VERNON JORDAN LOOKED aloof. His long body was erect, but at this penthouse reception for black leaders at Chicago's Hyatt Regency Hotel, he stood quietly, his movie star features frozen in a taciturn mold which he broke occasionally only to greet a guest.
Twenty-two floors below, hundreds of the faithful gathered in a ballroom, partly to hear Jordan. Inside the ballroom, Jordan was articulate but seemed frustrated. He accepted questions from the mainly working class audience who, after decades of civil rights progress, were still worried about schools, housing and jobs.The audience didn't know it then, but Jordan was soon to leave the helm of the National Urban League.
Jordan's resignation from the Urban League, about the same time that the veteran civil rights activist Roy Wilkins died, marks the end of an era
With the passing of this old civil rights guard, we are coincidentally watching the change of an era, living in a period of transition preceding an era that is undefined and in need of a coherent vision. It's been a long transition.
As long as a decade ago, at about the time that Wilkins was leaving active duty and Vernon Jordan was ascending to prominence, some black observers were saying the old civil rights methods were dead.
In the '60s, blacks had sat in and got the right to drink a cup of coffee at the local lunch counter. By the '70s, they realized that it was not enough to be able to buy a cup of coffee. They needed to own the drug store and the land on which it sat and to get more involved in the American political process. That was power.
The challenge of the '70s, as social observer Larry Neal saw it, was "to glean from the group spirit the best lessons of the past, widen our historial perceptions, and come up with a meaningful synthesis for the complex struggle ahead."
As the leadership changes, some power has been attained, but the challenge that Neal saw still exists for the '80s.
One change brought to us by the '70s is a diversity of leadership. We have and need the charismatic, bigger-than-life leaders, but we also have the corporate types, foundation heads, thousands of elected officials, and religious and community leaders.
That is progress -- that the followers are becoming leaders -- but what is missing still is that synthesis that Neal wrote of a decade ago. For what the bigger-than-life leadershave been unable to do,, is to articulate a vision that speaks to the black with a Ph.D as well as the unemployed black on the street corner.
Where are black Americans now? One indicator is an economic one. In l960, 53 percent of blacks were living in poverty, as defined by government standards. In l980, only about 31 percent of black people were poor. While the number is huge for blacks, we do have to acknowledge progress, a progress brought about by civil rights leaders.
But as the makeup of the black community has changed, too often traditional leaders have failed to get into step. Jordan's was a formidable diplomatic and public relations role, one of keeping the peace in addition to his talents as a master fundraiser. The new era with its new leadership brings with it a challenge for the leadership to get more in step with the majority of black Americans.
All this brings us to this new, changing time and to new questions. We can sit and sip our coffee at the lunch counters, but many of us still cannot buy those lunch counters. What do we do now? What is the new larger vision?
It is new perspectives, strategies and methods to deal with today's complex realities, an articulation which includes politics, economics and culture.
Many factors are beyond black control -- we don't control the economy, international relations or the energy crisis. We can't will the majority to understand the need to fulfill the promises of the Constitution.
But it is imperative that there be a vision to inspire, a direction or goal to which all can aspire..
In one sense, Jordan's departure brings into focus at least one part of the vision which needs articulating -- the economic.
Jordan's forte was fund raising. He was a master at getting money both from the government and the corporate giants. The government pot has now shrunk and the private sector can't be depended upon to take up government's slack. To avoid going backward, blacks must organize to better finance their own futures. This will call for establishing a tradition of philanthropy that will take creative, sophisticated nuts-and-bolts organizing. It might even take an economic summit.
If when Jordan steps down, his leaving prompted blacks to search for new strategies for economic power, it would be a legacy that, in spite of the last decade's risks, pain and glory, would make even Vernon Jordan smile.