Arthur Allen Fletcher was the most important civil rights leader you’ve probably never heard of.
The Baltimore Colts’ first black player, father of affirmative action and advisor to four presidents, he coined the motto of the United Negro College Fund: “A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste.” Elected to the Pasco City Council in 1967 after leading a war on poverty initiative in East Pasco, he lost a close race for lieutenant governor the following year but won the Republican primary in every county.
His life represents the triumph, tragedy, and enigma of the postwar black Republican. In 1946, when he returned home to Kansas after World War II, the Republican Party was “Lincoln’s Party.” His 1960 presidential platform was stronger on civil rights than the Democrats. But Nixon’s southern strategy has routinely alienated black voters, even when candidates like Ronald Reagan have used coded racist language to appeal to white southerners and white working-class northerners. While Fletcher could triumphantly implement affirmative action at the start of the Nixon administration, his ability to promote civil rights politics tragically eroded over the following decades.
Today, African Americans who are center-right on issues other than race relations face a dilemma: support Democrats with whom they agree on civil rights or stick with a Republican party they have moved away. As an intelligent, principled, civil rights Republican, Fletcher’s story represents the great “could have been” of the Grand Old Party.
As Undersecretary of Labor in the Nixon administration, Fletcher implemented the “Philadelphia Plan”, the first national affirmative action initiative. He later served as chairman of the Civil Rights Commission in the first Bush administration.
His life story reads like a corollary to the major events of the second half of the century: he was wounded during World War II in Europe and advised the legal team in Brown v. Board of Education. He had a tumultuous run for Lieutenant Governor of Washington as part of Dan Evans’ “Action Team.” Later he shouted at the Soviet representative at the United Nations; faced Marion Barry in the first open election for mayor of Washington, D.C.; and led the federal response to the Rodney King Uprising.
Remarkably, his most significant accomplishments came after he was banned from Kansas politics in 1958 and the subsequent suicide of his first wife. Although punctuated with tragedy, Arthur Fletcher lived a life of inspiration.
In celebration of Black History Month, the Columbia Basin Badger Club is proud to present a forum, “Art Fletcher: Father of Affirmative Action” on February 17 at noon via Zoom. Speakers will be David Hamilton Goland, biographer of Fletcher; Sam Reed, former Secretary of State of Washington; and Nat Jackson, who continued the work of the Pasco self-help community action group that Fletcher started.
Participants can write questions to the speakers during the Zoom session and speak directly with them afterward during the club’s half-hour “Table Talk” open mic session for those viewing the forum. There is no fee for Badger Club members. Non-members pay $5. Register on www.columbiabasinbadgers.com.
David Hamilton Golland is a professor of history at Governor’s State University in suburban Chicago and the author of several books, including “A Terrible Thing to Waste: Art Fletcher and the Conundrum of the Black Republican Party.” He is the editor of the Arthur Fletcher Papers at Washburn University. The 250,000-page collection of the Affirmative Action Father’s personal and organizational records was digitized in 2014.
This story was originally published February 14, 2022 5:18 p.m.