Nixon and School Desegregation: Perspective from George Shultz
On January 9, 2003, the Richard Nixon Foundation awarded George Shultz with the Victory of Freedom Award, an award that honors outstanding leaders who have championed the cause of freedom and personify the 37th president’s principle of enlightened national interest in foreign and domestic policy. A perennial public servant, Shultz served as the Secretary of Labor, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and the Secretary of the Treasury under President Nixon. Later, during the Reagan administration, Shultz became the 60th U.S. Secretary of State.
Upon receiving the award, Shultz reminisced about his career in the Nixon administration and President Nixon’s leadership on three domestic issues with which he had personal involvement: the strike of the Longshoreman on the East and Gulf Coasts, the all-volunteer armed force, and perhaps most telling of President Nixon’s leadership, the desegregation of Southern schools. Here is the portion from Shultz’ acceptance speech in which he discusses President Nixon’s deft guidance on an issue that for 16 years before Nixon’s presidency had been painfully unresolved:
Now, let me turn to the subject of the desegregation of the schools in the south. The Brown versus Topeka Board of Education, the decision by the Supreme Court in 1954, had declared dual school systems to be unconstitutional and ordered change to proceed with all deliberate speed. Yet here we were a decade and a half later, and the dual school system was still the rule throughout most of the south. The Supreme Court had ruled against further delay once more in October, 1969. The whole subject was intentionally controversial. Argument was super-heated. Tension was mounting.
I don’t know if it’s possible, in your feeling, to take you back to those days and to realize how tense this was. In March 1970, President Nixon took his decision. He declared Brown versus Topeka Board of Education to be, and in his words, “Right in both constitutional and human terms,” and he expressed his intention to enforce the law. He also saw the importance of managing the traumatic process of transition. A cabinet committee was formed at his direction to work on the problem in a direct managerial way. Vice President Agnew was made the chairman, and I was then Secretary of Labor, was the vice-chairman. The challenge was to manage the transition to desegregated schools in the states most affected, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
The vice president said he wanted no part of this effort and declined to participate in the committee’s deliberations. So I became the de facto chairman. I had strong help from presidential counselor Pat Moynihan, Special Counsel Leonard Garment, and Ed Morgan, a savvy former Advance Man for the President. We talked it all over carefully with the president, and with his support, we formed biracial committees in each of the seven states. The idea was to reach out to key leaders to persuade them to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. The president agreed that politics should have nothing to do with the selection of the members of these committees. We wanted people, black and white, who are strong and respected in their constituencies. Many were reluctant to serve. Reluctant to serve. The whites fearing to close an association with desegregation, the blacks’ concern that the committees might simply be a sham.
First group to come to Washington was from Mississippi, considered to be the most difficult state. We met in the Roosevelt Room in the White House, right opposite to President’s Oval Office. The discussion was civil, but deep division was evident. Deep division. A lot them argue and get them out of their systems, about two hours. Then a point came in the meeting after about two hours, and this repeated itself with all of the subsequent states when I thought it was time to shift gears. So I had a little prearrangement with John Mitchell, who was standing by and he came in to our room. He was known throughout the south as a tough guy, and then who was regarded, as the white says, their man.
I asked Mitchell, “As attorney general, what do you plan to do insofar as the schools were concerned?” “I am the attorney general, and I will enforce the law,” he growled in his gruff, pipe smoking way. He offered no judgment about whether this was good, bad, or indifferent. “I will enforce the law.” Then he left. No nonsense. So I said to the group, “The discussion we’ve had this morning has been intense and revealing. But as you can see, it’s not really relevant. The fact is, desegregation is going to happen. The only question for you as outstanding community leaders are, how will it work? Will there be violence? How will the education system in your community be affected? What will be the effect on your local economies? Or centrally? What can be done to make this transition work? You have a great stake in seeing that the effort is managed in a reasonable way whether you like it or not.”
When lunch time arrived, I took them over to the Diplomatic Reception Rooms in the State Department. I pointed out the desk that’s there. You probably all seen it, designed by Thomas Jefferson, in which he wrote parts of the Declaration of Independence dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. I sat with two strong men that I wanted to be the co-chairman of the Mississippi committee. Warren Hood, he was president of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, and Dr. Gilbert Mason, a black physician, and head of the Biloxi chapter of the NAACP. I argued that if they would accept, the committee would have great credibility with blacks and whites. I can see they were beginning to talk constructively to each other. So I left them alone.
One observer questioned this tactic, and I said, “I learned long ago that when parties get this close to agreement, it is best to let them complete their deal by themselves. That way, the agreement belongs to them. It’s theirs, and they’ll try everything they can to make it work.” So as lunch ended, these two tough, respective leaders shook hands on their own deal. We were in business, in what was regarded as the most problematic state. After we returned to the White House, individuals started to make suggestions about how to handle this or that problem. We had developed a small kiddie [SP] out of some HEW flexible funds so I could say to the committee members that if they judged that funds were needed for minor expenditures, I could provide some money on a fast track basis. They liked that.
When the time was right, I let President Nixon know that we were ready for him. We walked across the hall into the Oval Office, where the President spoke to them with conviction, with emotion, with eloquence. Looking around the room, he said in essence, “Here we are in the Oval Office of the White House. Think of the decisions that have been made here, that have affected the health and security of our country. But remember, too, that we live in a great democracy where authority and responsibility are shared. Just as decisions are made here in this office, decisions are made throughout the states and communities of our country. You are leaders in those communities, and this is the time, and we all have to step up to our responsibilities. I have made my decision. I look to you to make yours. We have to work together for the right result.”
It was gripping. And they left the office, Oval Office, truly inspired by the President. I remember Pat Moynihan, he was blown away. He shook his head. We went through much the same process with representatives of five other states. We felt we were on a roll. The last state was Louisiana. The schools would soon open. Our meetings were going so well that I and the people working with me suggested to the president that we hold this final meeting in New Orleans. We would go to the South where the action would take place. I would do my part in the morning with the Louisiana delegation. He would fly down from Washington to do his part at the end of the morning meeting. Then in the afternoon, we would invite the co-chairman from each of the seven states to join the president for an overall discussion of the school openings.
I remember the meeting in the Oval Office to discuss these proposed events. Vice President Agnew strongly warned the president not to go. “There you will be in that room, Mr. President,” he said in effect, “Half the people there will be black, half will be white. Pictures will be taken. When the schools open, there will be blood running through the streets of the south, and if you go, this blood will be on your hands. This is not your issue. This is the issue of the liberals who have pushed for desegregation. Let them have it. Stay away.”
The president looked at me. I felt he’d already made his decision to go and he didn’t need any arguments from me, but I said what was obvious. “I can’t predict what will happen. The vice president may very well be right about violence, but you’re the president of the whole country. You’ve seen some very reasonable and strong people come up here. You’ve met with them and had a big impact on them. We should do everything we can to see that the schools open and operate peacefully and well.” The president decided to go ahead. And so on August 14th, 1970, he went to New Orleans.
I left the night before the president and started in the morning with the biracial Louisiana group. The going was tougher than with any other state. I had to reflect that it’s one thing to gather right across from the Oval Office, and it’s another thing to sit around a table in a hotel meeting room. President Nixon was due to arrive about noon, but as the time drew near, I had not reached the level of agreement that I wanted. “The President has just landed,” Secret Service tells me. “The President is 20 minutes out.” You know those things. “The President is 10 minutes out.”
We took a recess. I went out and met the president, Agnew’s views at the back of my mind. “Mr. President,” I told him, “I haven’t got the group quite where I usually have them. I’m afraid you’re gonna have to finish the job yourself.” The president came in. He listened. He talked. He emphasized the importance of having the schools open peacefully. “Remember,” he said, “If there are problems, the children are the ones who will suffer.” He raised their sights. He brought them all on board. Phew.
That afternoon, we had our meeting with the co-chairmen from the seven states. The meeting was highly publicized throughout the south. President Nixon talked eloquently about the importance of what was going to happen and the stake that everyone had in seeing it go smoothly. There were strong pledges of cooperation from whites and blacks alike, a sense of determination and a joint compelling enterprise filled the room. At the end of the meeting, President Nixon went before the television cameras with a co-chairman standing with him to drive his message home. “The highest court,” this is President Nixon speaking, “The highest court of the land has spoken. Unitary school system must replace the dual school system throughout the United States. If the widely predicted difficulties take place, those who will suffer will be primarily the next generation, the students, the children, and the school district involved. We believe all of us, in law, in order, in justice, we believe in enforcing the law. But I also believe that leadership in an instance like this requires some preventive action.
To me, one of the most encouraging experiences that I have had since taking office, was to hear each one of these leaders from the southern states speak honestly about the problems, not glossing over the fact that there are very grave problems, telling us what kind of…what was needed to be done from the federal standpoint, telling us also what they were doing at the local level. It was encouraging to me this kind of leadership, to see this line, kind of leadership come. Time will tell how successful we have been. But I do know this. As a result of this advisory committees being set up, we are going to find that in many instances, the transitions will be orderly and peaceful, whereas otherwise it could have been the other way. And the credit will go to these outstanding southern leaders.”
In the end, the school openings were peaceful, to the amazement of almost everyone. The leaders in their communities stood up to their responsibilities because the president stood up to his responsibilities. I was not the only one impressed. Senator-to-be Pat Moynihan, writing at the time, said, “The president declared that the unitary school system must replace the dual school system throughout the United States, and I shall meet that responsibility. Clearly, this is what has been needed since the Supreme Court first spoke, and now it has happened. The authority of the president and the full support of the federal government has been brought to bear.”
A “New York Times” columnist Tom Wicker wrote reflectively in 1991. He took the trouble to look into this. “There is no doubt about it, the Nixon administration accomplished more in 1970 to desegregate southern school systems than has been done in the 16 previous years or probably since. There’s no doubt either that it was Richard Nixon personally, who conceived, orchestrated, and led the administration’s desegregation effort, holding it uncertain before he finally asserted strong control. That effort resulted in probably the outstanding domestic achievement of his administration.” Well, here are three examples of President Nixon in action. Restore the health of the private, collective bargaining system, create a volunteer armed force, end the dual school system in the south. Not a bad day’s worth, Mr. President. Thank you.