Make it Plain

Standing Up and Speaking Out


By Vernon Jordan

With Lee A. Daniels

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Black Americans have always relied on the oral tradition — storytelling, preaching, and speechmaking — to assert their rights and preserve and pass on their history and culture. In the pulpit, courtroom, or cotton field, they have understood the power of words, distinctively delivered, to educate and inspire.

Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., one of the nation’s finest speakers, imbibed this tradition as a young man and has given it his own unique inflection from his work on the civil rights front lines, to the National Urban League, to positions of influence at the highest level of business and politics. A friend and confidant to presidents, Jordan has never forgotten the men and women — from Ruby Hurley to Wiley Branton to Gardner C. Taylor to Martin Luther King, Jr. — whose oratorical skill in service to social justice deeply influenced him. Their examples and voices, reflected in Vernon’s own, make this book both a history and an embodiment of black speech at its finest: Full of emotion, controlled force, righteous indignation, love of country, and awe in front of the God-given challenges ahead.


To Dan Davis
I have been very fortunate to be the beneficiary of the almost mystical affinity that in the best of circumstances develops between a speech maker and a speech writer. For thirty-five years, from 1971 to 2006, Dan Davis’s expansive and precise thinking and facility with words has been invaluable in helping me flesh out my ideas and convey them crisply and elegantly. Our work together has exemplified the combination of trust, loyalty, and friendship that is as crucial as intelligence and skill at wordsmithing to the process of collaboration between speech writer and speech maker. We have discussed ideas and concepts frankly and without fear of the other taking offense. He has never objected to my being the final authority on the content of a speech, an authority I have fully exercised. But I’ve never doubted that at the end of my giving every speech we have crafted, he has always been the proudest person in the room for me. And I have continually realized and been more and more grateful for our professional relationship and our personal friendship.
This book’s appearance indicates my good fortune in now having found the same essential common ground with another writer, Lee A. Daniels—like Dan Davis, an alumnus of the National Urban League.

January 30, 2008
I realized as this book began to take shape in 2007 that the year encompassed two sets of events of profound relation and resonance—one set echoing the past, the other dramatically unfolding in the present. First, 2007 was a year of two historic anniversaries: the sixtieth anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s breaking major league baseball’s color barrier and the fiftieth anniversary of the heroic stand the black community of Little Rock, Arkansas, undertook to integrate that city’s central high school. Those events demanded of their participants what the centuries-long black freedom struggle had always required: the determined pursuit of justice, unshakable courage against great odds, and what is often not remarked upon, an extraordinary patriotism and commitment to the American ideal. They were part of the tapestry of forces that ultimately compelled America to shed its overtly racist laws and practices and expand opportunity across the color line.
The bounty that expansion of opportunity has produced for all Americans showed itself at the highest level of our civic life in 2007 with the emergence of a black man and a white woman as the leading candidates for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. For me, celebrating within one year those two historic events of the past while contemplating the striking political possibilities of our present underscored something common to both: the critical power of words, often words delivered as speeches and in public advocacy, to move individuals and the nation. During the early and middle decades of the twentieth century, black Americans not only depended on the power of the word as a source of comfort and inspiration. They also effectively used it to compel white America to come to its moral senses and live up to Lincoln’s great rhetorical description of the nation in the Gettysburg Address: “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
The speeches in this book, which begin with my becoming head of the National Urban League in 1971 and continue to the spring of 2008, were driven, above all, by my concern with black Americans’ fundamental pursuit of the post-1960s era: to fuse the promise of the civil rights movement’s legal and legislative victories with the actual lived experience of black Americans. They were meant to address the facts and circumstances of urgent issues roiling American society, supporting or rebutting the arguments of a particular moment. But, considering them both singly and in their totality now, they also do more than that. They outline earlier debates of some of the important issues Americans continue to grapple with today.
At this momentous point, as we turn from one presidency to another, the task facing all Americans today is, as it always has been, to make democracy work. In the 1960s, Roy Wilkins, the longtime head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Whitney M. Young, Jr., my immediate predecessor as head of the National Urban League; Martin Luther King, Jr.; and many others understood that this goal was not going to be achieved merely by the enactment of the civil rights laws. They realized that the struggle to push democracy forward would have to continue, bolstered by new actors forging new paths that would connect black America more and more closely to the American mainstream.
In my work as an advocate in that journey during my years at the National Urban League and beyond, I have come to respect and love the craft of public speaking such that it has become an important part of my life. Early in my life, I decided I wanted to be an advocate for black America’s quest to gain the full measure of American citizenship, and it was quite clear that required the ability to speak in a way that influenced people. If you are the state director of the NAACP in Georgia, as I was, and you can’t get up in the pulpit and stir the congregation, you are not going to be successful. Most of all, these speeches offer lessons about and, I hope, inspiration for continued public advocacy for social justice.
The book’s title comes from a long-held black American church tradition. In many black churches, when the preacher delivers the word in an especially compelling fashion, someone in the pews is likely to declare, “Make it plain, preacher, make it plain.” That is what I have tried to do: Make It Plain.
My interest in public speaking came very early. It began in St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Atlanta, with the children’s Easter Sunday afternoon program. The children of the Sunday school were asked to give a memorized presentation, usually a combination of scripture and religious poetry on the theme of Easter. It was an important event in the life of the church and we were made to feel it was a significant step in our lives, too. Its fundamental purpose was to ground us in the church and in effect have us be advocates to the congregation about Easter.
The church was the bedrock of life in my public housing project. That’s what you did Sunday mornings: You went to church. Both my parents were very involved in St. Paul. Its rituals and rhythms were interwoven with the Jordan family rituals and rhythms. So, as children, we memorized our speeches. We attended Easter practice several times a week, and then, come Easter Sunday afternoon at four o’clock, the congregation—parents and grandparents, and friends of parents and grandparents—assembled to hear us. All children got their applause. Even children who cried, stumbled, or remained silent out of fear, which happened often, were applauded. If you were good at delivery, to the applause would be added murmurs of appreciation. That’s Sister Jordan’s boy! That’s Brother Hamilton’s boy! Based on my Easter Sunday performances, I competed in several citywide declamation contests, representing St. Paul, where I often placed first.
I intuitively understood that speaking well was highly valued. The very roots of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and other black denominations sprang from blacks’ determination to be able to speak freely, passionately, and persuasively. Blacks were not allowed to do that in most of American society. Our voices were largely ignored when they weren’t completely stifled. But not in the black church. There, you didn’t have to have formal training or beg permission to speak. It was one of the few places where black people could show their intelligence and demonstrate their eloquence, where they could not only discuss religion but relate the lessons of scripture to the world around them. And often those discussions focused on the rights black Americans were entitled to but were being denied.
I grew up in Georgia in an era when the lives of black Americans were shadowed by limitation. The struggle to destroy those limitations and restore civil rights was the central fact of our lives. I understood this at an early age because many of the leading figures in the community—teachers, preachers, lawyers, doctors, ordinary working people—were involved in civil rights work in some way. It often was the subject most passionately discussed at the dinner table and at school, where I learned about Negro History Week in the first grade, and at public forums. The AME Church itself had been born in protest in 1787 in Philadelphia, when black worshippers, led by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, refused to accept their second-class treatment by the white Methodist Episcopal Church. This consciousness permeated St. Paul. We were taught to look upon ourselves as descendants of Allen and Jones, who had an obligation to understand the AME Church’s great tradition of practicing the social gospel—of using the lessons of the Bible to comment on broad social and economic conditions as well as the individual’s relationship with God. It was that charge that most appealed to me, because it supported my early ambition to be a civil rights lawyer.
While I was aware of the injustice, I never felt intimidated by it. I never felt I needed to limit my aspirations. I observed all these strong black adults around me in church and in the community. And it was made clear to me from within my family, within St. Paul, and at Walker Street Elementary that there were expectations of me. I benefited from the black community’s tradition of nurturing the talents of the young; that went on even where the restrictions against what blacks could aspire to were codified in thousands of laws. Because I had shown some talent, I was expected to do something with it. From the community and my family I had inherited an opportunity, and I believed I was in training, preparing myself for leadership in the future.
I had a rich diet of speakers to listen to at St. Paul. There were the Sunday morning sermons, of course, and because I sang in the St. Cecelia Choir, I also participated in the hour-long vesper services at five o’clock, where every fourth Sunday some outstanding person from the community would come to speak to us. The choir was personally underwritten by Dr. Richard A. Billings, our family physician, a prominent member of St. Paul, and a Lincoln Republican who voted against Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He mentored me from elementary school through my early career in the law. I paid very close attention to how these individuals—preachers and laypeople—would begin their speeches, how well they made the point or points of the speech, and how they finished up. I’d listen to them and I measured them and I had the audacity to grade them. Though young, I had my own sense of who had prepared well and who had not, who had been eloquent, who had shown a human touch that drew the audience to listen to them more attentively. I thought I understood whether and how the different parts of the sermons and speeches fit together. I understood that first, the speaker had to lay a good foundation, to give you his text and subject, to tell you what he was going to talk about. Then, in the middle part of the speech I looked for information and inspiration; even at a young age, I rejected volume and fireworks. Finally came the crescendo and the conclusion. How could I know all this as a young boy? It was all intuitive; I could feel it. What I understood then and what I understand now sixty years later is that if people have to listen to you, then you have a responsibility to give them something to listen to.
I also learned early where my own oratorical talents lay and where they did not. During Negro History Week one year at Walker Street Elementary, the teachers staged a program that had the students representing and speaking the words of accomplished black people. Of course, I wanted to play Joe Louis. But that part went to my friend Frank Hill; he went out on the stage to rousing applause from the students in the audience. My teachers had given me the role of William Grant Still, the conductor and composer. I walked out on the stage, declaring, “I am William Grant Still. I conduct symphonies that play Tchaikovsky and Brahms. . . .” It didn’t go over well with the students; the reaction was tepid, at best. But my teachers saw more in me than I saw in myself. They saw I was better suited to play William Grant Still, that I had a voice and public personality made for the serious side of public speaking. My teachers sensed my ambition, and they pushed me in that direction. So, in school as well as in church, I became known as a speaker on serious subjects.
During my senior year in high school, a classmate, Ethel Wardell, and I entered the state Elks oratorical contest, held that year in Macon, Georgia, and we both won first place. That was a big deal—pictures in the Atlanta Daily World, the only daily black newspaper in the country, a notice on the bulletin boards at St. Paul, and congratulations from the congregation and people in the community.
In the second semester of my freshman year at DePauw University, I won the university-wide Margaret Noble Lee Student Extemporaneous Speaking Contest. The concluding competition was held in the famed East College auditorium at Meharry Hall. I was one of the four finalists, drawn from more than 100 entrants. It was my luck to draw the shortest straw, making me the last to speak. The hall was filled to capacity and the audience, except for me and three of the other four black students at DePauw, was all white. I was confident I would win, and I did. My topic was “the Negro in America.” Some might think it odd that I chose to take on that topic in the early 1950s before an audience that was sure to be almost completely white. But it never occurred to me to be anxious about that. I was at DePauw—where I had chosen to go to college. I knew my audience. Also, because most of the whites there had no experience being friends with or even talking to any black person, the topic, though “foreign,” was of great interest to them. And I think they had respect for me and my ability to speak out.
In February of my sophomore year, I won first place in the men’s competition of the Indiana State Oratorical Contest over ten other finalists. It was the first time that a DePauw student had won since Andrew J. Beveridge, who later became a U.S. senator from Indiana, had captured first place in 1896. Later that spring, I gained third place in the interstate oratorical contest involving college students from Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, as well as Indiana.
At DePauw I religiously read the current issues of Vital Speeches, which contained many of the important speeches of the day, evaluating them as I had the words of the ministers and laypeople at St. Paul. Later, during my decade-long tenure at the Urban League, Vital Speeches would reprint several of my speeches. I also accepted every invitation from DePauw pre-theological students to speak at the rural white Methodist churches around Indiana they pastored for their “race relations day” exercises. It was a challenging experience. Often, I was the first black person many of these people had ever met, and white children would rub my skin and look at their hands to see if the color had come off. There was a great curiosity about black people and the issue of race. The audiences were always attentive and inquisitive, but I’m sure, not always in agreement with what I said. In some ways, it prepared me for the experience of the early 1970s when I began to serve on corporate boards and speak to gatherings of whites who had little contact with black people: There was the same profound curiosity and, in some instances, scarcely hidden hostility. All of these experiences at DePauw persuaded me that whatever I was going to do in life, public speaking was going to be a significant part of it.
Among the many reasons law school at Howard University was a wonderful experience was the Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel, the university’s church. During my three years at the law school, I almost never missed a Sunday service because Rankin Chapel hosted some of the greatest black preachers of the day—Vernon Johns, Benjamin E. Mays, Samuel D. Proctor, Gardner C. Taylor, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the like. Vernon Johns, who had preceded King as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, preached one Sunday on the subject, “The Vindication of the Human Experience.” He began with a discussion of the graveyard poets, those eighteenth-century English poets whose work was suffused with a preoccupation with death, and ended with an interpretation of Melville’s Moby Dick. When Vernon Johns preached, you could almost see the tumult of the scene—the roiling of the ocean, Ahab, harpoon in hand in the rowboat, ready to strike at the great white whale, Moby Dick’s malevolent eye. Such verbal portraiture made the sermon all the more memorable because it was an emotional as well as an intellectual experience. Over the last ten years, I have been privileged to speak at Rankin Chapel, where laywomen and laymen are often invited as guest speakers.
When I returned home to practice law, I was invited to be “Youth Day” speaker and “Men’s Day” speaker at various churches in Atlanta—great experience for a lawyer in the embryonic stages of his career, and it helped in the law practice. Giving those speeches was like an internship, a rehearsal for what was to come. Each time I spoke, it was a learning experience.
One of the most memorable was when, as field secretary for the NAACP in Georgia, I attended the convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in the fall of 1962 in Richmond, Virginia. Martin Luther King had formed the SCLC as a coalition of ministers to expand and strengthen the nonviolent movement throughout the South, and the group’s conferences were infused with the mix of social-gospel activism and great oratory that characterized the movement as a whole. The conference was held in the gymnasium of Virginia Union University, the historically black institution. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the Harlem congress-man and pastor of the famed Abyssinian Baptist Church, was being given SCLC’s Rosa Parks Award, so there was a huge crowd present for the event and it produced an extraordinary night of speech making. Powell was to receive the award after several of the leading ministers in the SCLC—among them Fred Shuttlesworth, C. K. Steele, C. T. Vivian, Ralph David Abernathy, Wyatt Tee Walker, and Andrew Young—spoke briefly, separated by musical interludes. Then, Adam was to say a few words, and Martin would end the program with brief remarks. I don’t remember the exact order of the speakers. What I do remember is that with each succeeding speaker, the rhetoric became more pointed, the preaching more powerful, and the audience more excited. It quickly became clear to all that something special was taking place. It hadn’t been set up to become a “preaching contest,” but that collection of orators, with such knowledge and facility with language, produced one. Adam, who was a great preacher, just blew the top off the place. It took all of Martin’s rhetorical skill and emotional power to win back the audience. For me, that evening exemplified the orator’s duty: coming prepared to do one’s best but also being able to respond to the emotion of the moment to inspire as well as educate those listening to you.
That lesson was driven home to me by an experience I had soon afterward that, in terms of trappings and glamour, was very far from the SCLC conference. I was invited to give the Emancipation Proclamation Day Speech on New Year’s Day to the Telfair County (Georgia) NAACP by its president, Alex Horne. I knew that Emancipation Proclamation Day programs in Atlanta were a very big deal. I wanted to do my best for Alex Horne, who also happened to be the foreman of Herman Talmadge’s farm in McRae, Georgia, about a three-hour drive south from Atlanta.
I wrote my speech and left Atlanta on New Year’s Eve night to begin the long drive to McRae. I first drove to Macon, eighty miles away. I rented a room at the colored motel there for $5.15, slept for a while, then got up and continued on the seventy-five additional miles to McRae. I arrived at the Horne household, where Mrs. Horne had prepared a great meal. Mr. Horne proudly showed me the printed program for the Emancipation Day activities. It was very elaborate, with the participation of several preachers, church choirs, and numerous laypeople. It was all due to begin at seven o’clock that evening.
When we got to the church, fewer than ten people were there. Alex and I were the only people listed on the program who were present. Not one preacher. Not one choir. Not one youth group. As a courtesy, they took up a collection to pay my expenses. It could not even pay for the cost of the gasoline. The church was cold because its small stove that sat beside the pews wasn’t working. I had to speak in my overcoat. But I spoke to those eight or nine people as if they were 800 or 900. I gave them everything I had because they had come to hear me, and it was my responsibility not to disappoint them. That experience brought home to me in the most poignant way that the importance of a speech ultimately lies not in whether it’s delivered before an overflow audience but that it be enriching for however many people are there. That’s all the speaker can do. That’s what the audience deserves. Since that moment, I have tried not to take any audience for granted, whether it consists of hundreds of people or just a few. That commitment has been the foundation of every speech I’ve ever made. I always think of my experience with Alex Horne and those eight or nine people as “bread cast upon the waters.”
In 1956, Martin Luther King, Jr., whom the Montgomery Bus Boycott had just thrust into the public spotlight, delivered the Emancipation Proclamation Day Speech for the Atlanta NAACP at big Bethel AME Church. In many black communities before the great civil rights victories of the mid-1960s, Emancipation Day was a profoundly important event, which encompassed within its ceremonies the whole of the black experience in America: the travails of slavery and the battle over abolition, the bitter betrayal of Reconstruction, and the purposeful determination that lost rights should be regained. The 1956 speech was the first time I heard King put into words some of the sentiments and phrases that the world would ultimately come to hear in the “I have a dream” speech he gave in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial. In 1956 it was, like so much of the black oratory of the time—whether exclusively scriptural or focused on civil rights—a work in progress. Words and phrases were tested on the audience, and eliminated or revised and refined, depending on audience reaction and the speaker’s own sense of what needed to be said. Walking out of the church that day, I remember saying to my father, “ Daddy, I’m going to make that speech one day.” Ten years later, in 1966, I did give the Emancipation Proclamation Day Speech before the Atlanta NAACP, with my family in attendance along with many of the men and women whose civil rights work I had admired for so many years. Five of my dearest mentors were in the audience, nervous and proud, because they knew it was a big moment for me: Leslie Dunbar, the executive director of the Southern Regional Council; Ruby Hurley, southeast regional director of the NAACP and my direct boss; and three great civil rights lawyers, Wiley A. Branton, Sr., my law partner and my predecessor as head of the Voter Education Project; Donald L. Hollowell, who hired me right out of law school; and A. T. Walden, my childhood hero, who for many years had been the most prominent black lawyer and civil rights advocate in Atlanta. He was old then and so physically weakened that he had to wear braces on his legs. But when I finished my speech, Walden, who had been sitting in the pulpit behind me, stood up, hobbled over to me, and said, “Son, you hit a home run.”
I knew then I was on my way.

The tragic drowning in March 1971 of Whitney M. Young, Jr., the executive director of the National Urban League, stunned the civil rights community, black America, and those white Americans who knew him as a dynamic, positive force for America. Whitney had been the league’s executive director for a decade. His combining the organization’s traditional commitment to social-service work with a substantive, highly visible involvement in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s had propelled it and him to the front ranks of America’s black leadership.
And then, suddenly, he was gone.
Whitney’s death generated a profound unease among black Americans, and not only because it meant the loss of another “soldier in the army” who had manned the front lines of the black freedom struggle. To many, it seemed another dramatic indication—the latest of a series of tragic deaths of notable public figures since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy—that something had gone terribly wrong in the American society of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The turbulence of those years was relentless: the shadow cast by the polarization over the war in Southeast Asia, the youth revolt on college campuses, the emergence of a more assertive black militancy and white resistance to it. For black Americans in particular, Whitney’s death seemed to underscore the point he and others had been asserting for years: that the welcome destruction of the most obvious barriers of racial discrimination would inaugurate a new and challenging phase of blacks’ quest to assume their rightful place in American society.
Whitney knew that the 1970s would require strategies to eliminate more subtle but still powerful barriers to black advancement that were less overtly dramatic than marches and sit-ins but no less important. Fashioning and implementing those new strategies was the task I took on when, less than three months after Whitney’s death, I was chosen to be his successor. I was the more honored at having been chosen because Whitney and I had been friends through the 1960s, and that relationship had deepened when I became head of the United Negro College Fund in 1970. We began to see each other more frequently, in part because both our organizations’ national offices were headquartered in Manhattan, housed in the office building we jointly owned. Several years earlier, Whitney had asked me to be his deputy before he withdrew the offer because, he told me, he believed I had the ability to head the organization myself and he wasn’t intending


On Sale
Oct 13, 2009
Page Count
304 pages

Vernon Jordan

About the Author

Vernon E. Jordan, Jr. is a senior managing director of Lazard Frès & Co. LLC in New York. He was previously president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League, executive director of the United Negro College Fund, Inc., and director of the Voter Education Project of the Southern Regional Council. He served as chairman of the Clinton Presidential Transition Team in 1992 and is senior counsel at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP.

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