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Opinion |  Before he was a Washington institution, I knew Vernon Jordan as a civil rights pioneer

It was the young Vernon who spent days traveling the 150 miles round trip from Atlanta to the UGA campus in Athens, pursuing what the legal profession called “discovery” – or what Vernon called in his memories of “not unlike the search for a needle in a haystack.” . The legal team spent three weeks sifting through thousands of applications looking for a white student with the same academic background as mine, someone who also wanted to study journalism. And it was Vernon who found what he described as “our smoking gun”: the candidacy of an affluent white student from Marietta who had applied a year after being and had been accepted – albeit an excuse for them. University officials given for refusing me was that I had applied too late.

After Judge Bootle’s ruling, Hamilton and I prepared for our arrival at UGA. Vernon knew the potential dangers, but he was fearless by the prospect. On January 9, 1961, he led me through a crowd of screaming white college students. He said nothing and continued to look straight ahead at our destination – the registrar’s office. After doing what we had to do there, we left for the walk through campus to the journalism building to complete my registration. Vernon and I are both tall – him, well over 6 feet and I, 5 feet 8 inches – and I remember my mother, who was with us, shouting, “Hey, you two slow down. I’m not as tall as you two.

Halfway through the registration process that day, Bootle granted the college a stay on land I had never quite understood. Vernon contacted Hollowell and Motley in Atlanta; they had already turned to a higher judge to appeal. Hamilton and I left campus with Vernon and went to a nearby black family to wait for the end. Shortly after we arrived, Vernon’s phone rang. When he hung up, he calmly said it was time to go and finish our registration. And we did. (By the way, the building housing the registrar’s office is now called the Holmes-Hunter University Building.)

Years later, Vernon would reflect in his memoirs on what he had learned from that experience: “This sustained social unrest, moral persuasion, and political action can create an environment in which those in power may feel compelled to act. do the right thing.

Sometimes Vernon treated me like a younger sister. I remember one time during the trial when we took a break. I had said I wasn’t hungry, but when Vernon’s food arrived, I reached out to grab a piece of his sandwich. He wasn’t too kind in telling me to get mine. I was too young at the time to appreciate who this man was, how he got to where he was and where he would go on his own journey to the horizons. But his life story should inspire young people, especially those growing up in segregated communities with little to no support from mainstream society.

Vernon himself grew up in a separate housing project in Atlanta. and worked alongside her mother in her restaurant business, often waiting for people who were unlike them. His mother created armor for him from his earliest days, teaching him that “it was important to have a plan in life or others would control your destiny,” in her own words. Wearing this armor, Vernon would go on to lead several civil rights organizations, including the National Urban League, a role in which he survived a brutal assassination attempt.

Vernon’s mother instilled in him the mantra of ‘we stand on the shoulders of giants’ – an idea that resonated with the young men and women of color who populate boards of directors, law firms and Wall Street. . (In fact, historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. called Vernon the Rosa Parks of Wall Street.) Vernon grew up in AME Church (as I was), where he learned the power of faith. And it is this faith that keeps my sorrow in check over his earthly loss, because I have heard enough preach from various pulpits on various occasions about the great camp gathering in the Promised Land. Long live my last ancestor. Long life.

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