Alexander, Clifford 1933–
Clifford Alexander 1933–
Government official, attorney
One of the first African Americans to rise to the highest levels of the United States government, Clifford L. Alexander served in a succession of presidential administrations during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. A top advisor to President Lyndon Johnson, he became the head of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, supervising governmental antidiscrimination efforts just as the civil rights movement was moving into high gear. The culmination of his career was his service as Secretary of the Army during the administration of President Jimmy Carter. Since leaving government service, he has remained active as a supporter of equal opportunity for African Americans.
Clifford Leopold Alexander was born on September 3, 1933, in New York City; his father was Jamaican by birth, and his mother came from the industrial New York suburb of Yonkers. Alexander’s administrative savvy might have been inherited from his father, who served as manager at a YMCA branch in the family’s Harlem neighborhood, and also worked as a bank manager. From his mother, he gained instincts for survival in political bureaucracies: she worked for New York City’s welfare department for a time, served on a mayoral commission that worked to improve race relations in New York following World War II-era unrest, and finally became the first African American woman to serve as a Democratic representative in the electoral college, the group of state delegations whose voting formalizes the results of the U.S. presidential election every four years.
Educational ambition ran strong in the family, and Alexander attended some of New York’s top private schools: the Ethical Cultural School and the Fieldston School. He graduated from the latter and won admission to Harvard University. As a student at Harvard, Alexander was elected student body president. He was the first African American to hold the post. A talented basketball player, Alexander considered a professional career in the sport. However, the academic contacts he made at Harvard exerted a stronger hold on him. Alexander particularly impressed McGeorge Bundy, at the time a Harvard dean, and later a Washington insider who became one of the architects of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict.
Graduating with honors from Harvard in 1955, Alexander enrolled at the equally strenuous Yale Law School. Although he held a job with the Mutual Life
Born September 21, 1933, in New York, NY; married to Adele; children: Elizabeth, Mark Clifford. Education: Harvard University, B.A., 1955; Yale University Law School, law degree, 1958. Military service: U.S. National Guard, 1958-59.
Career: Management consultant and former government official; became assistant district attorney, New York, 1959; executive director, Manhattanville-Hamil-ton-Grangeneighborhood agency, 1961-63; executive director, HARYOU youth agency, 1962-63; Nation-alSecurity Agency staff member, 1963-64; special assistant and deputy counsel to PresidentLyndon Johnson, 1964-67; chairman, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 1967-69; practiced with prominent Washington law firms, 1969-76; Secretary of the Army during the Carter administration, 1977-81; president, Alexander & Associates, 1981-.
Awards: Frederick Douglass Award, 1970; Outstanding Civilian Service Award, Department of the Army, 1980; Distinguished Public Service Award, Department of Defense, 1981.
Addresses: Office— Alexander & Associates, 400 C. St. NE, Washington, DC 20002.
Insurance firm on the side, he was able to graduate from Yale Law School in only three years. Alexander enlisted in the National Guard in 1958, completed a six-month tour of active duty the following year, and returned to New York to resume his legal career. His first job after leaving the military was as an assistant district attorney for New York County (Manhattan), a position that is often used as a stepping stone to higher political ambitions.
Not yet out of his twenties and newly married to fellow Fieldston student Adele Logan, Alexander quickly moved into high-level positions in the public sector. In 1961 he became executive director of a city housing agency, the Manhattanville-Hamilton-Grange Neighborhood Conservation District. Responsible for enforcing city codes relating to apartment dwellings, Alexander oversaw the correction of more than 3,000 violations during his nine months in office. In 1962, he took a job as executive director of Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited.
Alexander’s work in these agencies attracted the attention of top officials in the administration of President John F. Kennedy, who was seeking to increase the very small number of African Americans serving in national government posts. After obtaining a job at the National Security Agency in 1963, Alexander reported to Bundy. Among his duties, he was required to monitor the increasingly worrisome reports coming in from diplomats and intelligence officials about the escalation of the fighting in Vietnam. Following President Kennedy’s assassination, Alexander was appointed as deputy special assistant to President Lyndon Johnson.
In the wake of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington and the widespread attempts to dismantle the system of institutionalized segregation in the southern states, civil rights became an important national issue. Alexander became one of Johnson’s closest advisors on civil rights issues. He helped shepherd the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through Congress, and often bore the brunt of President Johnson’s temperamental nature. “Johnson certainly knew how to make you feel fully responsible for what he perceived to be your negligence,” Alexander recalled in a 1995 American Visions memoir. As associate (later deputy) special counsel to the President, Alexander proved to be an effective advocate for other African American who were seeking governmental jobs.
Alexander’s work for Johnson was rewarded in 1967 when he was named chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC). As one of the agencies that took the lead in enforcing new federal anti-discrimination statutes, the EEOC grew dramatically during Alexander’s tenure, and launched investigations of hiring practices within major industries. By Alexander’s own estimation, the EEOC assisted 70,000 individuals, in comparison to 5,000 individuals assisted under the previous regime. Among the large corporations questioned about their hiring practices were the three major television networks of the day, NBC, CBS, and ABC. Network officials assured Alexander that their programming would strive to portray minority characters in a more favorable, less stereotypical manner.
Shortly after Republicans took control of the White House following the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, Alexander resigned as chairman of the EEOC. He accused the Nixon administration of failing to support the commission’s goals, left the EEOC permanently, and returned to his private law practice in Washington. Alexander remained interested in Democratic politics and, in 1974, ran an unsuccessful campaign for mayor of Washington D.C. against veteran politician Walter Washington. He also worked as a Washington-area television talk show host during this period.
When the Democrats regained the White House in 1977, President Jimmy Carter named Alexander as Secretary of the Army. In this role, Alexander guided the largest branch of the nation’s armed forces as it made a critical transition to an all-volunteer force. He was also responsible for managing a budget of 34 billion. Alexander served as Secretary of the Army until President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981.
Like other government officials who had held high office, Alexander could have rested on his laurels and made a comfortable living as a Washington attorney or lobbyist. Instead, he began a new career as a consultant, and used his influence to continue furthering the goal of equality in employment which he had championed for much of his adult life. In 1981 he founded Alexander and Associates, which devoted its efforts to advising companies on how to increase minority hiring. Alexander’s most famous client was major league baseball, where African Americans have be traditionally underrepresented in management and administration roles.
In latter stages of his career, Alexander has emerged as an important spokesman for progressive ideals in matters of race. “You [whites] see us as less than you are,” he declared bluntly in testimony before the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee concerning the status of African American men in American society. Quoted in the New York Times, Alexander went on to say that “[y]ou think that we are not as smart, not as energetic, not as well suited to supervise you as you are to supervise us.” In a 1999 essay in the New York Times, Alexander wrote about the hearings being held concerning the underrepresen-tation of minorities in television. Looking back on the hearings he himself had conducted in the late 1960s, he noted that the situation of minorities in television was “depressingly familiar,” and sadly concluded that “history teaches us that skepticism rather than optimism is the order of the day.”
Hawkins, Walter L., African American Biographies: Profiles of 558 Current Men and Women, McFar-land and Company, 1992.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Men, Gale, 1999.
American Visions, February 1995, p. 42.
New York Times, May 22, 1991, p. D23; August 18,
1999, p. A25.
Washington Post, May 22, 1997, p. A25.
—James M. Manheim