Scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. describes Vernon Eulion Jordan Jr. as “the Rosa Parks of Wall Street.” That is his way of characterizing Jordan’s mark on the nation and the lives of Black people. The documentary “Vernon Jordan: Make It Plain” chronicles the life of a man who had a clear vision at an early age about what he wanted to accomplish.
From growing up in Atlanta public housing next to a cluster of Black colleges to two jobs he currently has at age 85 as a partner at corporate law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and as a principal at financial giant Lazard Ltd., Jordan keeps a well-paced schedule that includes a lot of quality time with family.
The documentary was directed by acclaimed filmmaker Dawn Porter, who produced and directed “John Lewis: Good Trouble; The Way I See It.” The hour-long Jordan film premieres on December 28, 2020 on PBS (check your local listing).
Jordan is nationally renown as a distinguished, pioneering attorney, businessman and civil rights leader. He is an influential powerbroker and counselor to American presidents spanning the era from Lyndon Baines Johnson to Barack Obama.
“He takes joy in introducing people to each other who should know each other, but you have to be smart enough to know what he is offering and he’s happy to keep helping,” said Porter. “He is a valuable friend and adviser. He’s a person who is probably good at jigsaw puzzles because he can see the whole thing.”
Jordan has been an impressive make-it-happen leader since graduating from Howard University Law School then going to work at the Atlanta law firm of Donald L. Hollowell, a civil rights activist. In black and white news footage you can see Jordan escorting students Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton E. Holmes to court in their 1961 lawsuit demanding admission at the University of Georgia.
Jordan has always been committed to advocating for Black people. His commitment comes through in the positions he has taken: field director for the NAACP, executive director of the United Negro College Fund, and president of the National Urban League. In one scene, his daughter Vickee Jordan Adams reflected on statements her father made during what appeared to be a legislative hearing. He said publicly that he did not trust White people in the South. His daughter asked if he thought his statements were a little rough. His response affirmed what he felt ordained to do and that he was not going to stop his mission.
The film also captures Jordan’s influential personal and professional relationships with staff he has worked with and with political leaders. By far, the sweetest relationships appear to be with President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and with CEO and Chairman of American Express Ken Chenault. Jordan shows he has a great sense about people who will go far.
“Vernon was one of the first cross-over artists at that time,” said Chenault using a description from the music industry to describe artists who do well in more than one music genre. “Going from a civil rights organization to a corporate law firm, that was a first.”
Jordan has never forgotten his roots. The documentary has him in Atlanta on the campus of Clark Atlanta University across from University Homes where he was raised. There are also scenes from Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel, where he preaches a Sunday sermon every year. Through it all, Jordan is captured acknowledging that he has achieved beyond his wildest dreams.
This leader has been criticized for what appears to many, his leaving leadership roles in the civil rights movement, but the documentary shows that Jordan always continued fighting for the rights of Black people with every strategic opportunity he pursued. Porter asked Jordan about his critics and would he talk to them.
“I have and I do, but it does not bother me,” said Jordan. “They will criticize me on the steps of city hall, then they will call me and say ‘Can I talk to you?’ I know my worth.”
Porter explains, “He is not looking for his value in external sources”