In Memoriam: Arthur Fletcher

(I noticed this in passing at Dr. Mark Byron’s blog earlier this week)

Civil rights activist and affirmative action pioneer Arthur Fletcher passed away in Washington, D.C. this week at the age of 80. Fletcher was a prominent political figure in his day. During a long and varied career, he served as assistant secretary of labor under Richard Nixon, deputy assistant for urban affairs under Gerald Ford, chairman of the United Negro College Fund in the 1970s, chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in the 1990s, a professional football player, and at various times a political candidate: for Washington state lieutenant governor in 1968, for Washington, D.C. mayor in 1978, and for president in 1996. At the department of labor, he established one of the nation’s first affirmative action-style programs, encouraging federal construction workers in Philadelphia to set goals for hiring minorities and make a “good faith effort” to meet them or face government sanction. At the United Negro College Fund in the 1970s, he coined the well-known phrase “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste.”

Arthur Fletcher was also a registered Republican. That seems out-of-sorts in today’s political climate, but as Mark Byron notes, Fletcher was of a generation that remembered when the Party of Lincoln meant something and when Jim Crow was a registered Democrat. These days, Republican candidates average about 11 percent of the African American vote in national elections, though often higher in state and local races. No GOP presidential contender has cracked 20 percent of the African American vote since Richard Nixon in 1960. That was a fascinating race by itself: Dwight Eisenhower had had some luck throughout the 1950s in reversing the black exodus to the Democratic party that got its start in the New Deal. If Nixon had embraced Ike’s progressive record record on race—a record some historians consider equal to or better than Kennedy’s—he may have been able to maintain those gains and capture the White House in 1960 rather than 1968. But as I argued in one of my MA papers at the University of Maryland, which looked at the 1960 race through the eyes of black media, Nixon could never decide whether he wanted to be a moderate Yankee Republican or make a play for the South shades of his future “Southern Strategy.” He ended up doing neither and losing all of Eisenhower’s gains back to the Democrats and then some. Follow that with Goldwater’s vote against the Civil Rights Act and subsequent candidacy in 1964, and you’ve got the Democrats locking in a majority of the African American vote for more than a generation now.

But Arthur Fletcher’s political ambitions arose in the earlier age of comparative parity between the two parties with regards to race. Fletcher and like-minded Republican African Americans—including baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson—were of the mindset that the campaign for African American equality could be best advanced by pressuring both parties rather than hitching their fortunes to just one. Robinson endorsed and campaigned for Nixon in 1960 based on the Eisenhower civil rights record (which, after Nixon’s southern turn in 1968, Robinson said he regretted). I was gratified to read in the Post obituary that Fletcher’s son Paul is of the same mindset and is an active Republican politico in Florida.

Arthur Fletcher’s position on affirmative action would have made him anathema in the modern GOP, but I doubt that he would have minded very much. I’m sure he would “carry a brief” for the African American community regardless. And for what it’s worth, I think he was right when he asserted that blacks would be best served as political free agents, advocating their cause to whomever would given them an audience, rather than locking into one party or another. It’s unfortunate that our political climate has instead virtually polarized on racial lines, not really serving anybody.

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