Politics and Government

Federal Government

How did African-American participation in national politics improve under President Bill Clinton?

A record number of African Americans joined President Bill Clinton’s cabinet. Among such appointees were Jesse Brown, who headed the Veterans Affairs Department, and Ron Brown, who was named secretary of commerce. Clinton’s cabinet included a number of African-American women. Hazel O’Leary was named secretary of energy. When Joycelyn Elders was appointed U.S. surgeon general, she stirred considerable controversy simply by advocating the use of condoms as a means of birth control; this advocacy caused her to lose the appointment. The position of secretary of agriculture went to Michael Espy, and Rodney Slater was named secretary of transportation. After serving as director of the White House Office of Public Liaison and one of Clinton’s most trusted advisors, Alexis Herman was appointed secretary of labor. Deval Patrick, who in 2006 was elected governor of Massachusetts, headed the Civil Rights Division during Clinton’s administration.

Presidential advisors hold important positions in that they help identify key people for federal positions. Vernon E. Jordan Jr. (1935–) served President Clinton, first as chair of his transition team in 1992, when Clinton was President-elect; he was the first and only black to serve in that capacity. Although Jordan refused to accept the position of U.S. attorney general in Clinton’s administration, he helped Clinton select cabinet officers. During Clinton’s tenure, Jordan remained an advisor to the President on domestic and foreign policies and became one of the most influential voices in the Clinton administration. Since the 1960s Jordan has been a high-profile figure in America. The Atlanta-born Jordan received his bachelor’s degree from DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, and his law degree from Howard University’s law school. He moved into civil rights work immediately, serving as law clerk in the office of civil rights attorney David Hollowell in Atlanta. He was a member of Hollowell’s legal team that worked with Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Hamilton Holmes in their efforts to enroll in the all-white University of Georgia. When Hunter-Gault was finally admitted, Jordan used his body as a shield and forced a path through an angry white mob that tried to prevent her from entering the campus. From 1961 to 1963 Jordan was field secretary of the NAACP’s Georgia branch. In 1964 he joined civil rights attorney Wiley A. Branton in Little Rock, who was counsel for the “Little Rock Nine,” the group of African-American students who integrated Central High School. Jordan was also director of the Southern Regional Council’s Voter Registration Project for four years. After a stint with the U.S. Office of Equal Opportunity in Atlanta and a year as fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, he became executive director of the United Negro College Fund. In 1972 he became executive director of the National Urban League, and served until the end of 1981. Then he became partner in the law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, in its Washington, D.C., office. His book, Vernon Can Read (2001), is a memoir of his life from his early years through winter 2001, when he received the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal.


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