Arthur Fletcher, 'Godfather' of Affirmative Action

Karen Grigsby Bates remembers the life and legacy of Arthur Fletcher, a Republican presidential advisor who was also an early booster of affirmative action. Fletcher died Tuesday at age 80.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

You may not know the name Arthur Fletcher, but you probably know a term he was responsible for entering in the American lexicon, and that's `affirmative action.' Fletcher died yesterday. DAY TO DAY's Karen Grigsby Bates has this appreciation.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

At a time when the words `black' and `Republican' were almost mutually exclusive, Arthur Fletcher was proudly both. The son of a career Army officer, Fletcher decided social justice was going to be his life's goal after hearing activist Mary McLeod Bethune speak at his junior high school. He went on to serve in World War II. After the war, he attended college on the GI Bill, then played for the Baltimore Colts and Los Angeles Rams before beginning his political career.

That started when he helped elect a liberal Republican Kansas governor. Fletcher was rewarded with an appointment to the State Highway Commission. During his tenure, Fletcher says he realized the importance of an integrated work force, as he recalls in this 1995 "Morning Edition" interview.

(Soundbite of 1995 "Morning Edition" broadcast)

Mr. ARTHUR FLETCHER (Republican Presidential Adviser): So I'm saying in my approach that this is the first time--in fact, I called it America's new beginning--this is the first time that this country has had to depend on a work force that's going to be dominated by other than white males. Now we need to understand that that's the only work force we have to develop, that's the only we work force we have to educate, train. That's the one that will carry us into the 21st century, and that's the one that will sustain us as a superpower.

BATES: Fletcher's vision for a workplace in which all Americans could hope to compete was in sync with his Democratic counterparts. The Johnson administration had considered something called the revised Philadelphia plan in the mid-'60s. It was a proposal to try to racially balance that city's work force, but it never happened. NAACP Chair Julian Bond says Fletcher was able to convince the next president to apply affirmative action in hiring and promotion nationally.

Mr. JULIAN BOND (Chairman, NAACP): When Nixon came in, Art Fletcher revived this plan and made it the Nixon plan and got President Nixon to buy into it and strongly support it; he did it. And Fletcher really is the father of affirmative action enforcement.

BATES: In recent years, as tensions between much of black America and the Republican Party continued to escalate, Fletcher insisted on speaking out for the need to continue affirmative action, even as many Republicans were publicly speaking of ending the practice. In his "Morning Edition" interview, Fletcher remembers getting a different message in private from some of his Republican colleagues.

(Soundbite of 1995 "Morning Edition" broadcast)

Mr. FLETCHER: Off the record, they're saying to me, `Art, keep doing it. We appreciate what you're doing.' And they're saying to me that there's a mean element in the Republican Party, and they're afraid that if they're not checked, that they will cause the Republican Party just to self-destruct.

BATES: Julian Bond says Fletcher is an impressive example for anyone of any political affiliation who's interested in serving America.

Mr. BOND: Well, here's a guy who had a success as a football player, and unlike many who go into the liquor business or the car business or now more and more go into politics, he went into public service. He served in the Ford administration, the Nixon administration, was appointed by those two presidents and President Bush to the Commission on Civil Rights. He believed strongly in public service; he didn't always seek private profit. And I think that's a lesson for today's young people and older people, for that matter.

BATES: Arthur Fletcher died at a Washington hospital yesterday. He was 80 years old. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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