Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander gives a press briefing on the XM-1 Tank (later the M1-Abrams), alongside a model. Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Lew Allen, and Walter LaBerge, UnderSecretary of the Army, also attended. Credit: Photo from the Secretary of Defense Historical Office

With the passing of Clifford L. Alexander Jr., who distinguished himself in so many walks of life, will come the encomiums, but they would be remiss to ignore his prophecy.

In 1991, Alexander appeared before a senate panel and declared that racial prejudice was pervasive in the United States. “White America continues to paint pictures of Black America that determine our opportunities,” he extolled. “You see us as less than you are. You think that we are not as smart, not as energetic, not as well suited to supervise you as you are to supervise us. … And yes, if you see a Black man, you think that you had better cross the street before something bad happens to you.”

His assessment then is no less true today, and Alexander was not so much a prophet as he was a keen observer of American life and its vicissitudes. We lost such an incredible insight and a consummate citizen when he died on July 3 at his home in Manhattan. His death was confirmed by his daughter, Elizabeth, a poet of equal prominence. She said he died of heart failure. He was 88.

Born Clifford Leopold Alexander Jr. in Manhattan on September 21, 1933, of inestimable pedigree, he was the son of a Jamaican immigrant, whose skill in building management was capped by his overseeing of the Riverton Houses. His mother, Edith McAllister, was a Harlem community leader and after the race riot in 1943, she was the executive director of Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia’s Committee on Unity. Later, she was the first Black woman selected as a Democratic representative to the Electoral College from New York.

Alexander’s academic career, given his family background and associations, was given considerable advantages, and he excelled as a student at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a private school in the Bronx. In 1955, he graduated from Harvard and three years later from Yale Law School. At Harvard, he achieved one of his firsts as the Black student-body president and subsequently the first Black partner at the prestigious Washington law firm Arnold & Porter. There he acquired the composure that would be a critical and decisive asset in his leadership climb to overcome racial barriers.

He married Adele Logan, who also attended Fieldston and later was a graduate of Radcliffe College. She taught at George Washington University, and they had two children—Elizabeth and Mark, who became the first
Black dean at Villanova University law school. From 1959 to 1961, Alexander served as an assistant district attorney for New York County. After a brief stint as executive director of the Manhattanville Hamilton Grande Neighborhood Conservation Project, he was the program and executive director of Harlem Youth Opportunities (HARYOU), all the while practicing law in New York City. By 1963, firmly ensconced in the nation’s capital, Alexander was a crucial player in ushering forward the Johnson administration’s landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 and became the president’s personal consultant on civil rights before moving on to chair the Equal Employment Opportunity Committee in 1967. Again, he was the first Black to hold the post. Two years later his national exposure expanded when before a congressional hearing he testified about the rampant discrimination against African Americans and Mexican Americans in Hollywood. The moment was given additional coverage after Alexander’s vituperative exchanges with Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen. The encounter may have led to Alexander’s resignation, particularly after he received little or no support from the Justice Department.

From 1969 to 1975, Alexander was a partner at Arnold & Porter as well as a television news commentator from 1972 to 1976. For two years, he was a professor of law at Howard University. Amid these posts, he also unsuccessfully ran for mayor of D.C., losing to Walter Washington. He returned to public service in 1977 when President Carter appointed him to be the first Black as secretary of the Army, a cabinet position. The same drive and application of improvement that marked his earlier endeavors were intensified as he sought to expand opportunities for minority businesses. One of the measures on his agenda was the repeal of “Don’t Ask,

Don’t Tell,” the official military policy on gay men, bisexuals and lesbians. Among the issues that troubled Alexander was the lack of promotion of women and people of color in the Army, which, at that time, was disproportionately African American. To remedy the situation, he returned a list to the review board, with an admonition to find any “factors that may have held back performance ratings of any of the candidates,” according to a story by Clarence Page in the Chicago Tribune. Colin Powell was on the updated list returned to Alexander.

In 1981, when Ronald Reagan became president, Alexander left government and formed his consulting firm with a host of clients, including minority recruiting for Major League Baseball. He returned to Manhattan in 2013. He served on numerous boards, and was a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity. His statement about racial prejudice, cited above, stands as an epitaph for Alexander and his unwavering determination to correct the societal inequities, although, as he concluded, “History teaches us that skepticism rather than optimism is the order of the day.”

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