The Long Fight to Appoint the First African-American Cabinet Secretary, Robert C. Weaver

The Mar. 4, 1966, cover of TIME
The Mar. 4, 1966, cover of TIME

Kennedy tried to make him a Cabinet Secretary, but it was Johnson who succeeded 

Exactly 50 years ago, on Jan. 13, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Robert C. Weaver the secretary of the newly created Department of Housing and Urban Development, making him the first African-American member of the U.S. federal Cabinet.

The appointment made history and was the result of years of political infighting, so why did TIME’s cover story about the news declare that choosing Weaver was “unpredictably tapping the most predictable candidate for the job”?

Weaver certainly had the credentials. Born in 1907 and raised in a segregated Washington D.C., he went on to earn three degrees at Harvard, including a doctorate in economics—even though he thought of his brother as “the bright one.” After completing his education, Weaver joined FDR’s New Deal administration as a race-relations officer under Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. In the years that followed, he held a variety of positions relating to employment and housing discrimination, and was a prominent leader of what was popularly known as “The Black Cabinet,” the unofficial brain trust that TIME described as “an influential group of tough-minded young Negroes in F.D.R.’s Administration,” who “did much to bring full integration to Government offices.”

In 1960, Weaver was the board chairman of the NAACP when John F. Kennedy, then running for President, sought his advice on civil rights. Once elected, President Kennedy named Weaver the director of the Housing and Home Finance Agency, which was at the time the highest position in the U.S. government ever held by an African American.

But when Kennedy first proposed a new Department of Urban Affairs, in the spring of 1961, Congress resisted. When he later made it clear that Weaver would lead the agency, that resistance only grew. During the process Kennedy and Weaver knew that, as Weaver said, a large part of the population saw a vote “against this program as a vote against the concept of having a Negro in the Cabinet.” In order to get around the Congressional roadblock, Kennedy tried order the department’s creation through his reorganization powers, which could only be stopped by veto.

 

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Source: TIME | Merrill Fabry