Clifford L. Alexander Jr., a Harlem-raised, Ivy League-educated lawyer and a respected chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the late 1960s, died July 3 at his Manhattan home at the age of 88. He also served as the first Black secretary of the Army. His wife, Adele Logan Alexander, confirmed his death.
Alexander achieved many firsts in his life becoming the first Black student-body president at Harvard University and the first Black partner at the prestigious Washington law firm of Arnold & Porter. Some may remember how he narrowly lost in his bid for D.C. mayor in 1974, just after the District won home rule.
He first moved to D.C. in 1963 on the recommendation of McGeorge Bundy, a former Harvard dean who served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations as national security adviser. Later, he helped shape the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 and became Lyndon B. Johnson’s personal consultant on civil rights before taking over as EEOC chairman in 1967. Alexander served as the third chairman and first Black official to hold the post.
After leaving government, Alexander joined Arnold & Porter, where he practiced corporate and discrimination law and recruited new hires from Howard University’s law school. He also hosted a syndicated TV public affairs show, “Cliff Alexander: Black on White.”
In his mayoral race, he ran against Walter E. Washington in the Democratic primary – the District’s presidentially appointed mayor-commissioner and the first Black chief executive of a major U.S. city. Alexander, who had worked on a home rule bill when he served under Johnson, ran on his civil rights and public service records and garnered 47% of the vote but Washington defeated him and became the first directly-elected mayor of the city in more than a century.
Clifford Leopold Alexander, Jr. was born in Manhattan on Sept. 21, 1933, to a middle-class family. His father, a Jamaican immigrant, worked in building management and eventually oversaw the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.’s Riverton housing development in Manhattan. His mother was a Harlem community leader who became executive director of Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia’s Committee on Unity, formed after race-related riots in 1943. Five years later, she became the first Black woman selected as a Democratic representative to the electoral college from New York.
He once recalled when a doorman asked his parents to use a servants’ entrance rather than the main entrance to a building.
“My mother raised all kinds of Cain and straightened him out pretty quick,” he told a reporter.
In 1959, he married Adele Logan, a Fieldston and Radcliffe College graduate. In addition to his wife, who taught history at George Washington University, survivors include two children, Elizabeth Alexander and Mark Alexander and seven grandchildren.
In 1991, he told a Senate panel that racial prejudice pervaded every part of American life, including TV shows and clubby boardrooms. Government was no exception, he said, adding that he was speaking to “the most prestigious segregated body in America – the United States Senate.”
“White America continues to paint pictures of Black America that determine our opportunities,” he said. “You see us as less than you are. You think that we are not as smart, not as energetic, not as well suited to supervise you as you are to supervise us . . . And yes, if you see a Black man, you think that you had better cross the street before something bad happens to you.”