- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 13, 2002

By Vernon Jordan with Annette Gordon-Reed

Public Affairs, $26, 344 pages, illus.

The great 19th-century black leader, Frederick Douglass, was fond of saying that "There is no such thing as luck. What we call luck is that moment in life where preparation and opportunity converge." The life of Vernon E. Jordan is a powerful testimony to the correctness of Douglass' statement.
The image of Vernon Jordan that immediately comes to most of our minds is him carting around a golf course with Bill Clinton, or gliding in and out of Washington and New York's power networks trying to secure employment for Monica Lewinsky to avert a presidential scandal of the highest magnitude.
However, in his excellent memoir "Vernon Can Read!" written with the assistance of Annette Gordon-Reed of New York University Law School, we meet a very eclectic and very expansive Mr. Jordan. The book begins with his youth and we learn of the mutual love and adoration that he and his mother have for each other. Indeed, the book's first chapter is titled, "My Mother's Son." His relationship with his father is respectful and admiring but no- where near as intimate.
Mr. Jordan was born in 1935 into a working-class family in segregated Atlanta, Ga. His father was a postal worker and his mother a very successful caterer. The peculiar title of the book comes from a phrase directed toward Mr. Jordan by a wealthy, racist Atlanta banker whom he chauffeured during his summer breaks from college, and who was utterly shocked when he discovered that "Vernon can read!"
During his pre-teen years Vernon began working closely with his mother at dinner parties and receptions for Atlanta's white elite. It was from her that he learned that preparation and presentation and the pursuit of perfection were absolutely fundamental to achieving lasting success in any endeavor. Additionally he shares with the reader how he, and the vast majority of Southern blacks, invented ways to navigate themselves through the raging rivers of rabid racism that swirled all around them, without becoming emotionally traumatized by the experience. Thus he never felt that he was an "inferior" to anyone.
Thus, we meet a Vernon Jordan who loves books and the fine art of oratory (his own as well as that of others). Contrary to what his public persona evokes, he claims himself to be a "loner" who enjoys the intellectual enrichments of the quiet life of solitude and silence.
As an undergraduate, Mr. Jordan attended Indiana's Depauw University where he developed friendships with whites for the first time although as a youth he was conflicted between accepting a "calling" to the ministry or pursuing a law degree. The call from heaven never came, so he enrolled in Howard University's Law School. "It wouldn't be a stretch to say that Howard University saved my soul," he writes.
Howard was the Harvard of civil rights law. As such, Mr. Jordan was constantly in the company of many of the finest black legal minds in America who saw his immense talent and potential and rigorously challenged his intellect and judgment, preparing him for the courtroom battles to come.
After graduating from law school in 1960, Mr. Jordan returned to Atlanta and began working for a legal activist, Donald Hollowell, who had a small practice and who taught Vernon much about the mystique and mechanics of the law. He then moved on to work for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where he became a huge success helping in the preparation and argument of many landmark cases such as those that led to the integration of the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama.
The author's work with the Voters Education Project (VEP) will come as a great surprise for many readers. I, for one, had no idea, much less appreciation for his physical courage in registering black voters in Ku Klux Klan saturated backwater communities throughout the deep South. During those turbulent days it had to be comparable to storming the Normandy beaches on D-Day. But he saw himself as a civil rights "soldier," who in order to defeat his enemies had to penetrate and destroy their lines of resistance.
Mr. Jordan praises the 1965 Voting Rights Act for igniting the great Southern revolution for social justice. However, that same year then-assistant secretary of Labor (later Sen.) Daniel Patrick Moynihan published his controversial study "The Negro Family: A Case For National Action." Mr. Moynihan predicted the eventual demise of the black family if fatherless families continued to grow, and that the households would become mostly matriarchal.
The study was greeted with a firestorm of criticism from the black leadership community. The issue was dismissed as "racist" and irrelevant. Sadly, 30 years later Louis Farrakhan was compelled to revisit the issue during his 1995 "Million Man March." As we know, Mr. Moynihan's prediction has come true and with horrible consequences for young black males. Surprisingly, Mr. Jordan makes no mention of this.
While serving as the executive director of the New York-based National Urban League, Mr. Jordan's world widened to include his membership in the rarified domain of corporate America. He currently sits on the boards of directors of numerous Fortune 500 companies, for which he is handsomely remunerated, and as a consequence there are those in the black community who consider him to be a "sell out" to his race. I am black and not one who shares that sentiment. No one calls Michael Jordan a "sell out," and he is certainly far wealthier (and perhaps more influential) than Vernon Jordan will ever become.
Lastly, in many ways Mr. Jordan is very Jeffersonian in his love of family and friends, which he writes about in a most affectionate manner. There is no pedantry in these often eloquent pages. They are written in a breezy, conversational style that makes the book extremely readable. Personally, I found myself slowing down toward the end, because I didn't want to finish it. If greatness is supposed to be synonymous with the possession of personal purity, then no one will ever achieve it. I believe that Vernon Jordan is a great American because he fearlessly fought on all fronts to make his country live up to its exalted promise, equality for all.

Edward C. Smith is the director of American Studies at American University.

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