The night Vernon Jordan was shot was like many other nights in his life: a long way from home, he was cheering the troops with his charm and vigor, firing off yet another speech about unkept promises and neglected social issues.

"The balanced budget is just a fig leaf to cover an all-out attack on poor people and working people," he told the Fort Wayne, Ind., Urban League Wednesday night. "The policy of cutting social programs reinforces inequality."

It was a message that this veteran of the civil rights wars has never tired of delivering, as he has criss-crossed the country dozens of times in his capacity as president of the National Urban League.

From a boyhood spent partly in a public housing project in Atlanta, Jordan rose through the ranks of the city's civil rights organization to become one of the movement's senior spokesmen on the national scene.

Smooth-talking, cautious and lawyerly, occasionally arrogant, Jordan, 44, is known for his movie-star looks as well as his political sophistication. Candidates and their surrogates came courting -- as both Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Rosalynn Carter did at the Urban League's recent annual conference. Jordan's $100 million organization -- with 100 affiliates, 25,000 volunteers and 3,000 professional workers -- is a powerful constituency.

"He's been successful at melding concern for social programs with the need to involve establishment America, large corporations, wealthy scions of large industrial families," said Drew Days III, assistant attorney general for civil rights.

"He's reasonable, articulate and he realizes that the ultimate solution to problems of racial discrimination comes not only from victims but from members of powerful institutions," Days said.

Jordan's resume is studded with corporate directorships -- Bankers Trust Co., Celanese Corp., M.I.T. Corp, J. C. Penney Co., Xerox Corp. -- and foundation directorships -- the John Hay Whitney Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation. He has received honorary degrees from 23 universities, including Brandeis, Duke, Howard and Yale.

"I like talking to presidents, senators, chief executive officers and foundation heads, and because I spend a lot of time out in the local communities, I can tell them what people are thinking," Jordan told an interviewer three years ago.

"I see myself as one whose job it is to tell a story, to tell it accurately, and to influence and bring about some change."

Jordan has frequently criticized President Carter for not doing enough for blacks, but he once said that despite the criticism he thought Carter would always feel welcome at Jordan's home for "chicken and conversation."

The son of a postal supervisor and a caterer, Jordan moved from the public housing project as a child to what he later called "the little white dream house with green shutters that everyone aspires to."

His youth in segregated Atlanta was spent in the company of doctors, lawyers and college presidents. After attending DePauw University and Howard law school, he returned to Atlanta to practice law.

First as Georgia field director for the NAACP and then as head of the Southern Regional Council's Voter Education Project, he became -- along with Andrew Young, Maynard Jackson and Julian Bond -- part of the Atlanta Mafia of young black leaders. He served as director of the United Egtro College Fund, and took charge of the National Urban League in 1972.

Jordan lives in Manhattan with his wife, Shirley. They have a daughter, Vickee, in college.

Moving easily between New York's social circles and Washington's political ones, Jordan lives a life far removed from the dusty, bloody struggle at lunch counters and bus stations.

"We have to understand that the 1970s are different from the 1960s," he has said. "It takes one ind of leadership to go over the bridge at Selma and another kind of skill to analyze the welfare reform package. We've gotten more sophisticated."