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November 4, 2001, Sunday

The Will to Rise

By Roy Reed

A Memoir.
By Vernon E. Jordan Jr.
with Annette Gordon-Reed.
Illustrated. 344 pp. New York:
PublicAffairs. $26.

IF the racist who shot him in the back in 1980 had killed him, Vernon E. Jordan Jr. would be remembered as a genteel and effective civil rights leader and little more. But thanks to good surgeons and to Jordan's will to live, and not just live but go on climbing, ''Vernon Can Read!'' is the story of a black Southerner one generation removed from rural poverty thrusting himself up not only to help lead a great social movement but then to claw his way into the establishment. Unfortunately, the book stops just as his old friend Bill Clinton is elected president. Perhaps there will be another volume someday when Jordan feels ready to tell how a couple of good old boys made it to the top and what they did there.

The present memoir, written with Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor at New York University Law School, by necessity is more than a success story. It is also a recollection of the pain suffered and the bravery asserted by so many black Americans -- and more than a handful of white Americans -- in the struggle for political and economic equality. Jordan did not become a truly national figure until he was made executive director of the National Urban League in 1971. But before that he had earned the right to leadership. As a young lawyer, he walked through the mob with Charlayne Hunter to integrate the University of Georgia. He drove the lonely Southern roads at night to sign up members for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and to register black voters in precincts where either activity could get a black man lynched, and often did.

Through it all, there was a powerful personal ambition. An intriguing part of his story is its similarity to that of countless white boys of the lower middle class who came of age in the same scorned South, boys with proud, driven mothers who had pushed themselves and their children out of an utterly unromantic farm life and into the cities. Jordan's parents had fled the farmsteads for a better life in Atlanta. His father found satisfaction in a steady job at the post office. His mother, anything but satisfied cooking every day for white families, built a catering business that made her a figure of prominence in Atlanta's burgeoning black business community. She passed on her ambition. Before young Vernon left high school, he was a go-getter: chauffeuring, waiting tables, even a little nickel-and-dime bootlegging while working at a country club in a dry county.

Back in Atlanta after DePauw and Howard Universities, he sped through a succession of jobs in the civil rights movement and the federal government, before long finding himself appointed to influential government and then business boards. He was a natural choice to lead the one civil rights organization that had always been more reserved than flamboyant, more interested in economic advancement than in street demonstrations for basic rights.

When his luck almost ran out, it was not on a lonely back road in the South but at the door of a hotel in Fort Wayne, Ind., on May 29, 1980. He had just got out of the car of a white woman -- one of his board members -- when a bullet from a hunting rifle just missed severing his spinal cord. Jordan learned later that his assailant had intended to kill Jesse Jackson in Chicago but had settled on Jordan because Jackson was out of town. The man was acquitted on a dicey federal charge after the state decided not to try him. He was later convicted and sentenced to death for murdering two other black men.

Even before then, Jordan had decided to move out and up. He became a partner in the law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld in 1981, expanded his high-level corporate contacts and, one supposes, became very rich. He doesn't say. In fact, he has little to say about the private Vernon Jordan. He writes movingly about the death of his first wife from multiple sclerosis and a few other family events. But this is largely a public history. It is mildly refreshing to have a memoirist tell us that he is ''congenitally private'' and that some things are none of our business.

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