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Vernon Jordan, civil rights leader and presidential confidant, dies at 85

American civil rights activist, presidential confidant and corporate pioneer Vernon Jordan has died at the age of 85. A family statement said he passed Monday in Atlanta. Jordan was a leading advocate for Black Americans and a mentor to those who came after him. Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Ursula Burns join Judy Woodruff to discuss his legacy, from civil rights to politics to business.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    American civil rights activist, presidential confidant and corporate pioneer Vernon Jordan has died. A family statement said he passed Monday night in Washington.

    For decades, Vernon Jordan was a leading advocate for Black Americans and a mentor to those who came after him.

  • Vernon Jordan:

    Good morning, Rankin Chapel.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    April 2017, Vernon Jordan speaks at Howard University, reflecting on a life that took him from civil rights lawyer to corporate America to presidential confidant.

  • Vernon Jordan:

    It is tempting to believe that our problems are particular, and that our situation is unprecedented.

    I have come to say to you this morning we have been here before. But our journey also teaches us that endurance is not enough. Listen, we do not sing, we shall endure. We sing, we shall overcome.

    (APPLAUSE)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jordan's own journey began in a segregated public housing project in Atlanta, and from there to DePauw University in Indiana, then to Howard Law School, where he was captivated by civil rights lawyers who practiced arguments in the school's mock trial room, and, upon graduation, back to Atlanta.

  • Vernon Jordan:

    Came home out of some sense of mission feeling that I come back South, I could do something about the problem.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In 1961, Jordan was part of the legal team that helped desegregate the University of Georgia. He escorted the school's first two black students, Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes, past a hostile crowd on their first day.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Vernon was very serious and very determined. He was focused on his mission.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jordan also worked on voter registration drives across the South, before assuming leadership of the United Negro College Fund.

    In 1971, he moved to the National Urban League, where he served as president for 10 years.

  • Vernon Jordan:

    Democracy, justice, and equality are not reserved for white folks only.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    His advocacy made him a target, and, in 1980, he survived an assassination attempt in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The next year, he moved to a prominent Washington law firm. The move was questioned by some critics, but it proved groundbreaking.

  • Henry Louis Gates Jr.:

    We are all looking this way for the revolution. And Vernon is over here in corporate America, making the revolution.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jordan served on the boards of Fortune 500 companies and mentored younger African-Americans. But he also stayed involved in national politics, and was especially close to President Bill Clinton as an informal adviser.

  • Bill Clinton:

    I never saw him turn down an opportunity to try to help a young person who needed help, including to give good advice.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    During the Clinton impeachment, Jordan denied allegations that he helped Monica Lewinsky find a job to buy her silence about her affair with the president.

    In later years, he remained active in corporate and political life and a confidant of President Clinton and President Barack Obama.

    Vernon Jordan was 85.

    And to further explore his legacy from civil rights to politics to business, Charlayne Hunter-Gault is, as you just saw, "NewsHour"'s special correspondent.

    And, as you heard, Vernon Jordan did escort her 60 years ago when she desegregated the University of Georgia. And Ursula Burns is a senior adviser at Teneo. It's a consulting firm. She previously served as the CEO of Xerox.

    Welcome to you, both.

    Charlayne Hunter-Gault, you have known Vernon Jordan for so many decades. You both made history together. Give us a glimpse of him when you first met him.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Well, it's funny because — I laugh because he treated me like a little kid. He wasn't that much older than me, but he was a very serious legal assistant to Donald Hollowell, and Constance Motley, who were both the lead lawyers in our case.

    And I just remember that he was focused. He was the youngest lawyer involved in the case, but they used to send him down to Athens, Georgia, the location of the university, every day to try and find a — someone who had applied to the University of Georgia at the same time I had, had the same credentials, and yet got in, and I didn't.

    And they went — he and a bunch of assistants went through thousands of documents. And he finally was the one who found the critical document.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He did make the transition. Of course, he went on to be very involved in voting rights and civil — the civil rights movement.

    And then he made the transition to the private sector. He had a president about him that could make him basically fit in any setting. How do you explain that?

  • Ursula Burns:

    He was so comfortable about — in who he was. He was so consistent, so confident, so just comfortable in his own skin and in his own space, that he literally floated into places, and he presented Vernon Jordan.

    And it was always the same. In a suit, in slacks and a polo shirt, literally, he was always the same. He was this guy, like a big oak tree who just put himself around you. And I met him in the corporate space. And I was thinking about it.

    He was not, to me, a corporate person. He was not a political person. He was not a legal person or a finance person. He was all of them. And I saw him operate in all of those spheres without a break in form whatsoever. He was unbelievably consistent and just unbelievably strong.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And he was seen, Charlayne, in the Black community as somebody who — enormously successful, had done what he had done, as we mentioned, for voting rights, for civil rights, and stood out as a symbol.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Well, I would encourage people to read his book, "Vernon Can Read!," because he goes into great detail about how he developed that armor.

    And it was his mom, his mother, who was just this wonderful person who helped to mold him and tell him that, even though he lived in a segregated society that tried to make him and other people who look like him feel unequal, that he was not, that he was first-class. And she guided him even when they worked for white people, even when they waited on white people.

    She insisted that he was somebody. And she taught him that you stand on the shoulders of giants. And it was those lessons that he passed along that Ursula just talked about to the younger generation and those who he worked with: You stand on the shoulders of giants, and you can become a giant if you believe in yourself.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Pick up on what Charlayne said, Ursula, if you would.

    As a mentor to so many, how did he do that? What was his message?

  • Ursula Burns:

    He was consistent and clear that, to whom much is given, much is expected. And he guided my life.

    Literally, every important moment in my life, my daughter's birth, important moments in my career, my husband's illness, my husband's eventual death, my promotions, appointment to boards, every single thing in my life from the time that I met him was — Vernon was there, every important moment.

    And one of the things I was thinking about is, how do you do that? How do you be so complete a friend? The way that you do it is you are present. He was present. He was serious about friendship. He was serious about providing me and people like me shoulders to stand on.

    He was serious about having the expectation that I do the same thing. My life, outside of my mother and my husband, this is he's the most important person in my life. And he did it so gracefully and so seamlessly that I wonder, I keep wondering, how do you do this? How do you do this so well, so easily?

    And I try my best to kind of emulate him, because he is the perfect example of a friend.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    He did it by faith. That's how he did everything that Ursula just described.

    And that's how I am keeping my sadness and my sorrow in check, because I think that Vernon's — I have heard him preach enough from various pulpits on various occasions about the great camp meeting and the promised land.

    And I really do believe that he is a happy camper in the great camp meeting.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Ursula, just finally, if there was a legacy, what was the legacy?

  • Ursula Burns:

    Total and complete giving of oneself to other people, literally without hesitation.

    If he grabbed onto you — and he did it to a lot of people — you were his. You were his. And he took care of you. He assured — he gave you assurance to keep pushing forward. And, as Charlayne said, he believed that there was better to come.

    He was probably the best friend I have ever had in my life. He's just so amazing. I will miss him.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He was a friend to so many, so many people. Wonderful human being.

    Ursula Burns, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, thank you so much.

  • Ursula Burns:

    Thank you.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Vernon Jordan, larger than life.

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