Media's Take on the News 1-1-03 to 3-11-03

Media's Take on the News

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....

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.