American Odyssey

Born into a segregated world, he transcended his time–and nearly died for it. In an excerpt from his memoirs, a snapshot of a vanished way of life.

Black Americans hold America’s values dearly,” Vernon E. Jordan Jr. told Atlanta’s First Congregational Church a few weeks after the Sept. 11 attack. “At times, it seemed as if we were the only ones who did.” Civil-rights pioneer, Washington superlawyer, managing director of Lazard, confidant of presidents, Jordan moves at the highest levels with grace and skill. “Now that America is warring on terrorism, it is black people who can remind America that we know it well,” he told the church. “For we remember the terrorism that swept the South during the civil-rights movement… We remember the four little girls killed in the bombing of a Birmingham church. We know that dangerous rhetoric can lead to acts of lunacy that kill innocents.”

In his new memoir, “Vernon Can Read!” written with Annette Gordon-Reed, Jordan tells the story of his life–or, more precisely, of his childhood, his family and his journey to the top of the movement. There are no secrets here about Bill Clinton, no juicy gossip. It is, instead, a remarkable American story of how one man rose out of an old order to help create a new, fairer one. Here Jordan discusses his youth, an attempt on his life–and the lessons he’s learned.

In the summer of 1955, at the end of my sophomore year in college, I worked as a chauffeur in my hometown of Atlanta. I was originally supposed to work as a salesman for the Continental Insurance Co., which had made me an offer during a campus interview at my school, DePauw University. When the interviewer said there was an opening for me in the company’s Atlanta office, I jumped at the chance.

At home, I put on my best suit and headed downtown to the Fulton National Bank Building, where Continental had its offices. I went up to the receptionist’s desk to present myself. “My name is Vernon Jordan,” I said. “I’m a student at DePauw University, and I’m here to begin my summer internship.”

The receptionist seemed in need of a translator to help clarify what I had just said. When she finally realized she’d heard what she thought she’d heard, she called for the man in charge of summer workers. “You won’t believe this,” she told him, “but there’s a colored boy out here who says he’s a summer intern.”

The supervisor, a tall fellow who looked to be in his mid-30s, came out. I introduced myself. “I’m Vernon Jordan. I was hired to be a summer intern in your office.”

His reaction was not unlike the receptionist’s. But he quickly composed himself and took me inside his office. An awkward moment passed before he said, “They didn’t tell us.”

“They didn’t tell you what?” I asked, even though I suspected where he was heading.

“They didn’t tell us you were colored,” he replied. At that time we had not yet become “black.” “You know,” he went on, “you can’t work here. It’s just impossible. You just can’t.”

Of course, segregation was still very much a fact of life in Georgia in the summer of 1955. I was well aware of that, and of the rules that were still propping up the system. But I had thought–hoped–during those months after my interview that I had somehow made my way around them. It was my policy then, and it remains the same today, never to expect defeat before making an honest effort. My parents, especially my mother, had taught me that there was nothing I could not do if I worked hard enough. Also, by then I’d come to think of Jim Crow as a lame horse that was about to be put down. The feeling was in the air. And I wanted to do whatever I could to help speed the process along. But it wouldn’t happen on that day at the Continental Insurance Co.

The summer was passing, and the opportunities for other office jobs had dwindled. I wanted to work. So why not, my mother asked, work the balance of the time using other skills I had? I was a good driver, and, like many young men in the 1950s, I was in love with cars. My mother ran a catering business, which meant she had contacts within most, if not all, of the prominent white households in Atlanta.

That is how I became a chauffeur for Robert F. Maddox.

Robert Maddox was one of the leading figures in Atlanta’s white elite for most of the early part of the 20th century. He was mayor of the city in 1910, and before that he had been active in the civic and social affairs of the town. He was the president of the First National Bank of Atlanta and president of the American Banking Association.

Maddox, then in his 80s, was a creature of habit. He would come downstairs, get his hat and select one of his many walking canes. We’d go out to the car, a four-door blue Cadillac. I would drive him from the back of the house around to the front and stop near the rose garden. Troy, the yardman, cued by the idling of the car’s engine, would appear from the garden with a single rose for Maddox’s lapel. Then our day’s journey began.

At Maddox’s insistence, we took the same route each day down to the First National Bank Building, where he kept an office. Our next destination would be the Capital City Club, where Maddox went to have a drink and lunch. Then it was back home for his afternoon nap. So, by 1:30 at the latest, my duties as chauffeur were over. I had nothing to do until 6, when I took on the mantle of butler and served dinner.

Maddox had a wonderful library that soon became a place of refuge for me during the dead hours of the afternoon. Shakespeare, Thoreau, Emerson–it had everything.

I sat there day after day, drinking in the atmosphere of the place–the smell of the books, the feel of them, the easy chairs. The way of life that the library symbolized–the commitment to knowledge and the leisure to pursue it–struck a chord in me that still resonates. I wanted all this for myself and my family. This was what going to college was for, to become a part of a community that appreciated and had access to a place like this. I knew I belonged there.

One afternoon, as I sat reading, Maddox walked in on me. He had awakened early from his afternoon nap and had come down in his underwear, with a bottle of Southern Comfort in one hand and a glass in the other. He was clearly startled to see me there.

“What are you doing in the library, Vernon?”

“I’m reading, Mr. Maddox.”

“Reading? I’ve never had a n—– work for me who could read,” he said.

“Mr. Maddox, I can read. I go to college.”

“You do what?” he asked.

“I go to college.”

“You go to college over there at those colored schools?”

“No, sir. I go to DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.”

He pondered this for a moment.

“White children go to that school.”

“Yes, sir.”

Then the inevitable.

“White girls go to that school.”

“Yes, sir.”

“What are you studying to be, a preacher or a teacher?”

“Actually, I’m going to be a lawyer, Mr. Maddox.”

“N—–s aren’t supposed to be lawyers.”

“I’m going to be a lawyer, Mr. Maddox.”

“Hmmm. Well, don’t you know I have someplace downstairs for you all to sit and do what you want to do?”

“I know. But I didn’t think you’d want me to take these books down there. They should stay in the library.”

He looked around and finally said, “Just read, then–just go ahead.” He turned and walked out. I thought the matter was closed. I soon found out it was not.

His children and their spouses came for dinner that evening, which was not uncommon. As I moved among them serving soup in my white jacket and bow tie with a napkin draped over my arm, Maddox said, “I have an announcement to make.”

“Yes, Papa?” one of his children said.


“Vernon can read.”

More silence. Maddox went on.

“And he’s going to school with white children.”

No one made a sound. Finally, and with a great deal of emotion, Maddox said, “I knew all this was coming. But I’m glad I won’t be here when it does.”

The next day I drove Maddox and two of his friends to lunch. One was his frequent companion Jim Dickey, another widower who lived across the street from him. The other, ironically, was James Robinson, whose grandson (also named James) in the 1980s was the chairman of the American Express Co., where I was, and remain, on the board of directors. The three of them sat in the back. I was lost in my own thoughts until Maddox’s voice cut through my reverie.

“Jim?” he said to both of them.

“Yeah, Bob?” they responded.

“Vernon can read.”

What did Maddox mean to accomplish with this? I knew that some of the people who worked for him could read. Indeed, as I think back on it, I’m sure at some level he knew, too. But it was necessary for him to act as if he did not know it–at least not in any way that could change the way he viewed the brown faces who busied themselves in his service. The simple fact was that he never thought about those who worked for him in any way that did not directly affect their duties to him.

I knew Maddox, or, more precisely, I knew his type. I was aware of and had borne the brunt of the forces that helped shape him. To me, Robert Maddox was not an evil man. He was just an anachronism. And with the brashness of youth I mentally noted (and counted on) the fact that his time was up. I do not mean just his physical time on earth–but I believed that the “time” that helped shape him was on its way out. His half-mocking, half-serious comments about my education were the death rattle of his culture. When he saw that I was in the process of crafting a life for myself that would make me a man in some of the same ways he thought of being a man, he was deeply unnerved.

The story is told, and I am not sure it is true, that in 1961, when I escorted Charlayne Hunter through the mobs at the University of Georgia to desegregate that institution, Maddox was watching the well-publicized event on television, attended by a nurse.The nurse recognized me and said, “Mr. Maddox, do you know who that colored lawyer is?”

“I don’t believe I do.”

“It’s your chauffeur, Vernon.”

Maddox looked hard at the screen and said, “I always knew that n—– was up to no good.”

Jordan rose to become head of the National Urban League–a job that catapulted him to national prominence and took him, on May 29, 1980, to Ft. Wayne, Ind., to address the organization’s annual dinner there.

After a speech I often feel drained and restless at the same time. On this particular night it was getting late, but I knew that sleep would be impossible. I went out and wandered around the hotel a bit, talking to several people who had been at the dinner. Eventually I ended up with a group of Urban Leaguers in the hotel bar, among them a member of the local board, Martha Coleman. When I mentioned that I had not eaten, which I seldom did at those events, she invited me to her house for a snack and coffee, and I went.

Later I would be asked whether that was not a risky thing to have done. She is a white woman. I am a black man. I was married; she was not. None of those facts raised a “risk” even remotely related to what happened later that night.

I lived a life very different from most people’s, traveling from place to place, being the center of attention–flattery and praise one moment, being left totally alone the next. There was very little glamour in this. Instead, it was just one of the demands, a grueling one, of my job. After speeches, there were often parties in my hotel suite with people I barely knew but had to talk to. I met Urban League members and sometimes went to their homes or to local restaurants with them after events–it could be one person, it could be 10. They could be black. They could be white.

I was scheduled to fly to Houston the next morning, and that was on my mind as Ms. Coleman drove me back to my hotel. While we were on the road, some white teenagers passed us screaming epithets. They continued on, and I thought nothing of the episode.

Instead of dropping me off at the front of the hotel, Ms. Coleman took me around to the side entrance, closer to where my room was. As I was getting out of the car, a bullet fired from a .30-’06 hunting rifle tore into my back. I didn’t hear the gunshot, but the impact lifted me into the air, and I had a sensation of floating–unreal, as if I were in a dream. And then I was on the ground.

One of my first thoughts was that I had to get back to my room and go to bed, so I could make my flight to Houston. I remember thinking, “This has to be over; I’ve got to be somewhere tomorrow”–a crazy notion under the circumstances. But when I began to feel blood soaking my shirt, I knew I would not be catching that plane to Texas.

The pain was indescribable, brutal beyond all measure. I had often heard that human beings shut down in the face of overwhelming pain. I did not. I remained wide awake, and I could feel the blood running out of my body. “This is it for me,” I thought. “My life is over.” I then heard in my mind my mother’s voice saying, “Son, if you trust Him, He will take care of you.” Those were the words she would write to me at the close of every letter. Hearing them was one thing; believing was another.

The first operation–there would be five altogether within a 16-day period–lasted four hours. A .30-’06 is designed to take down a large mammal and is most commonly used to hunt deer. The ammunition exploded upon impact, creating a wound the size of a man’s fist and sending bullet fragments throughout my body.

Despite all their efforts, my doctors were unable to remove every fragment. Even with that, I had to count myself lucky: had the bullet entered one quarter inch to the left, it would have severed my spine, bringing instant death or paralysis for life. Before hitting me, the bullet had ricocheted off a fence. Without that slight alteration in trajectory, there would have been a clean hit, and that would probably have been the end.

Although I was in no position to follow what was going on outside my hospital room, I do know that the Rev. Jesse Jackson had held press conferences at the Marriott and at the courthouse in Ft. Wayne. He had planned to have one at the hospital, too, but my mother intervened. I am told that she said, “Jesse, there is only one issue here, and that is whether Vernon Jr. is going to live or die. So we don’t need any more press conferences. What I want you to do is go back to Chicago, now.”

Everything was ready to go; the press was waiting. But Jesse, who I think can stand up to any force in the universe except black maternal power, said, “Yes, Mama Jordan,” and that was it. There was no press conference. (The man who tried to kill me, Joseph Paul Franklin, a white supremacist, was ultimately convicted of another crime and is on death row.)

I have often been asked whether the shooting and aftermath changed me in any way. I always answer no, although some of my friends insist otherwise. After a talk I gave at Tuskegee that marked my return to the public sphere, I spoke to my friend Louis Martin about how things had gone. He said that before I was shot, I would report to him about the politics of the speech and how people responded to it. This time, he noticed that I seemed especially enamored of the choir. I told him every song they sang and quoted from hymns. He took this as my having developed an interest in “the broader meaning of life.”

I remain unconvinced–I think I was spiritual before then. But we never see ourselves as others see us. The one thing I am certain of is that having lived the experience, I preferred to close that chapter and concentrate instead on the belief that I had been spared for a reason. It was for me to discover, in the quiet of my own mind, just exactly what that reason was.

When I was a young man, aching to play a role on the public stage, there were too few models of leadership for me to follow. A preacher, a teacher, perhaps a lawyer–these were the main avenues open to people with dreams like mine. Had I been born in 1960, when my professional life began, so many more roads would be open to me today. There are so many more ways now to make a contribution to the uplift of black people. Since the 1960s, we have created five new leadership classes within the black community. A Vernon Jordan born in 1960 could be a member of the newly created class of black elected officials. That class did not exist before the civil-rights movement. He could become a part of a corporation, as an executive, manager, member of the board of directors. If corporate life held no attraction, he could lead one of the many community-based organizations that work at the grassroots level within the black community. Another option would be to head up a traditionally white institution–a foundation, university or health-care organization. Finally, if a 41-year-old Vernon Jordan wanted to work for himself, he could join the new class of black entrepreneurs.

Black people have done wonderful things for this country (saved its soul, in fact), and we have been an example to the world in the process. That should never be forgotten, even as we continue to press ahead, in our many and varied ways, toward our future. If we did so much when we had so little, think of what we can do now that we have so much more.

Although I am not certain I strictly believe in life after death, I do feel that my mother and father are still with me in some fashion. In their own way, they each stood up against a society that sought to crush or ridicule my dreams, and I learned from them not to be discouraged by people like Robert F. Maddox and his mocking incantation, “Vernon can read.” Their lives stick in my mind as examples of the true genius of black Americans–making do with what you have against seemingly insurmountable odds, pressing forward always and passing on a sense of optimism and faith to the next generation. Whatever good that I am, have done or will do, I owe to their influence. The rest is all on me.


Related Articles

Archive Search

Search the world's largest online archive of material about Jewish diversity.

Archive Search

Search the world's largest online archive of material about Jewish diversity.