Vernon Can Read

November 26, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: The book is “Vernon Can Read: A Memoir.” The author is Vernon Jordan. Today he’s a powerful figure in the legal, financial, and political circles of Washington and New York, perhaps best known by the public as the friend and golfing partner of former President Bill Clinton, but this book is the story of his boyhood in the segregated South of the ’40s and ’50s and his career in the civil rights movement. He was a civil rights lawyer; Georgia field director for the NAACP; Director of the Voter Education Project, which registered black voters in the south; head of the United Negro College Fund; and President of the National Urban League. The book ends in the mid-’80s, when Jordan joined a Washington law firm. Today he’s senior managing director of the investment firm Lazard Freres. Welcome, Mr. Jordan.


MARGARET WARNER: Let’s start with the title of the book, which people are always curious about. It comes from an incident that happened in 1955. You’re a sophomore in college; you’re home for the summer. Tell us the story.

VERNON JORDAN: And I’m reading in the library of Mr. Robert F. Maddux, a retired Atlanta banker. I’m reading there over the loud protestations of Lizzie, his cook, but I read anyway, and Mr. Maddux, unable to sleep one day, walked in and found me reading in his library, and he asked, “What are you doing in my library?” And I said, “I’m reading, Mr. Maddux.” He said, “I’ve never had one of you work for me who could read.” And I said, “I’m colleged.” “Where do you go to school? Those colored schools over there?”– Meaning Clark, Morris Brown, Atlanta University, Morehouse. I said, “no, I go to DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.” He said, “White children go to that school, white girls go to that school?” I said, “yes.” And then he asked– and it defines him in many ways, and defines the southern aristocracy of that time– he said, “Are you going to be a teacher or a preacher?” As if, if you were learned and black, that was your limitation. And I said, “no, Mr. Maddux, I’m going to be a lawyer.” Later on at dinner, I’m serving dinner to he and his family, and he announced, he said, “Vernon can read.” And that’s the title of my memoir.

MARGARET WARNER: And you were working for him as sort of a chauffeur?

VERNON JORDAN: I was chauffeur and butler for him during the summers while his regular chauffeur, Joe, was off, a job secured for me by my mother.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you did become a lawyer, but in 1960 being a young black lawyer in Atlanta, the big downtown law firms weren’t exactly beating a path to your door.

VERNON JORDAN: Not only downtown law firms. There were no jobs for black lawyers in the city government, the county government, the state government, or the federal government. Even the Bar Review course was segregated.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, we… I outlined all the different jobs you held in the civil rights movement, and the early ones certainly were involved with voter registration, organization, but in this book what comes out is you always felt economic power was equally important. Where did that come from?

VERNON JORDAN: You know, when I went to college, actually from college to law school, my mother wrote me every day, some letters long, some short, some sad, some mad, some glad, but in each letter every day she always included two things. First, she wrote, “Son, if you make a dime, save two cents.” She never heard of Adam Smith or Keynes, but she… That was her advice. The second piece of advice had to do with her faith: “Son, if you trust Him, He’ll take care of you.” So that, if you make a dime, save two cents, was sort of pounded from the beginning. It was a matter of equating the savings with independence. And so as kid, when she ran the concession at Fort McPherson, I sold golf balls. In the housing project where I grew up, I polished brass for money because the money that I earned gave me some sense that I was independent, that I could do what I needed to do for myself.

MARGARET WARNER: People reading this book and listening to you might say, “Well, you know, he’s smart, he’s articulate, he’s got so many gifts, Vernon Jordan– of course he succeeded.” Do you think your story says something broader, though, about the black experience in these last 50 years?

VERNON JORDAN: Yes. I think it says, number one — that there’s nothing free in this world — that you really got to work for it. I remember when I went away to college; I was the only black in my class. There were only five in the student body. And the evening that my parents said good-bye, my father simply said, “you can’t come home.” And I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “your reading scores are much worse than your classmates’, but you can’t come home.” He said, “You went to an old, dilapidated, segregated, double-sessioned, overcrowded high school, and your classmates here went to fine township high schools in the Midwest and prep schools in the East. That’s no excuse. You can’t come home.” And when I graduated, he came and shook my hand and said one word, one sentence: “You can come home now.” So I knew what I had to do, and I knew that I had to do it myself, and I knew what the expectations were from my parents.

MARGARET WARNER: In your career, you’re a bit unconventional, it seemed to me, in that, this was the time, in the ’60s and ’70s, black pride, black consciousness — you would move back and forth between all-black organizations and a white-led one if it was a civil rights organization, or you went to DePauw instead of Howard. Was it… And then you went back.

VERNON JORDAN: But then I went to Howard.

MARGARET WARNER: Oh, yeah, for Howard, for law school. Was that conscious on your part?

VERNON JORDAN: Well, it was a conscious decision to go to DePauw University, and then it was a conscious decision to go to Howard because it was the only law school at that time that had a course in civil rights. But it was also Bob Carter’s law school, it was also Thurgood Marshall’s law school, it was also Peanut Hill’s law school down in Richmond, and so the black lawyers that I knew and had read about, many of them had come from Howard University. I remember Thurgood Marshall lecturing us very early in my law school career, and he said, “this is Charlie Huston’s law school,” the former dean of the Howard University law school who conceived with Thurgood the whole concept of going after segregation under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. So there was history, and there was mentoring, and there was… I loved being at the Howard University law school. Now, what I liked the most was being there for the dry runs for the Supreme Court arguments by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers. It was a very special place. It still is.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s really fast- forward now. Now we’re in 1971, you’re head of the Urban League, and you’re speaking at the big dinner, and you’ve got all your corporate benefactors there, and you say to them, “Don’t just give us money, start putting blacks on your corporate boards.”

VERNON JORDAN: I said, “don’t just give us money, and don’t just show up for the equal opportunity day dinner. That is not enough when you look at black consumer power in this country. It’s not enough for you to come and shake our hands and be our friends. We want in.”

MARGARET WARNER: So you were one of the first who was invited in, and you went on these corporate boards. What was like at first, these all-white boards, all-male all- white?

VERNON JORDAN: It was a new experience for the board, and it was a new experience for me. I remember an annual meeting that I shall never forget. It had gone on for four and a half hours. Directors then sat on the stage with the management, and the middle of this four-and-a-half- hour meeting, a fellow director leaned and said, “Have you noticed something, Vernon?” I said, “what?” He said, “The only shareholders out there raising hell are those blank Jews.” And I didn’t say a word. And then I touched him. And I said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” And it dawned on him that the boardroom was not just his prep school and Ivy League school colleagues; that the boardroom had changed, and therefore the language had to change, but he was in another place. He was in the past, and that was a rude awakening for him. It was also a rude awakening for me about what the dialogue had been.

MARGARET WARNER: You end this book in the mid-’80s before the chapter of your life in which… When you went into the private sector and that you’re best known for, your friendship with former President Clinton. Why did you end the book when you did?

VERNON JORDAN: Well, it was a time that is the most important time in my life. It was about growing up. It was about seeing America change. It was about helping America change. It was about benefiting from that change. It was also the non-profit, pro bono, eleemosynary, 501(c) 3 time in my life before I went to practice law at Aiken Gump. And it’s also time that I have had to reflect on those years and those experiences, and I wanted to put them down. The other reason to do it is that there are some in this country who think that I was not born until January 20, 1993.

MARGARET WARNER: I’d like to end by asking you something about a speech you gave in Atlanta shortly after the attacks on September 11, and I’m just going to read you a couple of sentences, and I’d like you just to explain what you meant. You said, “When this nation was in the grip of racism and segregation, it was black people who reminded America of its basic values. Now that America is warring on terrorism, it is black people, it is us, who can remind America that we know terrorism well.” What were you driving at?

VERNON JORDAN: I’m just saying that terrorism for black people is no stranger; that slavery was a form of terrorism; that Jim Crow was a form of terrorism; and then there were the lynchings, there were the four little girls in Sunday school in Birmingham, and there was Martin and Medgar and Vernon Dahmar and Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner. So it is not a stranger to us, but what we have done with it was to keep on walking and keep on talking, and that’s what America has to do. We have to be instructed by it, and we have to understand what it is, and we have to still make this country a real democracy and a place for free markets to operate freely.

MARGARET WARNER: Vernon Jordan, thank you.