Clifford L. Alexander Jr., whose long career as a leading adviser to Democratic presidents ranged from working behind the scenes on landmark legislation including the Voting Rights Act to high-profile roles including serving as the first Black secretary of the Army, died Sunday at his home in the New York City borough of 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 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.
As chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under Johnson and, briefly, his successor, Richard Nixon, Mr. Alexander turned what had been a relatively powerless agency into a central player in fighting workplace discrimination. He immediately launched investigations into the textile and drug industries as well as utility companies and labor unions and demonstrated the minuscule numbers of minorities in the white-collar ranks of major corporations.
He resigned after Nixon demoted him from chairman to commissioner, criticizing the president for “a crippling lack of administration support.”
He was appointed in 1977 by President Carter to lead the Army. It was a politically sensitive time, with treaties returning control of the Panama Canal to the Panamanian government and the unconditional pardoning of Vietnam War draft dodgers. The Army, in particular, suffered from morale problems. In the aftermath of the war, Mr. Alexander defended increases in soldier pay and the military budget.
At a time when the Army was disproportionately African American, he was dismayed by a list of candidates for promotion to general that included few women or nonwhites.
He sent the list back to the review board, with a special instruction to look for “any factors that may have held back performance ratings of any candidates,” Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page reported. On the updated list that was returned to him, Mr. Alexander said, was a Vietnam veteran who had been second in his class at the Command and General Staff College: 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 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 Obama’s run for the White House in 2008.
“Cliff was an American original — a civil rights trailblazer whose eyes were never shut to injustice but whose heart was always open,” Michelle Obama said in a statement. “He was like a father to me and an inspiration to Barack. We admired the way he fought and learned from the way he led.”
Clifford Leopold Alexander Jr. was born Sept. 21, 1933, in Harlem. His father was a Jamaican immigrant who managed the Riverton Houses, a sprawling residential development in Harlem financed by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. Unlike other Met Life developments,Riverton was integrated, and most of its residents were Black.
His mother, Edith (McAllister) Alexander, was also active in the city’s life and politics. She served several mayors as an adviser on civil rights. She is believed to have been the first Black female elector at a Democratic National Convention, in 1948.
After attending the Fieldston School, a private high school in the Bronx, Mr. Alexander studied government at Harvard, where he was elected the first Black president of the student council. He graduated in 1955 and received his law degree from Yale in 1958.
He married Adele Logan, a historian, in 1959. Along with his wife and daughter, he leaves a son, Mark, and seven grandchildren.
Both of Mr. Alexander’s children went on to successful careers: Elizabeth is now the president of the Mellon Foundation, and Mark is the dean of the Charles Widger School of Law at Villanova University.
Recruited by McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser who had been a Harvard dean, Mr. Alexander arrived in Washington in 1963 to serve on the staff of the National Security Council under President Kennedy. Almost immediately, he was also acting as an informal adviser on race, and Kennedy sent him as an observer to the March on Washington.
“The White House was in a state of clear apprehension,” Mr. Alexander told The New York Times in 2003. “If you get in a position like the one I was in, you have a responsibility to say to the people in power what you think about race. So I went out to see what was happening.”
Not long after Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson brought Mr. Alexander into his circle to act as a liaison to the civil rights movement and, in particular, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Mr. Alexander soon became Johnson’s closest adviser on race relations, entrusted with lining up support in the Black community for the president’s legislative priorities and helping shepherd Black nominees through Congress, including Robert C. Weaver as the secretary of housing and urban development and Thurgood Marshall as a Supreme Court justice.
After leaving the EEOC, Mr. Alexander became the first Black person to achieve the rank of partner at a major Washington law firm when he joined Arnold & Porter. He hosted a syndicated TV talk show, “Black on White,” from 1972-76, and ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Washington in 1974.
After leaving his post as Army secretary, he and his wife founded a consulting firm, Alexander & Associates, that advised major corporations on how to reduce racial inequality. Among their most notable clients was Major League Baseball, which they helped address racial disparities in the organization’s front offices.
Among his tidbits of advice was the following, on the importance of getting people to pay attention to you.
“Very few senators or members of Congress do things just because it’s right, or we’d have a far better world than we have today,” he said in a 2017 interview for the Kunhardt Film Foundation. But, he added, “If you can show somebody why it is in their interest, they may do some things.”
Material from The Washington Post was used in this obituary.