by Fred Jordan
To: Caltrans Statewide Small Business Council
At our council retreat in San Diego Jan. 18, during the presentation on how to correct the low 1 percent participation of African Americans in Caltrans contracting in the midst of a 17.9 percent DBE accomplishment, a council member made a comment that has made me feel compelled to clarify why this council is in existence. I know that most of us, particularly newer council members, may believe that we are here because we are qualified contractors, but in this country, with its inherent institutional discrimination where qualifications of certain ethnic groups don’t matter, we are here to pursue equality and equal opportunity, known as civil rights, for all classified minorities and women.
Our Caltrans director, Laurie Berman, who was active in the early days of this council, will tell you that the original name of this council was the Caltrans Civil Rights Council and our mandate remains the same. So on this Martin Luther King Holiday, I wish to summarize what it means for all of us to be where we are today. Since I am from Washington, D.C., I may differ from some historians because of my personal knowledge:
As you all know, Black people in America endured 242 years of chattel slavery in the hands of white settlers or immigrants to this country from 1619 to 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation setting all Black slaves free. However, the former slaves did not find freedom or acceptance but were discriminated, segregated and oppressed intensively thereafter through “Jim Crow” laws and condoned violence from whites.
In 1909, organized pursuit of equality was founded in the form of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) by a Black man, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, and a white man, Joel Spingarn. (I graduated from Spingarn High School in Washington, D.C). The advancement of people of color remained limited until John F. Kennedy was elected president of the United States in 1960. One of the first actions that he took was to establish the President’s Commission on Equal Opportunity. But President Kennedy was assassinated Nov. 22, 1963, before meaningful results could take place.
President Kennedy’s vice president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, a southerner assumed the presidency. On Dec. 3, less than a month later, President Johnson meets with civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the relationship was on. On July 2, 1964, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion sex or national origin.
Dr. King, overcome with emotion, cried on hearing of the new civil rights law. Following its passage, he received many death threats but refused to give up his fight for equality and equal opportunity and was assassinated April 4, 1968. President Johnson, caught up in the unpopular Vietnam War, did little to implement the Civil Rights Act.
In 1973, an African American lawyer and PhD named Arthur Fletcher was appointed by President Nixon as assistant secretary of labor. Dr. Fletcher knew what he was going to do because he had worked the Midwest to prepare documentation for NAACP lawyer and later Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall to substantiate the 1954 Supreme Court decision requiring school desegregation. Soon after, Dr. Fletcher was chased out of Kansas by angry whites and was pursued after he moved to San Francisco so intensively that his wife could not bear the harassment and threats any more and jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge.
Undaunted, Assistant Secretary of Labor Dr. Fletcher immediately implemented what was known as the Philadelphia Plan, which required all federal contractors to hire people of all colors under established goals. America’s most powerful union boss, AFL-CIO President George Meany, strongly protested, threatening possible strikes, and President Nixon called Dr. Fletcher into his office. After being convinced that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was only being implemented as required by law, President Nixon smiled and told Dr. Fletcher, “Go ahead, Art. Just be careful.” This perhaps was the turning point for opening up opportunities for employment and business. Some years later, Dr. Fletcher became the first chairman of the National Black Chamber, Washington, D.C. – and also a mentor of mine.
In the late ‘70s, President Jimmy Carter included Hispanics, Asians and women in the civil rights initiatives. In 1988, Speaker of the California Assembly Willie Brown called me to Sacramento to collaborate with African American Assemblywoman Maxine Waters on successful minority business legislation that included goals.
A trainee named Edmundo Lopez had been recruited from his Indian reservation by Caltrans and within two years Lopez had advanced from trainee to assistant director of Caltrans. Lopez traveled the state and formed the Caltrans Civil Rights Council.
But after passage of state Proposition 209 and numerous lawsuits before the Supreme Court to block the usage of minorities and women in contracting, we have today the Caltrans Statewide Small Business Council.
The struggle has been enormous and people have died to bring us this far. After leading the fight for civil rights over the years and participating successfully through the ‘90s, African Americans are now participating at less than 1 percent. It just doesn’t seem fair. I leave it to Caltrans and the council to do something about it.
Fred Jordan, PE, Council Member, Caltrans Statewide Small Business Council
Fred Jordan, who heads a world-renowned engineering firm and is president of the San Francisco African American Chamber of Commerce, can be reached.at SFACC, 1485 Bayshore Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94124, 415-749-6400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.