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New documentary tells story of civil rights leader Vernon Jordan

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A new documentary, “Vernon Jordan: Make It Plain,” tells the story of civil rights leader and business executive Vernon Jordan. Set for release Dec. 28, the film includes interviews with those who know Jordan best, including historian Henry Louis Gates and former President Bill Clinton, who Jordan served as an advisor.

The documentary follows Jordan’s life, from his time as the only Black student in his class at DePauw University, to practicing law alongside civil rights lawyer Donald Hollowell, to his time as president of the National Urban League from 1971 to 1981.

Growing up in the nation’s first housing project for African Americans in Georgia, Jordan recalls working from the time he was 12 years old, a work ethic he said he got from his father. The film highlights Jordan’s work, including his current position as senior partner at Lazard Freres and Co. law firm, where he’s been since 1982.

Dubbed the “Rosa Parks of Wall Street” by Henry Louis Gates, the film highlights Jordan’s achievements in advocating for more diversity among executive boards and in financial institutions.

Jordan worked alongside other civil rights icons such as Medgar Evers through his work as a civil rights leader, which included serving as a field director for the NAACP in Georgia. As executive director of the United Negro College Fund and president of the National Urban League, Jordan advocated tirelessly for economic equality and equality in higher education.

Jordan’s work sometimes put him in danger. In 1980, Jordan was shot in the back outside of a Fort Wayne hotel. He spent nearly 100 days in the hospital and then went on to practice law as he stepped down from the National Urban League in 1981.

Jordan continued to make a difference despite no longer being the formal leader of an organization. He served on President Clinton’s transition team from 1992 to 1993.

In a conversation with documentary director Dawn Porter, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recalled a chance encounter with Jordan in 1969 at Colorado State University that sparked a “life-long friendship.”

“Vernon always felt the fierce urgency of now, but understood how to translate that into language that could be understood across the broad swath of American society,” Clinton said. “He could walk into any room and literally say the same thing; he didn’t tailor his message. He was consistent in his advocacy, for all that he stood for and worked for, from voting rights to integration of higher education to economics. From that first meeting … he’s been a very big presence in my life and my political and public activities.”

“Vernon Jordan: Make It Plain” will premier at 9 p.m. Dec. 28 on PBS.

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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