Insights from the Oval Office: Taking the Helm on Desegregation
A document directed to the Staff Secretary from Bryce Harlow outlines the details of a meeting held in the Oval Office by President Nixon. The meeting also included the Attorney General, Bob Finch, and Ed Morgan, and made clear the position held by President Nixon regarding the desegregation of schools.
Point one of the outline shows President Nixon’s commitment to immediate action. That the process of desegregation should be completed “now rather than later”, and that action on the part of the administration should not hinge on the elections of 1972.
In point two President Nixon makes a controversial, and far-sighted, statement regarding student quotas.
“There are no votes for the Nixon Administration in any of this. Integration is wrong in terms of quotas, and the country will turn back from the current posture later on.”
At the time this meeting was held one of the methods being imposed for the purposes of desegregation was to racially balance schools through use of quotas. In this statement President Nixon shows his opposition to this policy, a policy that reduced students to mere numbers in a system. That a President should take a stand and say that integration, a word so in vogue during the civil rights era of the late 60’s and early 70’s, was in any way wrong shows us a president committed to an issue over votes. His prediction would prove true, and racial quotas would begin to take a back seat in the following decades.
The third point shows the President’s position regarding the stringent measures imposed by the courts.
“The Court has given us such a severe requirement that we ought not to go one step beyond what the courts absolutely require…”
One of the defining characteristics of the Administration was President Nixon’s determination to only fulfill the minimum requirement of federal intervention in school desegregation. Parents the country over were outraged that the government was taking steps to in any way interfere with the education of their children, and that children were in some instances required by the courts to be bussed across county lines only fueled this resentment. At the same time that tumultuous court orders were being decried by some, others were demanding even faster and stronger policies. Some groups demanded immediate integration, and believed that the country could not move too fast in the direction of total integration. This report shows us Nixon’s position; that he would favor a smooth and gradual approach to the harsh and immediate shock.
The fourth point of the report shows President Nixon’s commitment to gradualism and modesty. The administration, he contended, should implement desegregation while keeping a low profile, and any ‘bragging’ on their part would meet with hostility in the South, while winning nothing in the North.
The report concludes with President Nixon’s request to get in contact with sympathetic Southern statesmen. Democratic congressmen had presented alleged abuses that had occurred during desegregation. President Nixon here seeks to verify the claims, giving Southern Congressmen the opportunity to present any instances of mismanagement on the part of federal officials. Here the President shows us his willingness to police his own government, and lend an ear to those suffering under any government mismanagement.