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January 8, 2003
How a Republican Desegregated the South's Schools
ALO ALTO, Calif. The Republican Party's commitment to equality of opportunity has come under question in recent weeks, particularly its determination to deal effectively with racial segregation. That's lamentable, for there is a laudable story to tell about the modern Republican Party and the efforts of a Republican president to ensure equal opportunity for all Americans.
In 1970, seven states Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina continued to enforce the dual school system. This was in clear defiance of the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, which declared dual school systems to be unconstitutional. It was also in defiance of a 1969 court decision ordering an end to further delay.
If it's possible to imagine, the subject of desegregation was becoming more inflamed by the day. In March 1970, President Richard M. Nixon decided to take action. He declared Brown to be "right in both constitutional and human terms" and expressed his intention to enforce the law. He also put in place a process to carry out the court's mandate. Vice President Spiro T. Agnew and I (then secretary of labor) were asked to lead a cabinet committee to manage the transition to desegregated schools.
The vice president said he wanted no part of this effort. So I became its de facto chairman, with help from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a counselor to the president, and Leonard Garment, one of the president's lawyers. With the president's support, we formed biracial committees in each of the seven states. The idea was to reach out to key leaders. Many were reluctant to serve, the whites fearing too close an association with desegregation, the blacks concerned that the committee might be a sham.
The first group to come to Washington was from Mississippi. We met in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, across the hall from the Oval Office. The discussion was civil, but deep divisions were evident. I let them argue for a while. Then, by prearrangement, I had John Mitchell, the attorney general, drop by. He was known in the South as a tough guy, and on the whole was regarded by whites as sympathetic to their cause. I asked Mitchell what he planned to do about the schools. "I am attorney general, and I will enforce the law," he growled in his gruff, pipe-smoking way. He offered no judgments about whether this was good, bad or indifferent. "I will enforce the law," he repeated. With that, he left.
I then addressed the group. "This discussion has been intense and revealing, but you can see that it's not really relevant," I told them. "The fact is, desegregation is going to happen, whether you like it or not. You have a great stake in seeing that this effort is managed in a reasonable way." Gradually, the discussion shifted to more operational issues.
When lunchtime arrived, I took the group to the diplomatic reception rooms in the State Department, taking pains to point out to them the desk on which Thomas Jefferson wrote parts of the Declaration of Independence. I sat with the two people I wanted to lead the Mississippi advisory committee: Warren Hood, president of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, and Dr. Gilbert Mason, a black physician and head of the Biloxi chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. I argued that if they would accept, the committee would have great credibility with whites and blacks.
I could see they were beginning to talk constructively to each other, so I left them alone. As lunch ended, I was pleased to see them shaking hands. We were in business.
After we returned to the White House, members of the delegation started to make suggestions about how to handle various problems. I mentioned that we had created a small kitty out of Department of Health, Education and Welfare funds if they had minor expenditures, I could provide some money quickly. That seemed to help.
When the time was right, I let President Nixon know that we were ready for him. We walked across the hall into the Oval Office, where the president gathered his guests around his desk. "We live in a great democracy where authority and responsibility are shared," I remember him saying. "Just as decisions are made here in this office, decisions are made throughout the states and communities of our country. You are leaders in those communities and you have to step up to your responsibilities. " They left the Oval Office inspired.
Over the next two months, we went through much the same process with representatives of five other states. The committees were coming together. They were talking about practical issues, like how to open the schools without violence.
The last state was Louisiana. It was August and the schools would soon be opening. Our meetings had been going so well that I suggested to the president that we hold the final one in New Orleans. I would do my part in the morning. He would fly down from Washington and do his part around noon. Then we would invite the co-chairmen from the seven states to join the president for an overall discussion of the school openings.
I remember the meeting in the Oval Office to discuss these proposed events. Vice President Agnew warned the president not to go. There you will be in that room, Mr. President, I recall him saying. Half the people there will be black; half will be white. Pictures will be taken. When the schools open, there will be blood running through the streets of the South, and if you go, this will be blood on your hands. This is not your issue. This is the issue of the liberals who have pushed for desegregation. Stay away.
The president looked at me. I told him what was obvious: I can't predict what will happen. The vice president may very well be right about violence, but you're the president of the whole country. We should do everything we can to see that the schools open and operate peacefully and well.
The president decided to go ahead.
The meeting with the Louisiana group began early on Aug. 14, 1970. The going was tougher than with any other delegation. It's one thing to gather across from the Oval Office and it's another thing to sit around a table in a hotel meeting room. The president was due to arrive about noon, but as the time drew near, I had not reached the level of agreement that I wanted. "The president has just landed," came word from the Secret Service. "The president is 10 minutes out." We took a break. I went to meet the president, the vice president's views in the back of my mind. "Mr. President," I told him, "I haven't got this group there yet. I'm afraid you're going to have to finish the job."
The president came in. He listened. He talked. He emphasized the importance of having the schools open peacefully. If there were problems, children would suffer.
That afternoon we met with the co-chairmen from the seven states. Everyone was on board. At the end of the meeting, the president went before the television cameras. From the heart of the South, he spoke forcefully about his determination to enforce the law, and the importance of community involvement.
"One of the most encouraging experiences that I have had since taking office was to hear each one of these leaders from the Southern states speak honestly about the problems, not glossing over the fact that there were very grave problems," he said. "As a result of these advisory committees being set up, we are going to find that in many districts the transition will be orderly and peaceful, whereas otherwise it could have been the other way."
In the end, the school openings were peaceful, to the amazement of almost everyone. I was not the only one impressed.
In "One of Us: Richard Nixon and the American Dream," Tom Wicker, a former columnist for The Times, assessed the president's efforts. "There's no doubt about it the Nixon administration accomplished more in 1970 to desegregate Southern school systems than had been done in the 16 previous years, or probably since," he wrote. "There's no doubt either that it was Richard Nixon personally who conceived, orchestrated and led the administration's desegregation effort. Halting and uncertain before he finally asserted strong control, that effort resulted in probably the outstanding domestic achievement of his administration."
I believe he was absolutely right.
George P. Shultz, secretary of state from 1982 to 1989, is a distinguished fellow at the Hoover Institution.