Long before first black president, Nixon forged strong civil rights legacy
With President Obama now in the final year of his presidency, the discussions on the editorial pages and talk shows about his legacy will predictably increase in frequency.
Some of that discussion, especially during this Black History Month, will understandably revolve around his having been America’s first African American president and focus on his policies relating to race and race relations. That said, as the 44th president prepares to give way to the 45th, it seems like a good time to look back on the 37th president’s record on those same issues.
While President Richard Nixon’s best-known and most enduring legacy remains his historic opening of relations with China, less well-known but just as impactful, at least domestically, is how his administration championed the cause of civil rights in this country.
Perhaps most notably, in 1971, the Nixon administration developed a plan to carry out the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education to desegregate all schools in the South. It was done effectively and peacefully, without a single arrest.
Beyond compliance with Brown v. Board of Education, the great strides toward racial equality made on a wide variety of fronts on Nixon’s watch — from equal employment opportunities to the funding of historically black colleges — are well-kept secrets that the American people should know.
These modern day secrets include increasing the budget for civil rights programs. From 1969 to 1972, that funding grew from $75 million to more than $600 million.
That 700 percent increase is impressive in its own right, but is all the more remarkable when one considers that $600 million in 1972, adjusted for inflation, would be the equivalent of about $3.4 billion today.
Nixon initiated the Emergency School Aid Act with $1.5 million to help end school segregation and pay for promotion of interracial experiences among children where racial isolation existed.
The Department of Defense initiated actions to overcome off-base discrimination against black military personnel. To alleviate racial strife within the military, Nixon implemented a race-relations school, a bold concept that served as a precursor to today’s diversity programs.
Nixon issued an executive order calling on federal government agencies to apply equal-opportunity policies to every aspect of federal personnel policies and practices.
He allocated $12 million for research on sickle-cell anemia, a blood disorder that afflicts one out of every 500 black children, with the hope of decreasing that number.
On Nixon’s watch, from 1969 to 1971, the government’s federal purchases from black-owned businesses increased more than 900 percent, from $13 million to $142 million.
In 1969, Nixon issued an executive order creating an Office of Minority Business Enterprise in the Commerce Department.
The Nixon administration requested legislation to extend the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s authority to the state and local levels. Nixon mandated that federal contractors had to comply with equal employment-opportunity laws.
The latter initiative, known as “the Philadelphia Plan,” led to the dismantling of institutionalized racism in labor unions, which had excluded minorities from skilled trades. The Nixon administration was the first to institute plans to increase job opportunities for minorities in the construction industry.
Nixon did more than just order others to hire minorities. He personally set an example by appointing what was then a record number of African-Americans within the top ranks of his administration.
Nixon believed that education could be a great equalizer. To enhance equal educational opportunity in our nation’s colleges and universities, he used both the carrot and the stick: The Internal Revenue Service prohibited tax deductions for contributions to segregated schools. At the same time, from 1969 to 1973, federal aid to predominantly black colleges and universities more than doubled as a result of the administration’s efforts to level the playing field between historically black colleges and major schools.
For schools with more than 50 percent of students from families below the poverty line, the administration waived the requirement to secure matching funds to qualify for work-study grants. The waiver was a boon for black colleges and universities, and still stands today.
President Obama had turned 13 only five days before President Nixon left office in August 1974, but the bold, progressive actions his predecessor took to advance the cause of civil rights contributed mightily to the quality of life of the president-to-be and to that of tens of millions of other African Americans — indeed, to the lives of Americans of all races, creeds and religions. That’s a proud and, indeed, unknown part of Richard Nixon’s legacy.
Robert J. Brown is chairman and CEO of B&C Associates and was a special assistant to President Nixon.