Affirmative Action Pioneer Advised GOP Presidents

Arthur Fletcher, speaking last year in Annapolis during 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, coined the phrase
Arthur Fletcher, speaking last year in Annapolis during 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, coined the phrase "A mind is a terrible thing to waste." (By Matt Houston -- Associated Press)
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 14, 2005

Arthur Fletcher, 80, a maverick Republican who proudly laid claim to the title "the father of affirmative action" and who advised four Republican presidents and headed the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in the 1990s, died of a heart attack Tuesday at his home in the District.

Fletcher served as secretary of labor in the Nixon administration; as deputy assistant for urban affairs in the Ford administration; was an adviser in the Reagan administration; and was chairman of the Civil Rights Commission, from 1990 to 1993, during the first Bush administration.

As an assistant labor secretary in the late 1960s, Fletcher devised a plan that required federal construction workers in Philadelphia to set goals for hiring minorities and to make a "good-faith effort" to meet the goals or face sanctions. The plan became a model for affirmative action programs.

"I'm proud to say I set the stage for today's workplace and workforce diversity efforts," he told Fortune magazine in 2000. "Affirmative action changed the American workplace for the better, forever."

When the U.S. Supreme Court heard a University of Michigan affirmative action case in 2003, he warned that opponents of affirmative action were "trying to demonize the term."

Fletcher first got involved in Republican Party politics as vice chairman of the Kansas Republican Party in the mid-1950s. He considered himself a member of the party of Abraham Lincoln, and he believed it was vital for blacks to be active and influential in the two major parties.

"He felt that if he was inside the Republican Party, he could fight for civil rights laws and regulations that had been traditionally supported by the party," said son Paul Fletcher of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who is a politically active Republican. "He didn't have to buy the party line, hook, line and sinker, but he was the only voice on the inside."

He never hesitated to speak his mind about fellow Republicans. Although he was an adviser to President Ronald Reagan, he called Reagan "the worst president for civil rights in this century." And while chairman of the Civil Rights Commission, he blasted President George H.W. Bush for labeling civil rights legislation as a quota bill.

Fletcher decided to run for the presidency in 1996 after Sen. Robert J. Dole, the Republican nominee, repudiated affirmative action.

"My party has designed a top-down strategy, which says the wealthy, the rich, the affluent belong to this party," he said in 1995 in announcing his White House bid. "It's time to stop that and say there's room for anybody who wants to participate in the Republican Party."

Arthur Allen Fletcher was born in Phoenix. His father was a career military man, and Fletcher lived in Arizona, California, Oklahoma and Kansas as a child and graduated from high school in Junction City, Kan.

In a 1991 Ebony magazine article, he recalled the exact moment he decided to dedicate his life to civil rights. He was in the seventh grade, in Oklahoma City, when civil rights pioneer Mary McLeod Bethune spoke to his school. He recalled her saying: "I am as black as the ace of spades and anything but beautiful, yet I have been summoned to the White House to advise presidents. . . . I know that I am talking to someone in this auditorium who is going to grow up and advise a president of the United States, too."

Fletcher, taking to heart Bethune's admonition to "always carry a brief for black folks," vowed to be that person. He organized his first protest in high school, when he discovered that photographs of African American students would be relegated to the back of the yearbook.

He enlisted in the Army after high school and was wounded while fighting in a tank division under General George C. Patton. Fletcher was awarded a Purple Heart.

He graduated from Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., in 1950 and received a law degree from Chicago's LaSalle Extension University.

He was a 6-foot-4 defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams, and became the first black player for the Baltimore Colts in 1954.

He moved to California in 1957 and worked for Aerojet-General Corp. in Sacramento, and taught elementary school in Berkeley. In 1967, he moved to Washington state to take a job with the Hanford atomic energy facility. He lost a 1968 campaign for Washington lieutenant governor by less than 1 percent of the vote. He was a special assistant to Washington Gov. Daniel J. Evans in 1968-69 before being appointed assistant secretary of wage and labor standards by President Richard M. Nixon in 1969.

Fletcher became executive director of the United Negro College Fund in 1972. While with that organization, he coined the phrase, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste."

He returned to government service in 1976, when President Gerald R. Ford appointed him deputy urban affairs adviser. He was president of Arthur A. Fletcher and Associates, a consulting firm, from 1973 to 1989.

In 1978, he challenged Marion Barry as the Republican candidate for mayor despite the District's minuscule number of registered Republican voters.

Fletcher supported the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. He said he believed that Thomas was aware that he had benefited from the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision and from affirmative action. He told the Boston Globe that Thomas was "fortunate enough to ride them both all the way to the top."

In recent years, Fletcher made speeches across the country on equal rights and the benefits of affirmative action, and wrote articles for Ebony and other publications. He served as chairman of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.

His son Arthur Fletcher Jr. died in 1973; his son Phillip Fletcher died in 1989; and his daughter Phyllis Fletcher died in 1990.

Survivors include his wife of 40 years, Bernyce Hassan-Fletcher of Washington; three children, Joan Fletcher of Washington, Sylvia Fletcher of Sacramento and Paul Fletcher of Fort Lauderdale; 16 grandchildren; 17 great-grandchildren; and two great-great-grandchildren.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company