When Clifford Alexander, Jr., the first Black secretary of the Army, died Sunday at 88, he left behind several important examples and lessons for business leaders to follow. Alexander was an advisor to President Lyndon B. Johnson and chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC].
“Perhaps the major challenge during my time in office [as chairman of the EEOC] was getting employers to understand how much more needed to be done to give women their fair share of employment opportunities,” Alexander once recalled.
The Washington Post noted that “Guided by powerful mentors in academia, law and government, Mr. Alexander was the first Black student-body president at Harvard University, the first Black partner at the elite Washington law firm Arnold & Porter and spent his career seeking to shatter racial boundaries with statesmanlike calm. He seemed destined for elective office but lost a close race for D.C. mayor in 1974, shortly after the city won home rule.”
Alexander recounted to Military History the resistance and bias he encountered as Army secretary. “I remember what I considered a racist cartoon in Army Times. I think there were some who resisted me because I was the Black secretary of the Army. And on some occasions in front of Congress I thought that the questions were aimed more at me because of my color than according to my skill set. But that was a fact of the day, and I did my best to do my job—and just say, ‘The hell with you!’ If it was based on something else.”
Taking A Stand
In 2009, Alexander called on President Barack Obama and Congress to repeal the Pentagon’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. In an interview with Democracy Now, he said “The policy is an absurdity and borderline on being an obscenity. What it does is cause people to ask of themselves that they lie to themselves, that they pretend to be something that they are not.
“There is no empirical evidence that would indicate that it affects military cohesion. There is a lot of evidence to say that the biases of the past have been layered onto the United States Army.”
The policy was abolished in 2011.