A Terrible Thing to Waste

Arthur Fletcher and the Conundrum of the Black Republican

David Hamilton Golland

Arthur Fletcher (1924–2005) was the most important civil rights leader you've (probably) never heard of. The first black player for the Baltimore Colts, the father of affirmative action and adviser to four presidents, he coined the United Negro College Fund’s motto: “A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste.” Modern readers might be surprised to learn that Fletcher was also a Republican. Fletcher’s story, told in full for the first time in this book, embodies the conundrum of the post–World War II black Republican—the civil rights leader who remained loyal to the party even as it abandoned the principles he espoused.

The upward arc of Fletcher’s political narrative begins with his first youthful protest—a boycott of his high school yearbook—and culminates with his appointment as assistant secretary of Labor under Richard Nixon. The Republican Party he embraced after returning from the war was “the Party of Lincoln”—a big tent, truly welcoming African Americans. A Terrible Thing to Waste shows us those heady days, from Brown v. Board of Education to Fletcher’s implementing of the Philadelphia Plan, the first major national affirmative action initiative. Though successes and accomplishments followed through successive Republican administrations—as chair of the US Commission on Civil Rights under George H. W. Bush, for example, Fletcher’s ability to promote civil rights policy eroded along with the GOP’s engagement, as New Movement Conservatism and Nixon’s Southern Strategy steadily alienated black voters. The book follows Fletcher to the bitter end, his ideals and party in direct conflict and his signature achievement under threat.

“A thorough account of Fletcher’s life and what it tells us about the history the Republican Partys relationship to its African American loyalists, especially those, like Fletcher, who were major advocates for civil rights. Golland interlaces the biography with scenes from the fierce battle for the soul of the party waged between its conservative and liberal wings. And while the history of conservative ascendancy is by now well-trod territory, with a number of excellent studies on what that transformation meant for African Americans, Golland adds to the literature by bringing that narrative well into the 1980s and 1990s.

—Journal of Southern History

“Golland makes an original ant thoroughly researched contribution to the crowded field of American civil rights retrospectives.

—H-Net Reviews
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In telling Fletcher’s story, A Terrible Thing to Waste brings to light a little known chapter in the history of the civil rights movement—and with it, insights especially timely for a nation so dramatically divided over issues of race and party.

About the Author

David Hamilton Golland is professor of history and coordinator of humanities at Governors State University. He is the author of Constructing Affirmative Action: The Struggle for Equal Employment Opportunity.