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THE APPARENT unprincipled ease with which Richard Nixon danced from position to position during last fall's campaign must have horrified most of his liberal opponents. But now that Tricky Dick is President, that same shiftiness has become liberal America's main hope. Perhaps the campaign bombast about law-in-order and the Forgotten Americans was merely a shrewd ploy that Nixon's men had tailor-made to appeal to the 1968 voter. If so, Nixon comfortably ensconced in the White House might conveniently forget some of his more vehement campaign stands and try to Bring Us Together--possibly for a 1972 campaign.
But Nixon's behind-the-scenes action in his administration's first domestic crisis has measurably dampened hopes for a swing away from conservative campaign stands. Although the administration's final policy on Southern segregation is still hard to predict, the skirmishes and furor of the last two weeks suggest that Nixon's policy will be a step backwards from Lyndon Johnson's hard-line stand.
The issue at stake is a simple one: whether Nixon will use Federal money as a tool in the war against school segregation in the South. Johnson and his secretaries of Health, Education, and Welfare wasted little time making a decision. The ten discouraging years that followed the 1954 Supreme Court decision taught Federal officials that court rulings were too slow and too limited to solve the problem alone. And the problem continued: by 1964, 10 years after the Supreme Court legally banned separate school systems, only 3 per cent of the black children of Alabama and Mississippi were attending schools with whites. The average for the rest of the South was about 10 per cent then, and there was little reason to hope that things would get better soon.
Johnson got the weapon he wanted in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Act gave the secretary of HEW the awesome power of cutting off all Federal funds to school districts that did not "satisfactorily desegregate." The importance of the fund-cutting power became clear in the next four years. While court cases dragged on for months and forced only minimal concessions from Southern school districts, Johnson's HEW got quick results when it applied the financial pincers. By 1968, the mere threat of cutting funds was enough to convince eight previously-recalcitrant districts to desegregate.
NIXON'S campaign position was murky. Trooping through North Carolina in September, he delighted local crowds by saying that his administration would never stoop to cutting off the Federal aid. But when the national press picked up the story, a flood of protest rolled down from the North. Back in New York three days later, Nixon recanted, saying that he didn't mean to "imply that we would not use all the available tools to guarantee equal education."
No clarification came until after Nixon had installed Robert Finch as his new secretary of HEW. As Lieutenant Governor of California, Finch had opposed many of Ronald Reagan's conservative desegregation policies, and his appointment was a quiet relief to civil rights leaders and Congressional liberals. A much bigger relief came in late January, when Finch cut off Federal funds to five Southern districts that had "grossly ignored" Federal desegregation rulings.
The confusion began three days later, when Finch unexpectedly announced that the districts could have a 60-day "grace" period: if they would integrate their schools within the 60 days, they would get all their Federal funds back--including those withheld during the grace period. Finch's move was unprecedented; Democratic cut-off decisions had never allowed the school districts to recover their lost funds retroactively.
FINCH has concocted a number of plausible arguments for the grace period, the most convincing being his "urgent desire" to keep the Southern schools open while they work out desegregation plans. But Finch's obvious lack of enthusiasm for the 60-day scheme makes it clear that the idea was not his. Pressure was apparently applied, and the source of that pressure offers a clue to Nixon's role in the conflict.
To no one's surprise, Southern congressmen were the first to squawk when Finch first announced the cut-off. Rep. Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.), long-time leader of the Congressional segregation troops, brought up his old proposal to deny the government its fund-cutting power. But Whitten, whose district includes two of the condemned school systems, was not as important a foe as Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).
Thurmond, Nixon's political creditor ever since he delivered the Southern vote at the convention and in the election, didn't waste time with any Whittenesque theatrics. Knowing where the power was, he sent a series of messages to Nixon expressing his "concern" over Finch's cut-off. After Finch gave in to the grace-period plan, Thurmond said that he thought it was wise: "We need to take more time in these things."
Thurmond's satisfaction with the plan only intensified the dismay of civil rights forces. The liberal Atlanta Journal called the move "a costly Nixon retreat" that "slaps the face of every Southern school board . . . that has moved with great difficulty to obey the law." Six liberal Republicans in the Senate said that they hoped the decision didn't mean that Finch would flag on enforcement, and Senate Democrats threatened committee action if desegregation plans were left to die.
The real meaning of the grace-period decision depends on one key question: whether Finch's momentary retreat is a hint of weaker stands to come. Both Thurmond in his satisfaction and the Journal in its anguish have worked from the common assumption that it is. So have many Southern schoolmen, who now imagine that the desegregation plans they finally conjure up won't have to be too rigorous to meet Nixon administration standards.
So far there has been no formal sign of concession from Finch. In response to growing Northern protest, he said that it was his "firm intent to make the schools comply with the guidelines set by Congress and the Supreme Court"--after the 60 days.
But Finch also firmly intended to force compliance without any annoying grace period. Before he can enforce the guidelines, he may have to butt heads with Jamie, Strom, and Dick.
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