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 break down racial lines with statesmen. calm. He seemed destined for elective office, but lost a close race for DC mayor in 1974, shortly after the city won the Home Rule.
Mr. Alexander came to Washington in 1963 on the recommendation of McGeorge Bundy, a former Harvard dean who served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations as a national security adviser. Mr. Alexander helped spearhead the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 and became Lyndon B. Johnson’s personal civil rights consultant before becoming EEOC President in 1967.
The EEOC, created under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, had no legal action mandate but could make recommendations based on its investigations into employment discrimination targeting racial minorities and nuns. Mr. Alexander was the third president and the first black official to hold the position.
He immediately launched investigations into the textile and drug industries as well as utility companies and labor unions, and demonstrated the tiny number of minorities in the white-collar ranks of big business.
At a congressional hearing in March 1969, Mr. Alexander testified about the endemic discrimination against blacks and Mexican Americans in Hollywood. Senate Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen (R-Ill.) called the hearing a “carnival” and lambasted the EEOC for using its power to target an industry that had “given work to hundreds of niggers.
“We did not intend for the job givers of this nation – business and industry – to be harassed,” Dirksen said.
Mr. Alexander was unfazed in his response. “It’s important that the law be enforced,” he said, adding that harassment of African Americans far exceeds that of corporate executives.
Angered, the veteran lawmaker replied that “this punitive harassment has to stop, or I’m going to go to the highest authority in this government to get someone fired.”
Shortly thereafter, the Nixon administration announced its intention to install a Republican commission chairman. Mr Alexander quit, citing a ‘crippling lack of administrative support’ and a Justice Department unresponsive to his pleas for help enforcing racial discrimination. William H. Brown III, a member of the EEOC, also African-American, succeeded him.
Edward C. Sylvester, an African American who became the first director of the Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contracts Compliance, told the Washington Post at the time that Mr. Alexander “brought some life to the commission and legislation make sense. He took the only thing they had at the time, which was the right to hold hearings, and he did an extraordinary job.
After leaving government, Mr. Alexander joined Arnold & Porter, where he practiced corporate and discrimination law and recruited new recruits from Howard University Law School. He also hosted a syndicated public affairs television show, “Cliff Alexander: Black on White.”
In his run for mayor, his opponent in the Democratic primary was Walter E. Washington, the mayor-district commissioner appointed by the president since 1967 and the first black chief executive officer of a major American city. Mr Alexander, who had worked on a home rule bill while serving under Johnson, ran on his civil rights and public service records and won 47 per cent of the vote, but Washington swept him away defeated and became the city’s first directly elected mayor in over a century.
Mr. Alexander returned to legal work until President Jimmy Carter recruited him in 1977 as Secretary of the Army. His military experience was limited – he had served briefly in the private sector after law school – but his appointment as the first black civilian leader of a US military branch was hailed as a milestone.
He took charge of the military at a politically sensitive time, with treaties returning control of the Panama Canal to the Panamanian government and the unconditional pardon of Vietnam War dodgers. In the aftermath of the war, Mr. Alexander advocated increasing soldiers’ pay and the military budget. “It’s a quality army,” he told Ebony magazine at the time. “They work hard – often in remote, sometimes foreign terrain. They take their training and their missions seriously.
At a time when the military was disproportionately African American, he was appalled by a list of candidates for promotion to general that included few women or non-whites.
He sent the list back to the review board, with a special instruction to look for “any factors that might have dampened the performance ratings of all candidates,” Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page reported. On the updated list returned to him, Alexander said, was a Vietnam veteran who had been second in his class at the Command and General Staff College: Colin L. Powell.
Clifford Leopold Alexander Jr. was born in Manhattan on September 21, 1933 to a middle-class family. His father, a Jamaican immigrant, worked in property management and eventually oversaw the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.’s Riverton property development in Manhattan.
Her mother was a Harlem community leader who became executive director of Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia’s Committee on Unity, formed after race-related riots in 1943. Five years later, she was the first woman black woman chosen as a Democratic representative in the electoral college of New York.
His parents surrounded their only child with accomplished family friends — including one of New York’s first black judges — and infused him with abundant self-confidence. Once, he recalls, when a doorman asked his parents to use the servants’ entrance rather than the main entrance of a building, “My mother raised all kinds of Cain and straightened him fast enough.”
Mr. Alexander won a scholarship to the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a private school in New York. He graduated from Harvard in 1955 and Yale Law School in 1958.
He spent his early career in Manhattan as an assistant district attorney under Frank S. Hogan; as head of a neighborhood agency that enforced city housing codes; and served as executive director of psychologist and educator Kenneth B. Clark’s Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited program to improve schools and reduce dropout rates.
In 1959, he married Adele Logan, a graduate of Fieldston and Radcliffe College. In addition to his wife, who taught history at George Washington University, survivors include two children, Elizabeth Alexander of Manhattan, a poet who chaired Yale’s African American Studies department and is now president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which supports the arts, and Mark Alexander, who became the first black dean of the law school at Villanova University, Radnor, Pennsylvania; and seven grandchildren.
Mr. Alexander left government when Ronald Reagan became president in 1981. He went on to found Alexander & Associates, a consulting firm in Washington that advised entities such as Major League Baseball on minority recruitment and served on boards of directors. He moved to Manhattan from the District in 2013.
In published comments and before congressional panels, he spoke out with growing force against what he saw as the chilling improvement of opportunities for African Americans in public and private sections in Washington, New York and Hollywood.
In 1991, he told a Senate panel that racial bias pervaded every aspect of American life, including television shows and club boardrooms. The government was no exception, he said, adding that he was addressing “America’s most prestigious separate body – the United States Senate.”
“White America continues to paint images of black America that shape our opportunities,” he said. “You see us less than you do. You think we are not as smart, not as energetic, not as well suited to supervising you as you are to supervising us. … And yes, if you see a black man, you think you better cross the street before something bad happens to you.
In a 1999 essay in The New York Times about the persistent underrepresentation and misrepresentation of minorities on television, he wrote that, decades after leaving the EEOC, he “would like to have hope, but history teaches us that skepticism rather than optimism is the order of the day.”