Vernon Jordan on Whitney Young Jr.: One Visionary Warrior Pays Tribute to Another

Marc H. Morial President and CEO National Urban League

This Saturday, July 31st, we remember and celebrate Whitney Moore Young, Jr., on the centennial of his birth. Young served at the helm of the National Urban League during the turbulent decade from 1961 to 1971, overseeing the greatest expansion of scope and mission our organization has seen in more than a century. As the activism of the Civil Rights Movement expanded from the courts to mass-action non-violent demonstrations in the streets of both southern and northern communities, Young forcefully and publicly projected the League’s tenets of social work and civil rights as never before.

During our Equal Opportunity Dinner in November of 2019, the National Urban League honored three other former leaders — Vernon Jordan, John Jacob and Hugh Price – with the “Visionary Warriors” award for their years of unwavering leadership. Vernon Jordan, due to illness, was unable to attend, but shared prepared remarks in which he paid tribute to Whitney Young. We lost Jordan in March of this year. In honor of these giants of civil rights, we commemorate Young’s centennial year by sharing Jordan’s tribute.

Good evening. It is an honor to be here, to be alongside two great leaders of the Urban League, my successor John Jacob, and his successor, Hugh Price. Of course, I, too, was a successor. And so tonight I’d like to thank my predecessor, the great Whitney Young, for this award – and dedicate it to him.

You see, I would not be here without Whitney. He was my mentor and guardian, my inspiration and dear friend. And for about as long as I knew him, he was trying to recruit me for the Urban League. I remember many years ago, in 1966, he gave me a ride from LaGuardia Airport and asked me to come work for him. But I was not ready to leave the South.

A few years later, in 1969, he asked me about becoming his deputy – and then rescinded the offer! He said I was more suited to a different job – one he was not ready to vacate anytime soon. And not long after that, when I was offered the job as the Executive Director of the United Negro College Fund, I sought out his wise counsel. And he encouraged me to accept. So I moved to Manhattan, into the office just below his, and soon he became my greatest advisor and ally in this city, showing me the way forward as only he could.

I learned so much from him. His loss was tragic, and his impact was tremendous. Of course, his impact was not limited to me alone. In his near decade of leadership, he transformed the Urban League and had a profound impact. He was the original “Visionary” for this institution – imagining what it would be and could become for Black people in this country. And he pushed that vision closer to reality. He also was an original “Warrior,” a soldier in the army for civil rights … alongside so many whom we still celebrate and others we have nearly forgotten.

And he set the standard for what it means to combine the two – to be a “voice for the voiceless,” and to fight tirelessly towards a vision of equality. Indeed, 48 years ago, almost to the day, at my first Equal Opportunity Day Dinner, as the designated Executive Director, I reflected on the incredible impact of Whitney Young. And I will say tonight what I said then, because it remains true, almost half a century later: “Whitney has left us the instrumentality for change, an agency with a proven record of effectiveness, a vehicle with the blueprint for getting the job done.

Thus, we have a charge to keep, a constituency to serve, a people to lead.” I am grateful to John and Hugh and Marc for being such stewards of the Urban League of this living legacy of Whitney Young. And today, its work would not be more vital – for families and communities across the country. We still have our charge to keep, our constituency to serve, our people to lead. And we must continue to live by Whitney’s example.

So, before I go, perhaps even more than this award, I want to thank Whitney for the honor of a lifetime – the best job I’ve ever had. It has been an honor to be a soldier in Whitney’s army, a warrior for a vision we must all keep fighting for.
Thank you.

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