According to The Washington Post, Clifford Alexander Jr., the first Black Secretary of the United States Army, has joined the ancestors.
Mr. Alexander was born September 21, 1933, the son of a Jamaican immigrant turned housing development manager and a Harlem community leader. His mother would make history in 1943 as the first Black woman to become a Democratic rep for the electoral college from New York. Despite his affluent upbringing, Alexander was destined to carve out his own lane, earning a scholarship to the Ethical Culture Fieldston private school before graduating from Harvard in 1955 and then Yale Law School in 1958. In 1959, he married his wife Adele Logan and the two had two children, poet and president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Elizabeth Alexander, who was recently named one of TIME’s 100 most influential people, and brother Mark Alexander, the first Black dean of Villanova University.
Alexander took to various mentors in academia who showed him the ropes, becoming the first Black student-body president at Harvard and coming to Washington, D.C. in 1963 at the recommendation of former Harvard dean McGeorge Bundy, who served as national security adviser under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. It was his work that was critical to establishing the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, Alexander eventually becoming Lyndon B. Johnson’s personal civil rights consultant.
In 1967, Alexander was named chairman of the EEOC which was created under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While the organization couldn’t mandate legal action, it could make recommendations based on thorough investigations into employment discrimination regarding race or religion. Alexander, who was the third chairman and first Black official to serve in the role, jumped in head first, launching investigations into the textile, drug industries, utility companies and labor unions, making a case for the sparse number of minorities in the white collar positions of corporations.
In 1969, Alexander testified at a congressional hearing about the discrimination in Hollywood against Black people and Mexican Americans, Senate Minority Leader lambasting what he called harassment of employers who were giving opportunities to “hundreds of Negroes.” While Alexander stood his ground and remained unchanged in his position, the Nixon administration buckled under the pressure, announcing they would be appointing a Republican chairman. Alexander then resigned, noting a “crippling lack of administration support” and a Justice Department that refused to respond to “his requests for help enforcing racial discrimination.”
Edward C. Sylvestor, the first director of the Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance, spoke about Alexander’s trailblazing efforts at the time, saying, “[he] gave the commission some life and the legislation some meaning. He grabbed the only thing they had at the time, which was the right to hold hearings, and he did an extraordinary job.”
After his exodus from government, Alexander then made history as the first Black partner at the prestigious D.C. law firm Arnold & Porter. There, he worked on breaking down racial barriers wherever he could. He practiced corporate and discrimination law, recruiting new employees from Howard University’s law school while also hosting a syndicated public affairs show entitled “Cliff Alexander: Black on White.” In 1974, he ran for DC mayor right after the city gained home rule, focusing on his civil rights and public service record. His opponent was the District’s presidentially appointed mayor-commissioner, Walter E. Washington who ultimately took home the win, although Alexander gained 47 percent of the vote. He would continue his legal work up until 1977 when President Jimmy Carter appointed him to Army secretary, making history as the first Black civilian leader of a U.S. military branch.
In his role, Alexander navigated various treaties regarding the Panama Canal, the unconditional pardoning of those who avoided the Vietnam War draft, while advocating for an increase in soldier pay and the military budget post-war. During that time, the Army was majority African American and it was Alexander who noted the dismal list of nonwhite or women candidates promoted to general. He ordered the review board to take a second look with specific instructions to search for “any factors that may have held back performance ratings of any candidates.” On the updated list, Alexander found a Vietnam veteran who ranked second in his class at the Command and General Staff College named Colin L. Powell.
Alexander would continue his pioneering work in government until Ronald Reagan became president in 1981. He then founded a consulting firm, Alexander & Associates, advising corporate entities on minority recruiting, including Major League Baseball. In 2013, he moved to Manhattan. Over the course of his life, Alexander served on a number of corporate boards and published commentaries as well as spoke before congressional panels on behalf of opportunities for African Americans in the public and private sectors.
“White America continues to paint pictures of Black America that determine our opportunities. You see us as less than you are. You think that we are not as smart, not as energetic, not as well suited to supervise you as you are to supervise us…And yes, if you see a Black man, you think that you had better cross the street before something bad happens to you,” Alexander told a 1991 Senate panel.
In a 1999 essay to the NY Times, Alexander continued his crusade, speaking about the “persistent underrepresentation and misrepresentation of minorities on television.”
“[I] would like to be hopeful, but history teaches us that skepticism rather than optimism is the order of the day,” wrote Alexander.
Mr. Alexander passed away on July 3 at his home in Manhattan. He was 88 years old.
Thank you for all of your contributions, Mr. Alexander. Because of you, we can!
This article was originally posted on BOTWC