Guided by powerful mentors in academia, law and government, Mr. Alexander was the first Black student-body president at Harvard University, the first Black partner at the elite Washington law firm Arnold & Porter and spent his career seeking to shatter racial boundaries with statesmanlike calm. He seemed destined for elective office but lost a close race for D.C. mayor in 1974, shortly after the city won home rule.
Mr. Alexander came to Washington in 1963 on the recommendation of McGeorge Bundy, a former Harvard dean who served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations as national security adviser. Mr. Alexander helped shepherd the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 and became Lyndon B. Johnson’s personal consultant on civil rights before he became EEOC chairman in 1967.
The EEOC, created under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, had no mandate for legal action but could make recommendations based on its investigations of employment discrimination aimed at racial and religious minorities. Mr. Alexander was the third chairman and first Black official to hold the post.
He immediately launched investigations into the textile and drug industries as well as utility companies and labor unions, and demonstrated the minuscule numbers of minorities in the white-collar ranks of major corporations.
At a congressional hearing in March 1969, Mr. Alexander testified about rampant discrimination against Blacks and Mexican Americans in Hollywood. Senate Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen (R-Ill.) called the hearing “a carnival” and lambasted the EEOC for using its power to target an industry that had “given employment to hundreds of Negroes.”
“We didn’t intend for the work-givers of this nation — business and industry — to be harassed,” Dirksen said.
Mr. Alexander was unflappable in his response. “It’s important that the law be enforced,” he said, adding that the harassment of African Americans far exceeded that of business executives.
Irked, the veteran lawmaker replied that “this punitive harassment has got to stop, or I’ll go to the highest authority in this government to get somebody fired.”
Shortly thereafter, the Nixon administration announced its intention to install a Republican commission chairman. Mr. Alexander resigned, citing a “crippling lack of administration support” and a Justice Department unresponsive to his requests for help in enforcing racial discrimination. EEOC member William H. Brown III, also African American, succeeded him.
Edward C. Sylvester, an African American who became the first director of the Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance, told The Washington Post at the time that Mr. Alexander “gave the commission some life and the legislation some meaning. He grabbed the only thing they had at the time, which was the right to hold hearings, and he did an extraordinary job.”
After leaving government, Mr. Alexander joined Arnold & Porter, where he practiced corporate and discrimination law and recruited new hires from Howard University’s law school. He also hosted a syndicated TV public affairs show, “Cliff Alexander: Black on White.”
In his mayoral race, his opponent in the Democratic primary was Walter E. Washington, the District’s presidentially appointed mayor-commissioner since 1967 and the first Black chief executive of a major U.S. city. Mr. Alexander, who had worked on a home rule bill when he served under Johnson, ran on his civil rights and public service records and garnered 47 percent of the vote, but Washington bested him and became the first directly elected mayor of the city in more than a century.
Mr. Alexander returned to legal work until President Jimmy Carter tapped him in 1977 as Army secretary. His military experience was scant — he had served briefly as a private after law school — but his appointment as the first Black civilian head of a U.S. military branch was hailed as a milestone.
He took charge of the Army at a politically sensitive time, with treaties returning control of the Panama Canal to the Panamanian government and the unconditional pardoning of Vietnam War draft dodgers. In the aftermath of the war, Mr. Alexander defended increases in soldier pay and the military budget. “This is a quality Army,” he told Ebony magazine at the time. “They work hard — often on lonely, sometimes foreign fields. They take their training and their missions seriously.”
At a time when the Army was disproportionately African American, he was dismayed by a list of candidates for promotion to general that included few women or nonwhites.
He sent the list back to the review board, with a special instruction to look for “any factors that may have held back performance ratings of any candidates,” Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page reported. On the updated list that was returned to him, Mr. Alexander said, was a Vietnam veteran who had been second in his class at the Command and General Staff College: Colin L. Powell.
Clifford Leopold Alexander Jr. was born in Manhattan on Sept. 21, 1933, to a middle-class family. His father, a Jamaican immigrant, worked in building management and eventually oversaw the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.’s Riverton housing development in Manhattan.
His mother was a Harlem community leader who became executive director of Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia’s Committee on Unity, formed after race-related riots in 1943. Five years later, she was the first Black woman selected as a Democratic representative to the electoral college from New York.
His parents surrounded their only child with accomplished family friends — including one of the first Black judges in New York City — and imbued him with abundant self-confidence. Once, he recalled, when a doorman asked his parents to use a servants’ entrance rather than the main entrance to a building, “My mother raised all kinds of Cain and straightened him out pretty quick.”
Mr. Alexander earned a scholarship to the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a private school in New York. He graduated from Harvard in 1955 and from Yale Law School in 1958.
He spent his early career in Manhattan as an assistant district attorney under Frank S. Hogan; as leader of a neighborhood agency that enforced city housing codes; and was executive director of psychologist and educator Kenneth B. Clark’s Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited program to improve schools and reduce dropout rates.
In 1959, he married Adele Logan, a Fieldston and Radcliffe College graduate. In addition to his wife, who taught history at George Washington University, survivors include two children, Elizabeth Alexander of Manhattan, a poet who chaired Yale’s African American studies department and is now president of the arts-supporting Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Mark Alexander, who became the first Black dean of Villanova University law school, of Radnor, Pa.; and seven grandchildren.
Mr. Alexander left government when Ronald Reagan became president in 1981. He then founded Alexander & Associates, a consulting firm in Washington that advised entities including Major League Baseball on minority recruiting, and served on corporate boards. He moved to Manhattan from the District in 2013.
In published commentaries and before congressional panels, he spoke out with increasing forcefulness against what he regarded as the glacial improvement in opportunities for African Americans in the public and private sections in Washington, New York and Hollywood.
In 1991, he told a Senate panel that racial prejudice pervaded every part of American life, including TV shows and clubby boardrooms. Government was no exception, he said, adding that he was speaking to “the most prestigious segregated body in America — the United States Senate.”
“White America continues to paint pictures of Black America that determine our opportunities,” he said. “You see us as less than you are. You think that we are not as smart, not as energetic, not as well suited to supervise you as you are to supervise us. … And yes, if you see a Black man, you think that you had better cross the street before something bad happens to you.”
In a 1999 essay in the New York Times about the persistent underrepresentation and misrepresentation of minorities on television, he wrote that, decades after he left the EEOC, he “would like to be hopeful, but history teaches us that skepticism rather than optimism is the order of the day.”
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