Vernon Jordan dies at 85

Seasonal Chilmark resident was active on the Island.

Vernon Jordan, shown here at the ribbon cutting for a new science center bearing his name, has died.

Updated March 3

Civil rights activist, presidential advisor, and longtime Chilmark seasonal resident Vernon Jordan has died at the age of 85.

Jordan was known to spend time golfing at Farm Neck Golf Club in Oak Bluffs. In 2015 he spent time golfing with former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton at the club before a celebration of his 80th birthday, according to the New York Times. In 1993, after Jordan chaired Clinton’s transition team, the president spent the first of many vacations on the Island at Jordan’s urging.

“Vernon Jordan was a wonderful friend to Hillary, Chelsea, and me, in good times and bad,” Clinton tweeted Tuesday. “We worked and played, laughed and cried, won and lost together. We loved him very much and always will.”

Obama also sent out a tweet in Jordan’s honor. “Like so many others, Michelle and I benefited from Vernon Jordan’s wise counsel and warm friendship — and deeply admired his tireless fight for civil rights. We hope the memory of his extraordinary presence and the legacy of his work bring comfort to Ann, Vickee, and his family,” Obama tweeted.

Professor, literary critic, historian, and seasonal Oak Bluffs resident Henry Louis (“Skip”) Gates Jr. also tweeted about Jordan.

“Vernon Jordan’s passing marks the end of a glorious era in our people’s history, an era that his courage and wisdom and vision did so much to shape. A lion in the Civil Rights Movement, he then boldly pioneered the integration of the corporate boardroom, as surely as Rosa Parks and Dr. King integrated the buses in Montgomery,” Gates wrote. “Vernon Jordan was a hero to our people and to all people who cherish racial equality, social justice, and economic opportunity. His passing is a sad day in American History.”

Though Vernon Jordan may have been best-known as an advisor to President Bill Clinton, he made a big mark on civil rights 60 years ago, when as a young attorney, he helped Islander Charlayne Hunter (now Hunter-Gault) desegregate the University of Georgia. Jordan’s law firm had successfully sued in federal court to compel the University to admit Hunter and another student, Hamilton Holmes, as its first two African Americans, and Jordan personally walked Hunter through a crowd of angry people to attend class in 1961. 

In an email to The Times, Hunter-Gault wrote, “I recall when he took his first steps on the road to helping create a more perfect Union. It was when he walked me through the screaming, racist mobs protesting my entry into the University of Georgia as the first of two Black students, the result of a case he was critical in helping win. He was a newly minted lawyer, and yet he discovered the one piece of evidence that demonstrated the university officials were lying about why I couldn’t be admitted.

“Although Vernon Jordan had traveled the world wearing many different hats and on a variety of missions, for years Martha’s Vineyard was the place where he felt comfortable taking off all those hats, if not always abandoning some of his all-important missions involving bringing people of disparate backgrounds and yes — often different attitudes and beliefs together. Like me, he had known about the Vineyard from our early days in Atlanta, when the Island welcomed people whose skin was the color of ours when other places along the East Coast didn’t. And it remained the place where we could continue enjoying each other, especially around his and Anne’s table, or for that once-a-year joyful picture of his many friends on the greens at the Allen Farm where he so enjoyed a month of donning the hat of shepherd to the sheep. And then here were his daily trips to the other [golf] greens, with an appropriate hat.

“And while he will no longer be in any of those places physically, for each of us who enjoyed one or the other of those times with him, I know we will continue to feel his spirit in each and every one of them. Long Live!”

Jordan’s name hangs above the door to the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School’s Jordan Science Center. During the opening ceremony for the building in 2016, Jordan said the building was special to him. The building was built with funds from philanthropist Robert Day.

“I’m 81 years old, and I have 80 honorary degrees from some of the best schools in the country,” Jordan said. “But this Charter School lab named for me, thanks to my friend Robert Day, means as much to me as any one of those honorary degrees, or all of them combined.”

Speaking to The Times by phone Tuesday, former Charter School director Bob Moore said he was impressed with the time and consideration Jordan gave to those who attended the ceremony.

“I’m honored Mr. Jordan came by the school that day, and gave us time to speak to us about how education, math and science in particular, played a role in his education background. We were really humbled and pleased he was able to spend more than a few moments talking to us about the importance of teaching and learning in his life,” Moore said.

In an email to The Times Tuesday, science teacher Jane Paquet said she was saddened by the news of Jordan’s passing. “He was a great man. I did speak with him, and it was a highlight to have met and talked with him. He admitted to feeling that his strengths did not lie in science, but we discussed the importance of education that included scientific understandings as part of a foundation to create and advocate for social justice and change,” Paquet wrote.

Cartoonist and educator Paul Karasik said in an email he also met Jordan that day. 

“He was flattered that Bob Day would make this contribution in his honor. He and I exchanged a few words. He came from humble origins with a school that had little in resources, so having an entire science center named after him meant a lot,” he said. 

Updated to include more comments.


  1. Vernon Jordan began his commitment to transforming this country as the first director of the Voter Education Project, an organization dedicated to realizing the promise of democracy in this country. Symbolic of the lasting impact of VEP was the iconic slogan created by Vernon, “Hands that picked cotton, now pick elected officials”. His subsequent accomplishments leading the United Negro College Fund included leaving us with “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste”. And from there, he turned the National Urban League into a vibrant, relevant power as its President. Pick up his autobiography “Vernon Can Read” and add it to your library.

  2. Vernon Jordan’s passing is a great
    loss for thé country and for thé Vineyard. We’ll not see his like again. Susan Rappaport

  3. To the Jordan family,

    As Lisa and I …and so many people of good conscience today realized in hearing the news of Vernon’s passing, he was so much more than the sum of the important parts of his notable life. Well beyond his unmistakable frame and stature, he became larger than life and will forever remain unforgettable for the countless acts of kindness for all those that were lucky enough to cross his path and walk with him a while.

    For all the sullied and soured infighting today, he dignified any proceeding by his very presence acting more the statesman and diplomat than most that put their name forward for consideration. I find it ironic that this American icon felt most at ease here on our sweet island with so many lighthouses since he was and will always remain a true beacon of light and hope, a transformative figure in public life and impactful beyond measure. He enriched our collective humanity.

    Thank you for sharing this great man with all of us.

    The Langley family

  4. I met Vernon Jordan on MV one day years ago after having lunch with a friend at Farm Neck. He knew her–Justine Priestley–and sat down to say hello and to chat with us. As the conversation wound down, I informed him that my father, a former professor at DePauw, had taught him Political Science when he was an undergrad there. He immediately commented that he recalled my father well and reminisced about studying with him. At the end of the conversation he asked for my father’s phone number, and some time later, after he returned to Washington (where my parents were then living) he called my Dad and spoke with him for about 20 minutes, Dad told me later. My father was thrilled. I later had other brief encounters with him. He was always gracious and always remembered who I was. I purchased his autobiography and gave it to my father for Christmas. Like another commenter here, I recommend it, for I of course read it too!

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