Monday, February 19, 2024

Martin Luther King Jr. and Richard Nixon had a dream

By William Haupt III | The Center Square contributor 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., second from left, shakes hands with Vice President Richard Nixon as they meet to discuss race issues in the South, June 13, 1957. Senator Irving M. Ives (R-NY) and Secretary of Labor James P. Mitchell, far left and far right, look on. - AP Photo/Henry Griffin

"We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but worse for the appalling silence of the good people." – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Our history books are filled with chapters about Dr. King's efforts to obtain equal rights for Black Americans. But sandwiched between the pages of King's many efforts are some of the greatest and deserving people who helped make Dr. King's "dream" possible. In his recent book “You Can’t Go Wrong Doing Right,” Robert J. Brown, President Richard Nixon's former Civil Rights commissioner, recalls many of those events and the people who brought the Civil Rights movement into mainstream America.

President Nixon with Robert J. Brown, and his late wife Sallie Brown at the White House. (Collection of Robert J. Brown)

Brown, the grandson of a slave, born in High Point, North Carolina, worked as a police officer and cvil rights advocate before being appointed by Richard Nixon to head his many civil rights programs.

According to Brown, Nixon is credited for having a strong record on foreign policy, but his achievements on domestic policy, mainly civil rights, is completely overlooked. During his years as vice president, Nixon worked tirelessly with Congress to broker passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1957. This was a precursor to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Since the end of the Civil War, every civil rights bill was passed by Republicans in Congress. But they were either killed by Senate segregationist Democrats or amended worthless. That's why Nixon's stellar efforts stand out.

“There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” – Martin Luther King

When Dwight Eisenhower told Nixon to make civil rights more than a talking point in America, it resulted in a long, productive relationship between Dr. King and Nixon. It was a marriage of minds and dreams that would turn the Civil Rights Movement into a reality for Black America. It took only a few months for King and Nixon to meet on Capitol Hill to do what all others failed to do in the past.

When segregationists told Nixon they had the votes to kill the 1957 civil rights bill, Nixon vigorously battled southern Democrats Richard Russell of Georgia and Lyndon Johnson. He reminded them he had taken an oath to “support legislation which guaranteed equality for all Americans regardless of their race, creed or color." When Nixon consulted with Dr. King about the bill, King replied, "This bill is better than any bill we've had before. Thank you for helping us open the door for civil rights."

In his book, Brown explains how he was hoodwinked into working for Richard Nixon as leader of his Commission on Civil Rights. "We had just completed a whirlwind election tour and I was prepared to return to my work in public relations when the phone rang. Bob Haldeman told me, 'The old man wants to see you ASAP in New York.' I reluctantly left the next day for New York's Pierce hotel."

Brown was not a civil rights activist, but a businessman eager to return to work. When Nixon introduced him as head of his Civil Rights Commission, he had egg on his face and felt a duty to serve.

“No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity." – Martin Luther King

Brown served as special assistant to President Nixon from 1969 to 1973 and helped him fulfill promises he made to Dr. King to create programs that led to equal opportunities for Black America. Under Nixon, Brown spawned the Federal Office of Minority Businesses and other programs that vastly improved the lives of Black Americans. Brown said Nixon gave him a blank check and said, "Since you know more about Civil Rights than anyone else, do all you can to make this a reality."

According to Brown, no other president in recent history did more to promote race relations and improve the lives of Black Americans than Nixon. When Richard Nixon took office, Black Americans were filled with pessimism over lack of social and economic advancement. By the time Nixon stepped down, a renewed brand of patriotism was growing within the Black American community.

President Nixon worked closely with the NAACP. He signed legislation that empowered minority enterprise and Black colleges. A forgotten victory for Richard Nixon was desegregation of schools. Nixon said, "We will carry out the Supreme Court’s order because they demanded that we do it."

“The day we see the truth and cease to speak is the day we begin to die.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

President Nixon was neither uninformed or detached from the Washington policy making process. When he took office in 1969, nearly 70% of Black children in the South were still attending all-Black schools, 15 years after the Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court ruling. By 1974, only 8% of Black children were attending all-Black segregated public schools in rural areas of the south.

Nixon's civil rights extended to higher education and the work place. From 1969 to 1973, Nixon doubled federal aid to Black schools, and funds for schools with more than 50% of students below poverty.

“What affects one in a major way, affects all in a minor way.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Nixon ended discrimination in companies with labor unions and set guidelines and goals for affirmative action hiring for Black Americans. His Philadelphia Plan mandated that government contracts must be awarded to those most qualified, regardless of color. He expanded enforcement of the Philadelphia Plan to all areas of industry and established quotas for hiring workplace women.

Another pillar of the Nixon administration was improving education and economic opportunities for Black Americans. He instructed Robert J. Brown, a Black American business leader, to come up with a formula that would immediately improve employment opportunities for all Black Americans.

Marianne Williamson wrote, "Forgiveness means we have the ability to see through mistakes that someone has made." It is extremely unfortunate that the only memory of the Nixon presidency is the Watergate break-in. Too many Americans who directly benefited from the work Nixon did for civil rights chastise him today for something stupid he did five decades ago. His rich history on civil rights is only a faded bookmark in history that his closest advisers praise and admire today.

In a recent interview with USNews, Brown says he feels the country regressed in some ways under President Barack Obama. "I don't care what race you are, you need to raise people up and not tear them down. Bad race relations are not relegated to white people, some Black people are just as guilty if not more so than white people. Racial division and strife seems as bad or worse today than when I started working with Richard Nixon. Just look at what is happening in Chicago?"

Yet I have not seen or heard Obama address the violence and murder rate is his very own city.

Brown said, unlike today, when Nixon was president, our Black leaders knew he would always do what was best for them.

“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, or politic or popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”   – Martin Luther King