Art Fletcher, an Unsung Hero of the Civil Rights Movement, is More Relevant Than Ever This Black History Month
Associate Professor David Hamilton Golland writes about the life and work of an unlikely historical figure. Arthur Fletcher, the so-called father of Affirmative Action, was a Black Republican appointed by Richard Nixon as the Assistant Secretary of Labor. Dr. Golland reflects on Fletcher's achievements in the context of Black History Month 2020.
As Black History Month begins, I'd like us to take a moment to think about one of the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement, and the cause he fought for.
Those who protest affirmative action today, seeing it as an unfair quota system based on so-called "reverse racism," might be surprised to learn that the policy originated with the party of Lincoln. On June 27, 1969, just over fifty years ago, African American Republican and Nixon appointee Arthur Fletcher announced, from the steps of Liberty Hall, implementation of the Philadelphia Plan, the nation's first comprehensive affirmative action program.
For Fletcher, being a Republican went hand-in-glove with being a civil rights leader. Equal opportunity meant an increase in skilled workers through education and training. The resulting increase in personal income would lead to a more robust consumer base, benefiting the economy, and ensure that the best and brightest minds would be dedicated to our diplomatic and military assets, which would enhance national security.
Fletcher had faced discrimination throughout his life. As a soldier in World War II, he was denied a spot at officers' training school. Despite being the first Black player for the Baltimore Colts, he was denied employment as a high school football coach. Later, while leading a civil rights organization in Washington state, his efforts were stymied at every turn.
Fletcher believed that a true meritocracy was possible if the government could establish a level playing field and then simply get out of the way. He particularly admired moderate Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller (the New York governor who later served as vice president) and Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush (each of whom later served as president) for their commitment to this ideal.
After winning a city council seat in Pasco, Washington--the first African American to do so in any city of that state since the 19th Century--Fletcher ran for lieutenant governor in 1968, winning the Republican primary in every county (especially remarkable considering that members of the racist John Birch Society far outnumbered Blacks in the state party). His near miss in the general election caught the attention of Richard Nixon, who had just been elected president.
After Nixon appointed Fletcher Assistant Secretary of Labor, his first order of business was to revise and implement the Philadelphia Plan, a failed attempt by the Lyndon Johnson Administration to address segregation in building construction, where whites controlled the more lucrative skilled trades and relegated Blacks to the unskilled "trowel" trades. Some trades, like the pipefitters, included not a single Black member in many cities. Fletcher's version of the program, which he called "affirmative action," required federal contractors to integrate all employment categories--with or without support from the unions that controlled hiring--or face disqualification from future contracts. Where it was implemented, the plan worked, with most skilled trades showing more than 20% minority membership by 1973.
But President Nixon saw affirmative action as an obstacle to his own reelection. In a Northern version of the Southern Strategy, he wrote off the Black vote as permanently Democratic and appealed instead to the white "hardhats"--skilled construction workers who rioted against civil rights. Nixon fired Fletcher and reorganized the Labor Department under Peter Brennan, the bellicose leader of the New York Building Trades.
Fletcher went on to lead the United Negro College Fund, where he launched the famous motto "A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste," and later served as chairman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, where he successfully called for the Department of Justice to bring federal civil rights charges against the police officers acquitted in the Rodney King beating.
Today's opponents of affirmative action, who decry it as "reverse racism," miss the point. It doesn't mean hiring unqualified workers or admitting unprepared students, and it doesn't mean setting quotas. Arthur Fletcher knew that affirmative action is about ensuring that all applicants can compete on an equal basis--and taking the necessary steps to make that possible, from Head Start funding to inner-city training programs to restorative justice to equitable hiring goals.
That's not a Republican or a Democratic idea. It's an American idea. For fifty years we've been fighting about it. This Black History Month, let's commit, together, to finally make it work.
David Hamilton Golland is an Associate Professor of History and Coordinator of Humanities at Governors State University. He studies and writes about African American history. His second book, “A Terrible Thing to Waste: Arthur Fletcher and the Conundrum of the Black Republican,” is now available. Read his blog here.