Vernon Jordan: Civil Rights Movement was about ‘tearing down walls’

Vernon Jordan
Vernon Jordan                                                                            Photo by James L. Stroud, Jr.

Now that the walls are down, economic security is the challenge

On January 19, the General Mills Foundation and the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) partnered once again to cohost the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Breakfast at the Minneapolis Convention Center. This year marked the 25th anniversary for this highly anticipated early-morning event.

As usual, this year also marked another successful sold-out celebration. The theme for this year was “Infinite Hope and Meaningful Action.”

Super lawyer and civil rights leader Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., a highly respected business leader who has served as a presidential adviser, president of the National Urban League (1971-1981), Georgia field director for the NAACP, and a former executive director of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), delivered the keynote address for the MLK breakfast celebration. Gospel singer and former school teacher Yolanda Adams headlined the entertainment and was very comfortable answering questions during the Jordan/Adams shared press conference immediately following the MLK breakfast.

During the press conference, Jordan responded to the following questions:

What is your message to the young people currently protesting throughout the nation in places like Ferguson and here, some of whom may end up being the next Martin Luther King, Jr. or Vernon Jordan?

I think the message is not one and only, but many. Their movement should be inclusive and not only should they march, but negotiate. Marching generally produces negotiations.

Do you think that the young protesters are on the right track?

That’s not for me to say. It’s not for me to make judgments about it. I do have some thoughts about it. It’s not for me to tell young people what they are doing is right or wrong. They’re pretty smart.

You know, I finished law school on a Friday, and the following Monday I was in the Atlanta Municipal Court getting students from the Atlanta University system out of jail. My job then was not to tell them whether they were right or wrong, but to assure that their civil rights and their right to protest were being protected and not abused.

Some of the elder citizens of my hometown then thought that they should not be demonstrating until they found out that their children and grandchildren were in jail. Then duty became clear. So I think casting quick judgment, one has to be careful about that.

In your opinion, what is the difference, if there is a difference, from yesterday’s movement and today’s movement with the young individuals who are now stepping forward?

Well, it’s what I said, yesterday’s movement was about tearing down walls. What we did in the ’60s, we defined and conferred rights that people never had before — the right to check in [to a hotel]. But after we got the right to check in, the issue became the wherewithal to check out. You don’t get the wherewithal unless you get a good education so you can get a good job.

So we are still dealing with the wherewithal to check out. The rights are there for the most part, but the full exercise of that right requires responsibility. But it also requires economic security. You check in the hotel, that’s easy, but checking out is hard if you can’t pay.

Of the many people who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement, like you, some have regrets and some don’t. Do you have any regrets or anything that you would do differently?

I promise you there are some things that I would do different. If anybody believes everything they have done was right, I don’t want to meet them, because you don’t get everything right.

What do you say to children of all races who believe in justice? How do you get them to believe that their votes matter, that getting to the polls is important?

Well, I talked about that [in the keynote speech]. That’s the great challenge. It’s one thing to demonstrate, but you have to transform that into creative and positive action.

I ran for five years a voter-education project of the Southern Regional Council. I had millions of dollars to put in 11 states of the old Confederacy to register, get out the vote, and teach the issues. It was so bad registering people in Mississippi that we had to cut off the money because there [were] only certain days that anyone could register.

So we would go to the family’s aid and tell them that we will be back on Tuesday at 9 o’clock. We are going to take you and your wife to register to vote. Tuesday the wife would be hiding out in the woods and the husband hiding in the outhouse. They were fearful. Some of the people that did go, we never heard from them again.

So we had to overcome that. That’s when we got the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

James L. Stroud, Jr. welcomes reader responses to