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Arthur Allen Fletcher, “The Father of Affirmative Action”

Arthur Fletcher and President George H.W. Bush in the White House, 1990
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Arthur Allen Fletcher is known to many as the father of affirmative action.  In the following account historian David Hamilton Golland describes the career of Fletcher, a Republican civil rights activist during the last half of the 20th Century.

Arthur Allen Fletcher, known to many as the father of affirmative action, was born on December 22, 1924, in Phoenix, Arizona. Little is known of Fletcher’s birth father, but his mother, Edna, soon married Buffalo Soldier Andrew Fletcher, who would eventually adopt Arthur. The family moved from one Army base to another for much of Arthur’s childhood before finally settling in Junction City, Kansas.

Fletcher graduated from Junction City High School in 1943, after leading a protest against the school yearbook which placed the photos of black students in a separate section in the back of the publication.  Fletcher in his senior year organized a boycott of the segregated yearbook and the following year the practice was permanently dropped.  

While at Junction City High Fletcher met Mary Harden, a daughter of one of the local black community's wealthiest families.  Harden's grandparents had owned much of the land that eventually became Fort Riley.  They married in May 1943 just as he graduated.  Within a year their daughter Phyllis was born, followed by Sylvia (1945), Arthur, Jr. (1947), Paul (1948), and Philip (1949).

Fletcher joined the U.S. Army immediately upon graduation from high school and in the Spring of 1944 was sent to England, where he performed in one of many Army bands and played intramural football. In the fall of 1944 he was a military police officer on the “Red Ball Express” supply line in France.  The following spring Fletcher was wounded while serving in Germany in General George Patton’s Third Army.  He recovered and was discharged later that year.

Returning to Kansas after the war, Fletcher enrolled in Washburn University in Topeka on the G.I. Bill.  While at Washburn he was a doorman at the state legislature and a waiter at the Jayhawk Hotel, a popular gathering spot for politicians.  Fletcher also participated in local meetings in support of the black community’s anti-segregation case against the Topeka School Board which eventually became known as Brown v. Board of Education.  Fletcher was more than just a concerned black parent; he was most interested in the political side of the civil rights movement.

Fletcher, who had lettered in football and track in high school, also became a star player on the Washburn football team.  After his graduation in 1950 he was recruited to play defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams in their summer exhibition season.  That fall he became the first black player for the Baltimore Colts. The original Colts franchise folded after the 1950 season, and Fletcher then played with the Hamilton Tigers in the Canadian Football League where he remained a second string player.

Fletcher's professional football career ended in 1954 and he returned to Topeka again just in time to campaign among black voters for liberal Republican gubernatorial candidate Fred Hall. Fletcher had met Hall during his college years when the GOP candidate was a young Ford County attorney. Hall won the governor's race and appointed Fletcher deputy highway commissioner. With the construction of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System in full swing across the state, Fletcher, by his own admission, used his position to further his financial interests, including a talent booking agency and used car lot.

In 1956 Hall's reelection effort ended when he was defeated in the GOP primary.  With Republicans deeply divided, George Docking became the first Democratic governor in the state since 1939.  Hall again campaigned for governor in 1958 and again lost in the GOP primary.  As Kansas Republicans were becoming increasingly more conservative, Hall, who supported civil rights and opposed "right to work" legislation, seemed out of step with his party.  

After his 1958 defeat Hall left Kansas for California where he took a job with Aerojet General in Sacramento.  Fletcher, who now found difficulty getting employment commensurate with his college degree, decided in 1959 to join Hall in Sacramento where the former governor had arranged a job with Aerojet.   

The Fletcher family drove west along Route 66 and experienced an inkling of their future. On the journey most restaurants refused service to black customers, and Mary, who could pass for white, brought food out to her hungry family who were hunkered down in the seats to avoid detection. After they arrived in Sacramento the family was forced to move three times in less than a year because of threatening phone calls, vandalism, and intimidation of the children by racist neighbors.  With each move, Fletcher's commute to Aerojet grew longer, and finally he had to quit his job.

In the summer of 1960 the family moved to Berkeley where Fletcher took a job with Goodyear Tire, volunteered for the Nixon-Lodge presidential campaign, and, by the end of September, was offered a job as a teacher at Berkeley High School.

Mary Fletcher, however, was having a nervous breakdown. Forced to leave her comfortable life in Kansas and facing disappointment after disappointment, she checked herself into the psychiatric ward of the Napa State Hospital. She was put on experimental psychotropic drugs, and given weekend furloughs. It was on one of these furloughs in early October that she committed suicide, jumping off the San Francisco Bay Bridge after learning that her husband's job offer at Berkeley High School had been rescinded when the principal had learned of his political background and labeled him a “troublemaker.”

By 1961, Arthur Fletcher was a single parent of five who was barely able to make rent and often hid from his landlord in the Berkeley ghetto.  Yet while living in this squalor, Fletcher resolved to use his political talents to help impoverished African Americans.  Unlike most black politicians of that era, however, Fletcher believed that self-help programs and black economic development were the principal paths toward African American empowerment.  

In 1962 Fletcher took a job as a teacher in an inner-city special needs program in Berkeley.  He also turned to politics and for the first time ran for office.  After chairing a local school-bond initiative, Fletcher won the Republican primary for California State Assembly District 17, a mostly black area that included North Oakland and South Berkeley.  Fletcher did surprisingly well in the race, for a Berkeley Republican, garnering 25% of the vote in a losing bid to Democratic incumbent W. Byron Rumford (who had held the seat since 1948).

Fletcher was convinced he had a future in politics as a Republican, but not in Berkeley, which had already become a liberal Democratic stronghold.  He also looked for an arena where his self-help ideas could be put in place.  That opportunity came in 1965 when he was hired to direct Higher Horizons, an anti-poverty project of the Pasco, Washington YMCA which was funded by the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity.  Shortly before he was hired, Fletcher met and married Bernyce Hassan, a divorced mother with one child, Joan.  The newly blended Fletcher family moved to Washington State.

Higher Horizons, the brainchild of white liberal scientists at the Hanford Atomic Energy Facility and African American leaders of predominately black East Pasco, was founded to train black workers so that they could take higher skilled jobs at better wages.  On April 12, 1965, when Fletcher became director, he announced an ambitious program that would assist pre-school age and in-school youngsters adjust to school, help high school dropouts with on-the-job training, and improve the East Pasco neighborhood with a beautification program. In coordination with the local Columbia Basin Community College, he developed a skills bank, essentially a list of qualified East Pasco residents, which could be used in referrals to local jobs.  He also secured an $86,000 federal War-on-Poverty grant for the program.

In the late 1960s Pasco, a town of 14,000 in the southeastern Washington desert, was stunningly similar to much larger American cities.  Due to World War II-era black migration to the region to build the Hanford atomic energy facility, Pasco, at 10% black, would have the highest percentage of African Americans in the state in 1970.  While the first generation easily found work in the area, their children often remained jobless.  Moreover, virtually all of the black residents in the Tri-Cities (Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco) were relegated to a segregated and isolated ghetto in East Pasco.  High unemployment and related problems of crime, poverty, and racism, especially in the police department, left Pasco ripe for the sort of racial violence then plaguing Cleveland, Newark, Detroit, and most famously the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Fletcher, however, was resolved to help Pasco avoid such a conflagration. When funding for Higher Horizons was pulled after only one year in operation, Fletcher founded the East Pasco Self-Help Cooperative to keep local anti-poverty efforts alive.  In 1967 he ran for Pasco City Council to bring the concerns of East Pasco to the attention of the entire community.  Fletcher won his first, and only, election victory, breaking yet another color barrier that year when he and Sam Smith of Seattle became the first black city council members in Washington in the 20th century.

Fletcher's high profile, a rare black Republican who ran an anti-poverty agency and won election in a town with a small black population, drew the attention of Washington Governor Dan Evans.  Like Fred Hall, Evans was a liberal Republican and thus Fletcher envisioned the creation of a similar political alliance. Evans saw Fletcher as the type of political leader who could bridge racial differences at a time of high local and national racial tensions. Governor Evans endorsed Fletcher in the 1968 Republican primary for lieutenant governor (which he won) and the general election (which he lost). While in Berkeley, Fletcher’s political obstacle had been his party affiliation, but in Washington State it was his race. Every other Republican on the statewide slate was elected, but Washington voters in 1968 were not yet ready to elect the nation’s first black lieutenant governor since Reconstruction.

Still, Fletcher’s connection with Governor Evans paid off in another way. Given a chance to speak at the Republican National Convention that year in Miami, Fletcher promoted his self-help theories to an audience eager to win back the black vote which had so dramatically abandoned the party in 1964 when Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater headed the ticket.  Fletcher's ideas earned him the respect and admiration of Richard Nixon, who was now once again the Republican nominee for president, and was seeking a civil rights agenda which would correspond with the party’s corporate ethos. When Nixon won in 1968, he appointed Fletcher Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employment Standards. With responsibility for the wage and hour regulations for a national workforce of over 80 million people and supervision of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance, Fletcher now had the power to revoke federal contracts and debar contractors from bidding on future work. On June 27, 1969, Fletcher implemented the Revised Philadelphia Plan, the nation’s first federal affirmative action program, which required federal contractors to meet specified goals in minority hiring for skilled jobs in the notoriously segregated construction industry.

Arthur Fletcher served as Assistant Secretary of Labor for two years, his affirmative action programs eventually earning him so much enmity among the leaders of the skilled construction unions that he was forced to resign. President Nixon gave him a brief assignment on the United Nations delegation under Ambassador George H.W. Bush, which began the friendship that would take Fletcher’s political career to even greater heights. Fletcher then took over the United Negro College Fund in 1973 where he helped coin the phrase “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” He served as Deputy White House Advisor in the Gerald Ford administration and in 1978 ran a surprisingly strong campaign for mayor of Washington, D.C., winning more than 25% of the vote in an overwhelmingly Democratic city.  

Fletcher had major qualms about serving in the administration of Ronald Reagan. He supported George Bush in the primaries and worked hard to get the black contingent at the 1980 convention to support Bush as Reagan’s running-mate (they unanimously did). When Reagan offered Fletcher chairmanship of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, he demurred, as it was already becoming clear through the activities of Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights William Reynolds that the Reagan administration would do even less for the cause of civil rights than that of Richard Nixon. (The appointment subsequently went to Clarence Thomas.) He did take on a minor role for Reagan, accepting appointment to the Pennsylvania Avenue Redevelopment Commission.

The year 1989 saw the inauguration of Fletcher’s friend George Bush as president.  The following year the new president appointed Fletcher chairman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR). Here Fletcher again proved that his first loyalty was to the cause of civil rights rather than Republican political goals. Early in his tenure on the commission, President Bush vetoed the Civil Rights Bill of 1990 and then subsequently signed virtually the same bill in 1991. Throughout this process Fletcher was unsparing in his criticism of his friend’s administration and yet lobbied to get Bush to change his stance. In 1995 Fletcher resigned from the USCCR and ran a brief campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, primarily to protest the party’s turn from the cause of civil rights and specifically in opposition to frontrunner (and eventual nominee) Bob Dole’s public disowning of affirmative action, Fletcher’s signature policy contribution.

Arthur Allen Fletcher died in Washington, D.C., in 2005. His life, like the civil rights movement from which he took inspiration and in which he exercised leadership, was one of ambition for goals mostly unmet. A perpetual outsider, he remained a black politician struggling in a political party increasingly antithetical to his causes and a western civil rights activist in a movement dominated by Southern leaders.  It was, ironically, his insider’s skills which made him so different from most other black leaders of his time. Inculcated at an early age with a sense of duty and loyalty required in both the military and team sports, Fletcher never abandoned the party which ultimately abandoned him.

Sources:

Department of Labor Records at the National Archives, College Park, Maryland; NAACP records at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; The Nixon Papers then at the National Archives in College Park but now at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, Yorba Linda, California; David Hamilton Golland, Constructing Affirmative Action: the Struggle for Equal Employment Opportunity (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2011); Mark Peterson, “The Kansas Roots of Arthur Allen Fletcher,” Kansas History (forthcoming).

Contributor(s):

Governors State University

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