Vernon E. Jordan Jr. '57
America is struggling to deal with "the rubble" left behind by the civil rights movement, according to Vernon Jordan, a legendary figure in the struggle for racial equality. In a powerful speech this morning at his alma mater, DePauw University, Jordan stated, "we must come together because we are stronger together."
A 1957 graduate of DePauw, and the former executive director of the United Negro College Fund, president of the National Urban League, and a longtime adviser to President Bill Clinton, Vernon E. Jordan Jr. presented the keynote address at the inauguration of DePauw's twentieth president, D. Mark McCoy. The remarks were presented as part of the Timothy and Sharon Ubben Lecture Series.
"We have seen so much progress since I was a student here, especially when it comes to issues of race," Jordan stated. "Thanks to the thousands of men and women -- black and white -- who suffered beatings, bombings and jail in quiet dignity and resolve for knocking down what Martin King called 'the sagging walls of segregation.' What we are dealing with now, what defines the issue of race in the 21st century, is the rubble: less imposing perhaps, but no less critical to clear away. And if you have ever seen a wrecking ball demolish a building you will understand that tearing down a wall takes a matter of minutes, but clearing the debris -- the rubble -- takes far longer." (photo, l-r: New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winner James B. Stewart '73, Vernon Jordan and President McCoy)
Jordan recalled the university's first president, Matthew Simpson, who was a friend of President Abraham Lincoln and was called upon to speak at the assassinated leader's funeral on May 4, 1865. Simpson stated that day that Lincoln's "moral power gave him pre-eminence ... (People) saw in him a man whom they believed would do what is right, regardless of all consequences."
"President McCoy," Jordan stated, "my hope is that you will not only exercise that moral power but lead this institution in such a way that DePauw students learn to exercise their moral power."
With the presidential election ten days away, Jordan urged the audience -- especially students -- to vote, "because you need to be participants in the political decisions that will affect your lives. So whatever your political affiliation -- Republican, Democratic, Green or Independent -- it is vital for you to be fully informed about the issues of our day and to participate in the political process."
Jordan continued, "I know that actor Leslie Odom Jr. was here a few weeks ago to take part in the Ubben Lecture Series. Now I would not be surprised if he referenced this line from the musical, Hamilton, when in his final moments, Alexander Hamilton refers to America as 'a great unfinished symphony.' President McCoy, as someone who has actually composed a symphony, and given our current political climate, I think President Simpson's line deserves our consideration. If we accept that our country is indeed like a great unfinished symphony, then we each have a part to play, here at DePauw and here in America. One instrument for change and for progress is our vote.
"Of course, we should not expect perfect harmony after November 9, we will still have so much work to do to heal from a campaign that has reopened many old wounds and even inflicted new ones. But I believe that we can rise up and transform; that we can come together and clear the rubble -- not to make America great again but to make America greater than it has ever been before."
"I love DePauw, because DePauw prepared me to lead the life I have been blessed to live. If I were to enumerate all of the great gifts this university gave me, everything I learned, or all that my education made possible, I would need at least another four years. But in the interest of time and the desire to avoid additional tuition payments," Jordan remarked as the crowd laughed, "I'll say this: DePauw University nurtured my growth and maturity. I made lasting friendships here. And if I had my life to live over again, I would return to DePauw."
Jordan was the only African American in DePauw's Class of 1957, and one of only five blacks on campus. "DePauw expanded my mind, broadened my horizons, lifted my sights and prepared me to serve and to lead. While I came here to learn political science and history, it was also an opportunity to learn about people I did not know and people who did not know me. So while I learned a lot here I also taught a lot, just by the very fact of my presence."
Twenty percent of current DePauw undergraduates are students of color, and approximately 10% of the student body is international, with more than 40 countries represented. Multicultural faculty members make up approximately 19% of those who teach at DePauw.
"While I loved DePauw when I was a student, I love DePauw more today because of the way it has changed. Today's DePauw is more diverse, more open, more in tune with what America is and can become." (at left: a photo of Jordan from the 1957 Mirage yearbook)
A political science major as an undergraduate, Jordan is an advisory member of DePauw's Board of Trustees and has twice presented the commencement address at his alma mater, in 1973 and 1993. In December 2009, he was one of eight individuals presented with the Du Bois Medal, the highest honor awarded by the Harvard University Institute of Politics' W.E.B. Du Bois Institute. His other numerous awards include the Spingarn Medal, the NAACP's highest honor for achievement, and the Trumpet Award. In 2014 he received The American Lawyer magazine's Lifetime Achievement Award.
In closing his powerful remarks, Jordan recalled that in May 1980 after he was shot in an assassination attempt, he received a telegram from Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace, who had once declared that he stood for "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."
"I appreciated that wire," Jordan said. "It said to me that it is possible for the deepest of divisions to be subordinated to common humanity. It said to me that we are all human beings who have to reach out to each other. It said to me that Governor Wallace, too, knew what it was like to feel the pain of a would-be assassin's bullet." (at right: Jordan with President Clinton at DePauw on November 18, 2011)
Jordan then relayed a later meeting with Wallace, when the former governor asked for a hug.
"The governor of Alabama, a mean old racist who once stood in the schoolhouse door to keep black people out, could no longer stand at all yet he wished he could stand, not to set himself defiantly or thwart history, but rather to embrace me as a brother.
Jordan stressed, "In order for America to heal, to clear the rubble, we must all find the strength to embrace one another as brothers and sisters -- whether we are black or white, straight or gay, Christian or Muslim, immigrant now or immigrant 200 years ago -- we must come together because we are stronger together. And I have faith that if we can do that, then we can continue to see progress for many years to come."
The audience responded to the speech with a long and loud standing ovation, which visibly moved Jordan.