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Rights pioneer Vernon Jordan: America is still divided at color line

If Martin Luther King, Jr., were alive today, he would be echoing the prophecy and declaration of the visionary civil rights leader W. E. B. DuBois, according to Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., former president of the National Urban League. If Martin Luther King, Jr., were alive today, he would be echoing the prophecy and declaration of the visionary civil rights leader W. E. B. DuBois, according to Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., former president of the National Urban League.

"DuBois wrote at the beginning of the 20th Century that the ‘color line’ was the greatest problem America faced in the emerging century. I believe if Martin were here today, that would be essentially his message and prediction for the 21st Century," Jordan told Insight News in a telephone interview Thursday.

Jordan is the featured speaker for the 14th annual "Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Breakfast" 7:30 a.m. Monday, Jan. 19, at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

The General Mills Foundation and the United Negro College Fund sponsor the event. The St. Paul Area Council of Churches will also host several simultaneous breakfasts and live broadcasts to locations in St. Paul and Duluth. Reservations for satellite locations will be accepted until Jan. 13 at 651-646-8805.

Now a Senior Managing Director of Lazard Frères & Co. llc in New York, Jordan, prior to leading the National Urban League, was executive director of United Negro College Fund, Director of the Voter Education Project of the Southern Regional Council; Attorney-Consultant, U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity; Assistant to the Executive Director of the Southern Regional Council; Georgia Field Director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and an attorney in private practice in Arkansas and Georgia.

Prior to joining Lazard, Jordan was a Senior Executive Partner with the law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, L.L.P., where he remains Of Counsel. While there Jordan practiced general, corporate, legislative and international law in Washington, D.C.

Asked why he felt Dr. King would describe the color line as the nation’s greatest challenge, Jordan said, "part of the problem is that after the civil rights legislation of the 1960s the vast majority of Americans erroneously assumed that it was all over. They confused finding and conferring rights with a meaningful implementation for those rights. In the 60s we won the right to check into the motel. After you confer that right, what about the ability to check out?"
The tools to complete the job of civil rights were never fully engaged, Jordan said. "In education, in equal employment opportunity once the new laws came into being, the vast majority of Americans felt good about themselves and became satisfied. They did not understand that when you take a wall down, you have debris. The walls fell and crumbled. But dealing with the debris… the stubble, the steel rods the reinforced concrete, the wires… is harder than breaking down the wall. The obstacle ceases to be black and white. It melts into gray. People can’t deal with that," he said. Nonetheless, said Jordan, Black and White people committed to civil and human rights "must keep on keeping on not letting anybody turn us around. We can’t become satisfied."

Speaking from his corner office suite on the 62nd floor of Rockefeller Center in downtown Manhattan, looking out at the Statue of Liberty, Jordan said, "You see the legacy of Martin every day. You pick up a newspaper and read about Black quarterbacks at Alabama and LSU. You note that Mississippi State University has a Black head football coach. It reminds me that I walked Charlayne Hunter through military escorts to enroll at University of Georgia. That was bread cast upon the water.

"I know I didn’t get here by myself. I am here because of the courage and sacrifice of Martin, Medgar Evers, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young and others. This is the fruit of their labor. I see it every day.

"We have unfinished business," Jo

January 12, 2004
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