I’m not referring to his political contributions, which would themselves fill his book. Rather I am referring to his effort more than a half-century ago, along with two other prominent state Republican elected officials, to hatch a plan they hoped would lead to the election of Arthur Fletcher as the first black governor since reconstruction.
Evans, a three-term governor and one-term U.S, Senator was my guest this week for an unusual interview, originally intended to be a live interview before Seattle 4 Rotary Club. After the Rotary Club decided not to do live interviews this month, Evans and I did a recorded interview before an audience at the Columbia Tower Club for replay to Rotary the following day.
During the interview, I asked Evans both about the progress of his long-awaited memoirs and the coverage in the book of the strategy he guided to accelerate the political career of an unknown black politician on a path designed to lead to the governorship.
“Hope to have it out before the Christmas rush,” Evans said with a chuckle of the memoirs, title yet to come. He said he’s at the final editing stage, “putting my initials on each page as final approval.”
“And yes, there’s a substantial section about Art Fletcher,’ he added. "And about his eventual role as the Father of Affirmative Action."
Fletcher, a football star at little Washburn University in Kansas who joined the original Baltimore Colts in 1950 as the franchise's first black player, had already built a reputation in other parts of the country for his activities as a political anomaly, a Republican civil-rights advocate.
I’ve often felt, since I first learned years ago of this one-of-a-kind plot by a group of Republican state elected officials guided by their governor to set the stage for the election of a black man as governor that it merited national visibility, particularly at this time.
Regular readers of The Harp may recall a column I did two years ago on the Evans-Fletcher story, As I wrote it, I realized that 1,700 readers were a dramatically small number to know about the story. So I reached out to Mark Higgins, assistant editorial page editor of the Seattle Times, to offer him the column and he first explained that The Times doesn’t run a piece that has already appeared as a column elsewhere.
But he soon decided, on reflection, that the Evans-Fletcher story deserved being brought to The Times readership. So the Harp appeared as an op-ed piece under the headline: ‘Remembering Arthur Fletcher, the father of Affirmative Action.”
Now my hope is that reviewers of Evans’ memoirs will focus on, or be directed to, the Fletcher portion of the book and that a broad, maybe national, audience will learn the story and begin to think of ways to credit Evans for posterity. And also Fletcher for his role fulfilling the hope held out for him.
I have asked Evans on several occasions why he hatched the plan and he has explained how he first met and became impressed with Fletcher, who had founded a self-help cooperative in the largely black community of East Pasco.
Evans recalled his first meeting with Fletcher: "a big man, and former pro football player who carried a commanding presence and spoke with conviction in his resonating baritone voice."
Remember the timing of Evans’ strategy for Fletcher. Not unlike the 2020 Summer of Discontent, the riots in cities across America over the ‘60s grew out of black poverty and joblessness, and police brutality.
But the rioters’ rally cry of “Burn Baby, Burn” was far more ominous than the marches and demonstrations, mostly peaceful (except where thugs came along in some demonstrations burning and looting), under the banner and to the cries of Black Lives Matter.
As keynoter at the 1968 Republican convention in Miami, Evans’ message was that the time was right “to touch the troubled spirit of America,” alluding to the demonstrations opposing the Vietnam War as well as the racial unrest. But of the latter, Evans told the delegates it was time to resolve "the crisis in the main streets of America--a crisis of violence and stolen hope.”
The plan for Fletcher was already underway at that point to have him run for lieutenant governor.
As Evans once said to me on another occasion of Fletcher's possible election: "It could have had a huge impact on race relations and who knows how history could have changed. He was a remarkable man and one I admired immensely."
And the campaign poster picturing four young members of the Republican team seeking statewide office, all in their early 40’s, three of them white and one black, was way ahead of its time, as were the convictions for equality of the two young leaders, Evans and Gorton.
Had he been elected lieutenant governor, he would have been in a position to seek the governor’s office to subsequently replace Evans.
In the end, Fletcher lost the election to popular incumbent John Cherberg, though Evans told the audience at our interview that he lost by only a few points and the difference was the King County vote.
Fletcher had gained exposure at the GOP convention speaking to promote his self-help philosophy to an audience eager to attract black voters.
Among those attracted to Fletcher’s message was Nixon himself and after the election, Nixon appointed Fletcher Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employment Standards. His responsibilities included wage and hour regulations for the nation’s workforce and supervision of the Office of Federal Contracts Compliance.
So on June 27, 1969, Fletcher implemented the nation’s first federal affirmative action program that required federal contractors to meet specific goals in minority hiring for skilled jobs in the nation’s notoriously segregated construction industry.
But after two years, Fletcher’s affirmative action programs had earned him so much opposition among the leaders of the skilled construction unions that he was forced to resign.
However, Fletcher went on to serve in the administrations of presidents Ford, Reagan, and George H.W, Bush and became known as “the father of affirmative action.”
My hope is that as the Evans-Fletcher story might reach a broad, national audience, that there would be a move to honor both for this unique political story. Maybe somehow together.
The challenge could be that such an effort on behalf of two Republicans would likely need to commence in their home state, home to a democratic legislature, Democratic governor, and two Democratic U.S. senators.
On the other hand, it might be an appropriate opportunity to see if doing what’s right ever transcends what’s merely right and correct politically.