Like its author Vernon Jordan, the former civil rights leader turned capable businessman and lawyer, the memoir Vernon Can Read! is candid, worldly, controversial and distinctively smart. Co-written with Annette Gordon-Reed, author of the popular biography Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, the book examines the life of Jordan from his youth in an Atlanta housing project through his glory years as head of one of the most enduring civil rights organizations, the National Urban League.

In a surprising admission, Jordan dismisses the much-publicized accounts of his rags-to-riches life as a fabrication of the media, noting that he "was never in rags." A voracious reader, he attended DePauw University and Howard University's Law School. While Jordan's account of his salad days in college and his early years as a lawyer are poignant, the book really picks up steam during his recollections of historic civil rights campaigns, during which he served as a member of the legal team that desegregated the University of Georgia in 1961.

In bold terms, Jordan discusses the emotional and legal obstacles of life under Jim Crow, and the importance of church and spirituality in his survival as a black man. As an observer of the times, he does more than just drop names; his insights reveal much about key figures of the 1960s and '70s like Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Jesse Jackson and Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Carter. Jordan's account of the 1980 assassination attempt that left him close to death is gripping and dramatic. He ends the book in that decade with a promise to continue in a future volume.

For all of his achievements, there is a modesty about Jordan, who often seems astonished by the demands and quirks of public life. "One of the strangest parts of being in the public eye is that people who don't know you believe they know you," he writes. Vernon Can Read! may not answer all of the many questions the public has about President Clinton's "First Friend," but the book goes a long way toward illuminating his essence and character. This is a marvelous memoir by a man who knows what to tell and how to tell it.

Robert Fleming, author of The African American Writers Handbook, writes from New York City.

 

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