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Arthur Fletcher, 80; Former Federal Official Known as Father of Affirmative Action

Times Staff Writer

Arthur A. Fletcher, who was widely regarded as the father of affirmative action, has died. He was 80.

Fletcher died of natural causes Tuesday at his home in Washington, D.C.

As the assistant secretary of Labor under President Nixon in 1969, Fletcher devised the first successful enforcement plan for affirmative action, known as “the revised Philadelphia Plan.”

It required employers doing business with the government to set timetables for hiring minorities and was later amended to include women.

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It became the blueprint for affirmative action programs.

He advised three more Republican presidents -- Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Bush appointed him to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which he chaired from 1990 to 1993.

Angry over attacks on affirmative action, Fletcher entered the 1996 presidential race as a longshot candidate.

He urged the Republican Party not to abandon minorities and the working class and planned to finance his campaign through $5 contributions.

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His slogan: “Send five and keep affirmative action alive.”

He knew he wouldn’t win, but he wanted what he considered his legacy -- affirmative action -- to get some publicity.

“People find him kind of an oddball,” his wife of 41 years, Bernyce Hassan-Fletcher, told the Washington Post in 1995.

As the executive director of the United Negro College Fund in the early 1970s, he is said to have helped coin another fundraising slogan, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

Born in Phoenix, the son of a career military man, Fletcher grew up in California, Arizona, Oklahoma and Kansas.

He organized his first civil rights protest in Junction City, Kan., after he was told that the photographs of African American students would be included only in the back of his high school yearbook.

Fletcher served in the Army during World War II, where he fought in an armored division under Gen. George Patton and was wounded, friends said.

In 1950, he graduated with degrees in political science and sociology from Washburn University in Topeka, Kan.

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Fletcher paid for college by taking advantage of the G.I. Bill, but because he was African American, he was banned from living in on-campus veterans’ housing, the Los Angeles Sentinel reported in 1995.

Fletcher also did graduate work at Kansas State University and San Francisco State College.

In the 1950s, the 6-foot, 4-inch Fletcher was briefly a defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams and Baltimore Colts.

After an injury cut his career short, he wanted to coach but couldn’t find a job.

“The guy who taped my ankles in college ball got a job as a coach,” Fletcher told the Evansville Courier in 2003. “That’s when I knew something had to change, and if you can change the laws you can change the culture.”

Fletcher first entered Republican politics in Kansas -- where, he once said, “all blacks are Republicans” -- and was vice chairman of the state GOP from 1955 to 1957.

He served as Ford’s deputy assistant for urban affairs and as Reagan’s vice chairman of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp., which used federal money to trigger private investment in the redevelopment of downtown Washington.

In 1978, Fletcher ran unsuccessfully as the Republican candidate for mayor in Washington, against Marion Barry.

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“I really hate politics and don’t like politicians, and I despise the political environment,” Fletcher said in 2003. “But the big man upstairs told me, ‘That’s what I want you to do, brother.’ ”

Fletcher’s first wife committed suicide, according to a 1997 New York Beacon newspaper story.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by three children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.


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