Athens, Ga. – The University of Georgia will award an honorary degree to Vernon E. Jordan Jr., who began his career helping desegregate UGA and became a national civil rights leader, top Washington lawyer and adviser to presidents and business tycoons.
Jordan will receive the honorary Doctor of Laws degree at UGA’s spring semester undergraduate commencement exercises May 12. He will be the 77th recipient of the degree which, after the earned doctorate, is the highest recognition UGA can bestow.
The university awards honorary degrees for “exemplary and broad contributions to society.” Recipients must demonstrate a “sustained record of achievements of lasting significance” in their field. The overarching criterion for the degree is excellence.
Jordan was part of the legal team that helped Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes win admission as UGA’s first African-American students in 1961. He later organized voter registration drives in the South, headed the United Negro College Fund and National Urban League, and joined a powerful law firm in Washington, D.C., where he has worked with policy-setting groups and served on the boards of leading national corporations.
“Vernon Jordan played an important role in one of the defining moments in University of Georgia history,” said UGA President Michael F. Adams. “The courage, resolve and commitment to social justice that he demonstrated then have remained hallmarks of a career that has won him the admiration and appreciation of all Americans. The University of Georgia takes great pride in recognizing his achievements and contributions with this honorary degree.”
Jordan received a law degree from Howard University in 1960 and returned to his hometown of Atlanta to join the law firm of civil rights attorney Donald Hollowell, who was leading a legal battle to force UGA to admit African Americans.
While sifting through files, Jordan found documents that are credited with helping persuade a federal judge to order the university to open its doors to Hunter and Holmes. When they arrived to register on Jan. 9, 1961, Jordan led them past a crowd of protesters onto campus.
In 1962, Jordan became Georgia field secretary of the NAACP and later headed the Voter Education Project for the Southern Regional Council. While serving in these positions he helped register more than two million African Americans in the South to vote.
Jordan was executive director of the United Negro College Fund from 1970 until 1972 when he became president and CEO of the National Urban League, which works to promote education, job training and employment for African Americans.
After surviving and recuperating from an assassination attempt by a white supremacist in 1980, Jordan left the Urban League and joined the Washington, D.C., law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld. He is senior counsel with the firm, and is also senior managing partner with Lazard Freres & Co., an investment banking firm.
In 1985, Jordan returned to UGA as the first speaker in the annual Holmes/Hunter Lecture Series, which honors the two graduates whose admission he helped win. He continues his association with the university as chair of a committee raising funds to endow a professorship honoring Donald Hollowell in UGA’s School of Social Work.
Jordan was chairman of President Bill Clinton’s Transition Team and was a close adviser to Clinton. In 2004, he was Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s lead negotiator for the presidential debates.
He has received presidential appointments to numerous policy-making panels including the Iraq Study Committee, the Secretary of State’s Advisory Committee on South Africa, the Advisory Council on Social Security and the Presidential Clemency Board.
A lifetime member of the Council on Foreign Relations, he is on the board of governors of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and is co-chair of the Ad Council’s Advisory Committee on Public Issues.
For many years Jordan wrote a weekly column that appeared in more than 300 newspapers, and broadcast commentaries on current issues for the Westinghouse Broadcast Network. He has been a frequent guest on major television news shows including Meet the Press and Face the Nation.
Jordan is a current or past member of the board of directors of such corporations as American Express, Xerox, Dow Jones & Co., Revlon, Sara Lee and Asbury Automotive Group. He is on the advisory boards of DaimlerChrysler and Barrick Gold.
UGA’s undergraduate commencement will be at 9:30 a.m. in Sanford Stadium, or in Stegeman Coliseum in case of bad weather. The featured speaker will be Erroll Davis Jr., chancellor of the University System of Georgia.