go to work for the OEO for a brief period, and then, are a fellow at Harvard. And it strikes me -- and tell me if I'm right -- that this is a period in which you're about to make a big shift in life from what you described last night as the non-profit world to the for-profit world. So, very quickly about the Harvard experience -- this is prior to your announcing you're going to run for Congress and then withdrawing when the UNCF offer comes along. What are you thinking about your future while you've got this sort of respite at Harvard?
JORDAN: This was a time that you were in the legislature, that -- or maybe you'd been put out by then, but it was around that time when blacks were being elected to office. And anybody in a leadership position in the black community thought about it. I remember telling Charles Weltner, who was our Congressman in the 5th Congress District, that he could only have that seat for a short time that I wanted it, and so in 1969 I announced for it, because I thought at that time that that was something that I wanted to do. After I had announced that I was going to run, not in a formal announcement, but in a cocktail party when Jimmy Carter announced he was going to run for governor a second time.
And it was written about that I was seriously considering it. And then a week after that, I was offered the job as president, or executive director, of the United Negro College Fund. And it was at that point that I had to make a decision about my life, whether I wanted to stay in Atlanta, be a local politician, or whether I wanted to go and assert myself on this national platform. But my base would still be the South. It would be forty colleges and 40,000 black students in the South. And it was just clear to me that to go to New York to run the College Fund was what I should have done. And it was contrary to my notion that I would never leave the South because I love the South. And I never thought that I would leave Atlanta. But the opportunity to be head of the United Negro College Fund was so instantly appealing that I felt like I had no choice. I had a sick wife, I had a very young daughter. But I thought it was a challenge worth doing. Now, Whitney Young who was then the National Urban League, sent for me and said, "You come up here and talk to me." And he said, "Vernon, take this job. Come to New York." And he was -- he was not only encouraging me to do it, but he was enormously helpful to me once I got to New York.
BOND: Now I misspoke a moment ago. This is not a transition from the non-profit to the for-profit world, this is a continuation in the non-profit world. But back to Whitney Young and this experience. You describe in your book his saying that when he came, black New Yorkers didn't reach out to him, the political power and structure. And you describe it as kind of a Harlem-centered, clubhouse group of people. And he's determined that that won't happen to you.
BOND: And there are figures who reach out to you and there had been previous figures who'd reached out to you. Very quickly, about Louie Martin who got you engaged in White House conference -- talk about Louie Martin and your relationship.
JORDAN: I think Louie Martin, who comes from Savannah, Georgia, is one of the great unsung heroes of black America who was never on the front page but always in the backroom. And when he worked for Lyndon Johnson, he was never in the picture. He was always pushing the black elected officials, the people who worked in the government, toward Lyndon Johnson from the back of the room. He was very helpful to me at the Voter Education Project when we needed the endorsement of the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee. He was -- he was a huge resource because he understood the backroom of politics and he knew how to make the call and to get things done and he shared that. And he was never interested in a by-line, he was never interested in credit. Louie chaired the search committee to find a successor for Whitney Young. And I suspect that I would not have been Whitney Young's successor had not Louie been the chairman of that committee.
BOND: Before that back at the College Fund, now you find yourself in a world where you are meeting CEOs, you -- fund raising is the main responsibility of this job -- and that's something new and different and it's different than the VEP where the funds come almost exclusively from foundations. These are corporate CEOs, that kind of thing. How do you make this transition from going to New York to the Ford Foundation, for example, and then going to see someone like one of the Rockefellers?
JORDAN: Well, in both instances you're marketing, and in both instances I had a good product -- the United Negro College Fund, forty colleges, forty black kids. And at the Urban League I was marketing services, history, advocacy in a hundred and eighteen cities, local Urban Leagues, a research arm in Washington, a Washington office. I'd spent a good bit of time working with legislators on the Hill. And I was marketing a historic civil rights organization founded in 1910 that had a successful record of helping blacks make the adjustment from rural life to urban life. I had the legitimacy of succeeding this great man, Whitney Young, which helped me. And so, going to raise money and to get support for the Urban League was a continuation of what I'd been doing at the College Fund. The College Fund was easy as hell because education is like apple pie in America, it's -- the Urban League was a little bit harder because it was advocacy, and I took positions in public forums. I disagreed with presidents, I disagreed with legislators. But I believed that honesty and integrity in that process were absolutely necessary. And I dealt with people with whom I had serious disagreements about policy, affirmative action -- the Humphrey-Hawkins Bill, for example. But I was able to convince them that it was in their enlightened self-interests to be supportive of Urban League programs.
BOND: And to what degree are previous lessons learned -- NAACP, VEP -- applicable at the College Fund and the Urban League?
JORDAN: The fundamental lesson is that you're dealing with people, and that you must understand who you're dealing with, you must have something to say, and you have to believe in it.
BOND: Now you mentioned a moment ago that you'd been critical of Presidents in this job and there's a time in '77 when you're really critical of president Jimmy Carter who's elected with black votes, a great favorite of black Americans, a great picture of you in the book of you and Carter -- act like you're not in the same room even though you're sitting side by side. Had to take some kind of courage to do that.
JORDAN: It was very, Jimmy Carter was a good man and he was my friend. And it was my judgment that he had forgotten who helped bring him to that position. And that only somebody close to him, somebody who really understood him, could call it to his attention. And he did not understand, I don't think, that it was not enough for me to tell him in the Oval Office that the Urban League is as the presidency is, a bully pulpit and that he was coming the next day and he had to really understand the sense of rage and anger, as well as hopes and aspirations of black people. And in my job as a constituent leader as head of the Urban League, I had to express it. It had nothing to do with our friendship, and it didn't mean that our friendship would come to an end, and it did not. It did mean that I had to put on my advocacy hat as head of the Urban League and say what I believed.
BOND: And then after the assassination attempt on you in 1980, you leave the Urban League and go into the private practice of law. You do make the transition from the non-profit to the for-profit world, and these are different worlds. And even though there's players who you've met in the non-profit world -- the CEOs, the corporate people, and so on -- whom you will also interact with in the for profit world, it's a very, very different world. What was it like to go from A to B?
JORDAN: Well, first of all I knew a good bit about the corporate world because from 1972 until I left the Urban League, I was a corporate director -- JC Penney, Banker's Trust Company, American Express, Xerox. So that I had some knowledge of corporate American on an intimate basis beyond going to ask for support. And so, I was a player already. I left Urban League after ten years because I felt that ten years was long enough and that was my commitment to the board. I left secondly because I believed that if the job was good enough having, it was good enough giving up. I left thirdly because historically, black leaders were virtually embalmed for life in their jobs. And this was a new day and a new opportunity, new occasion to teach new duties -- I thought I could leave. Traditional Urban Leaguers did not think that. They thought you either died or retired in office. But I thought that it was time to do something else, to parlay my experience into another sector. I wanted to practice law, and I made the decision to do so. I went to a very big law firm, encouraged by the founding partner, Bob Strauss, and it was a smooth and happy transition.
BOND: At the same time, you face the understandable concern and criticism from friends and enemies alike that you're abandoning the great causes and going into the money world. And --
JORDAN: You're absolutely right about that, and the explanation for that is very simple and that is that the reason we went across the Edmunds Pettus Bridge was to create options, for people to do what their ambitions want them to do. And so on the one hand you can argue that it was right to go across the Edmunds Pettus Bridge, and on the other hand say that Jordan has abandoned the movement. I did not abandon it, I just repositioned myself from leadership to follower or from leader to follower. I did not cease --
BOND: But you can't deny, Vernon, that you haven't maintained a leadership position? It's a very different kind of leadership that we haven't seen before, with the exception of maybe one figure I'm thinking about, Bill Coleman, on the Republican side.
JORDAN: Right. Well see, I agree with that. And the distinction is when I was head of the Urban League or head of the College Fund, I was a black leader because I had a constituency. But when I went to Akin Gump to practice law, I ceased to be a black leader cause I had no constituency, and I became a leading black. And I think that is a distinction worth noting, that they are many leading blacks who have no constituency for which they speak.
BOND: Do you have to have a constituency to be a leader?
JORDAN: I think you have to have a constituency to be a leader in one context -- in the context that -- I mean, you as chairman of the board of the NAACP, you address yourself to those constituent needs.
BOND: By virtue of the position, I have a constituency. By virtue of being head of the UNCF you have a constituency. By virtue of being head of the VEP you have a constituency. At Akin Gump, it's true you don't have the same kind of membership -- but you do have a constituency.
JORDAN: And no constituency formally.
BOND: But a constituency nonetheless.
JORDAN: In other words, when I express myself, I am not -- I am speaking for myself. I do not have a board of trustees. I do not have a group of management with whom I consult. When I was head of the Urban League -- take that Carter speech in 1977. That was speech was written in consultation with my colleagues. And there were some of my colleagues who said, "This is not an Urban League speech. This is more like an NAACP speech, you can't say this." And that was a legitimate disagreement, but I was also the leader and the boss, and so we made the speech that I wanted to make. But there is a -- I think, a distinction that has had to be made between black leaders with constituencies and leading blacks.
BOND: I understand it, but I want to argue with you that when you make a speech like -- as you did last night here, there are a fair large number of students from the Darden Business School, they're black young men and women who aspire to success in the for-profit world, and even though you didn't give a speech, you really are speaking to them. You're telling about your life and experiences, the process of writing this book. So I'd argue that you have do have a constituency that may not be the formal constituency, but that you speak to a large segment of black America -- and white America, too -- who are interested in the things you have to say because they identify with them quite closely. So I'd argue you do have a constituency.
JORDAN: Yes, but, and I don't disagree with that. What I would say is that the responsibility for the constituency is not a formal one, it is not a structured --
BOND: Agreed, agreed.
BOND: You become the co-chair of the Clinton transition team based on, I'm guessing, on prior friendship with Governor Clinton, then candidate Clinton, the campaign itself, and recognition that you -- that this is going to be a different kind of presidency. The very fact that you're selected for this job, the first and only black person to do this, suggests this is going to be a different kind of presidency. But at the same time it has to be tremendously demanding. First millions of people saying, "I want to be Secretary of Labor," or whatever, or some job, and people saying, "No, don't pick Joe to be Secretary of Labor, pick John to be -- " How do you handle all this?
JORDAN: It's kind of fun. The selection by President Clinton, or President-elect Clinton, I mean, the chair as transition was a wonderful experience. We had been friends, or have been friends, since 1973, we met at a Urban League meeting in Little Rock and were instantly attracted to each other because the contours of our life were somewhat similar. We were both Southern boys, one's white and one's black, both poor. Both went North to school, both came home from law school, back to the South immediately. We didn't make stops to come back. Both interested in the region and in race. And so we found almost instantly a mutuality of interests. And we stayed in touch and I kept up with him, I went to see him after he lost the first time. He kept up with me. And there was some possibility that I would, some people thought, go into the Cabinet.
BOND: Attorney General.
JORDAN: And I made a decision that I could best serve him, as chair of his transition, by not going into the Cabinet, for which I took some criticism. But I think for me and for him, I made the right decision.
BOND: Very quickly, because our time is about up -- think about leadership in the large sense. Does leadership come out of movements or do leaders themselves create movements, or does it work both ways?
JORDAN: I don't think it's either/or, I think it's both/and. If you remember, Martin did not decide to lead the Montgomery bus boycott. It was E.D. Nixon who called Martin and, in effect, said, "We need a leader who is colleged and articulate and educated." It was not Martin deciding that he wanted to do it, it was the circumstances demanding his talents. And he obviously, positively responded. There are those of us who set out to be leaders in one way or the other, and that has worked out. So it's a combination of the two. There are others who have set out to be leaders, and it didn't work. So I think that it is a combination of factors that creates leadership. What I do know about leadership is that to be a good leader, you have to want to be a leader. You have to like the responsibilities of leadership, you have to understand that the responsibilities of leadership are not often easy. And you have to be prepared to take the hits for being a leader. I mean, I can remember when I was running the VEP, I was viewed as a militant because we were going around registering voters. Registering voters. But when I went to the College Fund, I became a moderate leader because of the nature of the College Fund. I didn't change, my position changed. And so, I think you have to be able -- you have to understand that as a leader, if you -- what's Truman's old saying? "If you can't take the heat, you ought to get out the kitchen." And leadership is not easy. It is -- you know that as well as I do -- it is difficult at times, and at times you know you have to disagree even with your colleagues and be able to take that disagreement and be able to take the slaps up the side the head from time to time as a result of decisions that you've made about being a leadership. And if you're not prepared to do that, you ought not to be in the leadership business.
BOND: I can't think of a better way to end this, thank you for being with us.
JORDAN: Thank you for having me, Julian.
BOND: It's been my pleasure.
JORDAN: Good to be with you.