By Jordan Muller –
In the 60 years since Vernon Jordan Jr. graduated college, he’s helped the first black students gain admission to the University of Georgia, led voter registration drives in the Jim Crow South and survived an assassination attempt by a white supremacist.
But he still acknowledges that there’s plenty of work to be done regarding civil rights in the United States.
“We’ve come a long way, but we still have a lot ahead of us in making equal opportunity a reality for everybody,” Jordan said.
Jordan — a prominent civil rights activist, attorney and business executive — will deliver Syracuse University’s 2017 commencement address and receive an honorary doctor of laws at the 163rd Commencement ceremony this Sunday. The ceremony will be held in the Carrier Dome.
In his speech, Jordan said he may share with the graduating class some of his experiences as a civil rights leader. Because 2017 marks the 60th anniversary of Jordan’s graduation from DePauw University, he said he may compare life for today’s graduating class with what life was like for him in 1957.
“A lot has happened in the reign of civil rights since 1957, and I was privileged to be a part of it,” Jordan said. “It may be appropriate that I share some of that.”
Jordan completed his undergraduate education in the middle of the civil rights movement. Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case that ended state-sponsored segregation in public schools, was heard only three years prior to his 1957 graduation from DePauw.
Jordan then studied law at Howard University, earning his law degree in 1960.
It was not long before Jordan was fighting for civil rights in court. In 1961, he was part of the legal team that helped admit the University of Georgia’s first black students after the team sued the university for racist admissions policies.
In the 1960s, Jordan also worked as the Georgia field director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He organized voter registration drives and led boycotts against merchants who discriminated against black people.
Paula Johnson and Janis McDonald, directors of the SU College of Law’s Cold Case Justice Initiative — a program that investigates unsolved racially motivated killings from the Civil Rights Era — said Jordan was involved in many of the cases the program is investigating.
“There are cases we continue to investigate where we have found Vernon Jordan’s name on whatever information exists,” Johnson said.
McDonald said as she and Johnson completed work on Georgia cases, they discovered Jordan, as NAACP field director, had investigated and called for Justice Department intervention in the state for unsolved racially motivated killings.
She said the CCJI honors the work Jordan did by continuing to look into cold cases from the civil rights era.
But some said it was hypocritical of the university to announce the closing of the CCJI after first announcing Jordan as commencement speaker. The College of Law has since reversed its decision to shutter the CCJI.
Diamond Miles, president of SU’s chapter of the NAACP, said she was confused by the selection of Jordan as commencement speaker given the university’s original intent to close the CCJI.
“It doesn’t make sense to me,” Miles said, adding that she does not believe the selection of Jordan as commencement speaker reflects the university’s values.
Johnson said although she was happy to hear that Jordan was selected as speaker, she found the announcement ironic.
“At the same time we had been told our program was being closed, we were honoring someone who had been doing the very work that we were doing,” she said.
Johnson and McDonald applauded the university’s effort to select a person of color as commencement speaker, after more than a decade of white commencement speakers. Jordan is the first person of color selected as commencement speaker since actress Phylicia Rashad in 2004.
Jordan said equality is still a civil rights issue today, not just for black people, but for women and members of the LGBTQ community.
“We still have not come to the point where we can ignore it,” Jordan said. “Equality is still an issue.”
– Originally published in The Daily Orange, May 8 2017