It took only two misconstrued words buried in a nine page memo to President Nixon to provide the fuel for the fires of the administration’s harshest critics regarding civil rights and minorities.
The memo, sent on January 16, 1970 by Daniel P. Moynihan, Counselor to the President for Urban Affairs, stated that “the issue of race could benefit from a period of benign neglect.”

The public became aware of the phrase on March 1, 1970, after the New York Times received a leaked copy of the memo and only published portions of it.

While it was utilized extensively by President Nixon’s opposition to vilify the administration’s attitude toward minorities, the words that followed were largely ignored.

Click here to see the full memo (the term benign neglect can be seen on page 7)

In the third sentence following the pair of words, Moynihan stressed that “we may need a period in which Negro progress continues and racial rhetoric fades,” clarifying his recommendation for a period of “benign neglect.”

President Nixon addressed the controversy in his memoirs.

“It was ironic that Moynihan, who was among the strongest advocates of civil rights programs in my administration, provided the very words over which we were subsequently accused of being reactionaries…The phrase benign neglect was seized upon out of context to characterize the administration’s attitude towards blacks and other minorities. It was a term that caught on and was played back to us every time we tried to do something constructive in the civil rights area.” The Memoirs of Richard Nixon

Action over rhetoric was a practice President Nixon brought with him into the White House.

“In formulating my policies, I tried to strike a moderate balance. Inevitably I dissatisfied the people on both extremes. As I told members of my staff at one of our early meetings, “I could deliver to the Sermon on the Mount and the NAACP would criticize the rhetoric. And the diehard segregationists would criticize it on the grounds that I was being motivated solely by public pressure rather than by conscience. So let’s just tackle the problems instead of talking about them. We will be judged by what we do rather than what we say on this issue.” The Memoirs of Richard Nixon 

Robert J. Brown, Special Assistant to the President, reiterated this practice in a letter to the editor of the Washington Post on February 23, 1972, in response to an editorial which criticized President Nixon’s leadership on Civil Rights.

In the letter, Brown emphasized that the administration’s approach to Civil Rights had always been “results oriented rather than bellicose rhetoric or empty promises that seem to delight those who are not victims of injustice because of their race.”

Click here to see Letter to the Editor   

Over the course of President Nixon’s tenure in the White House, this policy was reflected by the accomplishments achieved in the area of civil rights.

These accomplishments include:

  • The expansion of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) civil rights budget from $15.842 million in 1970 to $325 million in 1972, a twenty fold increase.
  • The establishment of seven State Advisory Committees on Public Education in the South in order to help achieve peaceful desegregation in the Fall of 1970.
  • In the 11 Southern States:

–The percentage of black students attending majority white schools doubled, from 18.4% in 1968 to 38% in 1970.
–The percentage of black students attending 100% minority schools decreased from 68% in 1968 to 18.4% in 1970.

  • President Nixon’s trip to New Orleans in August 1970, which marked the first time a President had gone to the Deep South for the sole purpose of pleading for cooperation with federal officials and laws to end segregation in public schools.