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Vernon Jordan, civil rights icon and former Clinton adviser, dies at 85

"We appreciate all of the outpouring of love and affection," his daughter, Vickee Jordan, said in a statement.
Vernon E. Jordan during his time as president of the National Urban League, an American civil rights group, in an undated photograph.
Vernon Jordan during his time as president of the National Urban League, an American civil rights group, in an undated photograph.Corbis via Getty Images file

Vernon Jordan, a civil rights icon and adviser to former President Bill Clinton, died Monday, according to his family.

He was 85.

His daughter, Vickee Jordan, said he "passed away peacefully last evening surrounded by loved ones."

"We appreciate all of the outpouring of love and affection," she said Tuesday in a statement.

Vernon Jordan and President Bill Clinton at the 2000 Presidents Cup at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Va.PGA Tour Archive via Getty Images

Born Aug. 15, 1935, in Atlanta, Jordan grew up in the segregated South and became an influential leader in the civil rights movement, Washington politics and Wall Street.

Jordan, a graduate of DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, and the Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C., went on to become president of the National Urban League from 1971 to 1981.

According to the organization, he was the first to produce a State of Black America report in 1976 "after both President Gerald Ford’s State of the Union Address and Sen. Edmund Muskie’s response completely ignored the crisis then facing Black Americans."

Under his leadership, the organization added 17 chapters and its budget grew to more than $100 million. It also broadened its focus to include voter registration drives and conflict resolution between Black people and law enforcement.

The high-profile position landed him in the crosshairs of a racist in May 1980 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Jordan was shot with a hunter’s rifle outside his hotel after returning from dinner following a speaking engagement.

Jordan had five operations and was visited by President Jimmy Carter during his three-month recovery in the hospital.

Joseph Paul Franklin, the avowed white supremacist who targeted Blacks and Jews in a cross-country killing spree from 1977 to 1980, later admitted to shooting Jordan. He was never prosecuted in Jordan’s case; he was put to death in 2013 for another slaying in Missouri.

President Barack Obama smiles as he speaks with Vernon Jordan before delivering the commencement address to the graduating class of Howard University in Washington on May 7, 2016.Joshua Roberts / Reuters file

National Urban League President Marc Morial remembered him as one of the "top transformative leaders" in civil rights, politics and business.

"The nation has lost one of its greatest champions of racial and economic justice," he said in a statement. "He was a transformational leader who brought the movement into a new era. He was a personal mentor and dear friend. His passing leaves a tremendous void that can never be filled."

Morial said the organization would not be where it is today without Jordan.

Jordan was also the executive director of the United Negro College Fund in 1980 and 1981. In a tweet, the organization's president, Michael Lomax, called his death a "heartbreaking loss" and reflected on the last time the two saw each other.

"My last meeting with the Great Vernon Jordan in his DC office to get advice and counsel on a difficult issue facing UNCF," he captioned a photo of them together.

"He was always there for @UNCF, for #HBCUs & Black college students. He loved to reminisce abt [sic] Benjamin Mays, Albert Dent & great HBCU presidents he knew."

Jordan was also influential in politics, becoming a key adviser to Clinton during his first presidential campaign and the co-chair of Clinton's transition team. He was the first Black person to be assigned such a role.

His friendship with Clinton, which began in the 1970s, evolved into a partnership and a political alliance. He met Clinton as a young politician in Arkansas, and the two connected over their Southern roots and poor upbringings.

Although Jordan held no official role in the Clinton White House, he was highly influential and had such labels as the “first friend.” He approached Colin Powell about becoming secretary of state and encouraged Clinton to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.

Jordan also secured a job at Revlon for Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern whose affair with Clinton spawned a scandal. His actions briefly drew the attention of federal prosecutors investigating Clinton’s actions, but he was not mentioned in a final report issued by special prosecutor Ken Starr.

In 2000, Jordan joined the New York investment firm Lazard Freres & Co. as a senior managing partner.

The following year, he released an autobiography, “Vernon Can Read!: A Memoir.” Also in 2001, Jordan was awarded the Spingarn Medal, the highest honor given by the NAACP to a Black American for outstanding achievement.

He received more than 55 honorary degrees, including ones from both of his alma maters, and sat on several boards of directors.

Jordan's first wife, Shirley Yarbrough, died in December 1985. He is survived by his daughter and his second wife, Ann Jordan.

Reuters contributed.