Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Career: United Negro College Fund

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.