Magazine article Ebony

A Message to Americans: Civil Rights Commission Chief Leads Crusade for Racial Harmony

Magazine article Ebony

A Message to Americans: Civil Rights Commission Chief Leads Crusade for Racial Harmony

Article excerpt

ARTHUR Fletcher remembers the exact moment it happened and the exact words she said. Though he doubts any of the three U.S. presidents he's advised know it, that moment--and those words--are the reason they've sought his counsel and the reason he's chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission today.

Before it happened he was a gang leader, a self-described "tough" roaming the streets of L.A. with a good hustle and a bad attitude.

And then the great Black leader Mary McLeod Bethune visited Fletcher's school. Though he was only in the seventh grade, he has never been the same. In fact, more than half a century later, the Phoenix-born chairman still remembers every detail of the day Bethune took the stage at Douglass Junior/Senior High School, Oklahoma City and spoke the words that foreshadowed his life's work.

"She said, 'I am as Black as the ace of spades and anything but beautiful, yet I have been summoned to the White House to advise presidents . . . I know that I am talking to someone in this auditorium who is going to grow up and advise a president of the United States, too,' recalls Fletcher. 'And I came here to tell them what to tell the president when they get there.' And what she told us was: 'Always carry a brief for Black folks. Tell him when you get there that we Negroes, individually and collectively can be of great value to this nation.'"

Looking back now, Arthur Fletcher says, "At the time I was a D-plus/C-minus student but when she spoke, her spiritual electricity held me in the palm of her hands and I got excited and thought, wouldn't it be great if I was the person carrying that message?"

Fifty-three years later, it is Fletcher.

He has counseled every Republican president in the last two decades. He was assistant secretary of labor for President Nixon and deputy assistant for urban affairs for President Ford. And though he turned down President Reagan's offer to come on board as his special assistant when his condition of direct access wasn't guaranteed, Fletcher says he provided his counsel to the chief executive nonetheless. "I advised him; he just didn't take my advice," says the 66-year-old lifelong Republican who infuriated the party's conservative right wing when he called Reagan "the worst president for civil rights in this century."

That directness, that call-it-like-he-sees-it candor, is a major reason right-wing stalwarts bridled when President Bush appointed him chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Since he assumed the post in February 1990, Fletcher has proven to be a thorn in the collective side of the conservative right. Against the wishes and advice of some of the most powerful people in Washington and the White House, Fletcher counseled the president not to veto the civil rights bill--this year's or last.

"I thought that was pulling the rug out from under a dream that I had for him--not for me--to go down in history as a great president because he solved the critical problem of the day. And whether people want to deal with it or not, in America the critical problem of the day is racism," says Fletcher, clearly stung by the administration's success last year in dismissing the legislation as a quota bill.

His sign-the-civil-rights-bill advice, however, was just the start of his campaign to force America to deal with its racial problems. Not long ago, the former pro football player who broke the color barrier on the Baltimore Colts set off a storm of controversy when he publicly called America "a racist nation" with the worst climate for civil rights in 40 years. …

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