by: Marceline Donaldson
It is a harsh experience to have so many friends leaving this earth and so quickly one behind the other.
Vernon Jordan is someone I have not seen nor spoken to for years. Although I have thought about him often as the memories of working together on a civil rights action comes back to mind.
Somehow, we think life goes on forever and we will all be close on earth to meet again tomorrow, or the day after.
I knew Vernon Jordan from sometimes in the 1960’s in just a passing kind of way to smile and say hello.
In the early 1970’s I got to know him much better because NOW (National Organization for Woman) and the National Urban League came together to sponsor a boycott against General Mills.
I was on the NOW National Board at the time and wound up chairing the boycott.
Esther Kaw, from Minneapolis developed a beautiful booklet which described the life of a young black girl from birth through college in terms of the General Mills products she would have used and/or her parents would have used for her. She and Roberta Petit developed that booklet and more so those who agreed with what we were doing had postcards to send to the company expressing their feelings and additional materials with which they could pledge to not use General Mills products.
NOW decided, along with the National Urban League, to bring forward this boycott given the many people who called us and told us their story interacting with General Mills in the process of trying to get a job and more.
In the early to mid-1970’s there were almost no African Americans working at General Mills, especially in management and marketing, and very few in the hourly wage areas. We won’t even talk about the make-up of their board of directors.
The women who worked there were in the General Mills kitchens or in the secretarial pool.
The material on the boycott can be seen through contacting Amistad in New Orleans, LA. where all of the papers we could collect on that history are stored and available to researchers, et al. If you have papers relevant to that action, we would appreciate your sending them to Amistad in care of Christopher Harter.
Vernon Jordan was head of the National Urban League at the time and we talked and met several times trying to put together and keep all of us moving along following a mutually agreed upon plan.
The last time I saw Vernon to talk for any length of time was at a meeting at General Mills which their president and CEO called to see if we couldn’t meet to resolve and end the boycott. The boycott was very successful and caused much stress with General Mills as well as with another company whose name was similar and who was getting some flack from those calling and writing to them to express themselves thinking they were contacting General Mills to express their grievances. The company ‘accidentally’ involved was beginning to lose business and they were super concerned that the loss didn’t continue and become exponentially larger.
That meeting, with Urban League people and NOW people who worked together on the boycott as the guiding committee was held at General Mills in their board room. It was an example of how I saw Vernon Jordan through the years and how, I think, he saw himself.
We were all assembled, waiting for Vernon to arrive – his plane was late. The Urban League people involved on this planning level along with the NOW people were sitting at a very large table all on one side. On the other side of the table sat the top General Mills Executives. I don’t remember all of them, but I do remember the CEO and President since I interacted with them at meetings of the Minneapolis Urban Coalition.
After a bit, Vernon arrived and literally took a seat. Vernon reached for a chair alongside the wall, drew it up to the table in the middle on the side with the General Mills Executives. Vernon in the middle with two or three executives on either side. As Vernon drew his chair up to the table the General Mills executives seeing where he was going very graciously moved their chairs so there would be room for Vernon’s chair in the middle.
Having been incorrigible since birth I couldn’t stifle a laugh and then couldn’t stop laughing. A frown from Mr. Jordan helped me gather myself back together.
After the meeting, taking Vernon to the airport, we talked about that meeting and, of course, he wanted to know what was so funny. I had to tell him what came to mind when he entered and took ‘his’ seat. The picture, very commonplace which we all know – no matter our religion – was the picture of Jesus and his disciples at the last supper.
I don’t know why that image came to mind, but when it did the laughter started again.
From that time on I watched Vernon Jordan move from one step on the ladder to the next higher and he did it with such aplomb. There were missteps along the way, but he was always able to dust off that misstep on the ladder and keep moving on up.
I’ve told that story many times. Didn’t ever think in that process I would be writing it as a memory on the occasion of Vernon Jordans death to remember his life, the work he did and the example he set for African American achievement .
Vernon, may you find joy, happiness and so much more as you wander around heaven getting used to your new surroundings. Hope you also have a brief time with the General Mills executives with whom you met that day and helped to bring about more opportunity for women and minorities.
amen and amen!