Clifford Alexander Jr, First Black Secretary of the U.S. Army and Advisor to Several Presidents, Dies at 88

CREDIT: AP/SHUTTERSTOCK

Clifford L. Alexander Jr., whose long career as a leading adviser to Democratic presidents ranged from working behind the scenes on landmark legislation like the Voting Rights Act to high-profile roles like serving as the first Black secretary of the Army, died on Sunday at his home in Manhattan. He was 88.

His daughter, the poet Elizabeth Alexander, said the cause was heart failure.

Mr. Alexander was a lifelong devotee of the promises held out by President Lyndon B. Johnson and his Great Society, in particular the idea that government could do much to alleviate racial and economic inequality. And he was among the generation of young Black leaders who, in the 1960s and ’70s, brought the civil rights movement from the streets into the machinery of the federal government.

Clifford L. Alexander Jr. in 1977, when he was secretary of the Army. He opened the doors for Black officers to rise to the rank of general, including Colin Powell. (Credit…Charles Kelly/Associated Press)

As chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President Johnson and, briefly, his successor, Richard M. Nixon, Mr. Alexander turned what had been a relatively powerless agency into a central player in fighting workplace discrimination. He resigned after Nixon demoted him from chairman to commissioner, criticizing the president for “a crippling lack of administration support.”

Later, as the secretary of the Army under Jimmy Carter, he opened the doors for Black officers to rise to the rank of general, including a particularly promising young colonel named Colin Powell.

“Cliff saw his role as secretary of the Army as a key extension of the civil rights movement, and he inaugurated and enforced policies that were spectacularly effective in achieving his goal,” the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., a longtime friend, said in a phone interview. “The fact that the United States military is, perhaps, the most integrated institution in our society can be traced to the foresight of Clifford Alexander.”

Mr. Alexander was among the few Black leaders to be openly critical of President Bill Clinton, arguing that he engaged with race superficially and only when it was politically expedient. But he was a major supporter of Barack Obama, both as an adviser and as a campaign surrogate during Mr. Obama’s run for the White House in 2008.

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SOURCE: The New York Times, Clay Risen