Segregation in Kansas drove civil rights leader

12/21/2009 12:00 AM

12/21/2009 2:24 PM

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating Kansas history. The series' name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: "To the stars through difficulties."

"A mind is a terrible thing to waste." — Arthur Fletcher, United Negro College Fund

When he was at Junction City High School, Arthur Fletcher got angry and led a student protest when he learned of the yearbook policy placing pictures of African-American graduates in its back pages. Fletcher was born in Phoenix in 1924. Because his father served in the military, the family moved frequently and was stationed at Fort Riley when Fletcher was ready to enter high school.

At Junction City, he was an all-state end in football. He was good enough that fans from Kansas State University tried to convince him to go there — but he quickly saw there would be no future for him.

In 1995, when Fletcher talked with an Eagle reporter about his life experiences, he said:

"At that time blacks could not play football in Kansas. I was the first black in the history of Kansas to make allstate.

"But KU couldn't play me, K-State couldn't play me . . . I was told one of the reasons they said no was that calls were made to Oklahoma, and Oklahoma said they wouldn't play against me because of race."

Fletcher went on to play professional football with the Los Angeles Rams, then later the Baltimore Colts as the first African-American member of their team.

During World War II, Fletcher served in a segregated Army, was wounded in action and earned a Purple Heart.

Following the war, Fletcher attended Washburn University under the GI Bill but was banned from living in oncampus GI housing because he was black.

He received degrees in political science and sociology and went on to earn a law degree and a doctorate in education. When Fletcher graduated, he was denied teaching jobs in the Kansas public schools. Fletcher's political career began in 1954 when he worked on Fred Hall's campaign for governor. He then served on the Kansas Highway Commission, where he encouraged African- American businesses to compete for construction work. Those circumstances during the 1940s and 1950s influenced Fletcher into becoming "the father of affirmative action." He fought for civil rights and helped define the nation's anti-discrimination laws. Before him, employers did not have to keep track of the number of minorities and women they hired. In 1972, he became executive director of the United Negro College Fund and, in the decades that followed, also served as an adviser to presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

"The Lord moves in mysterious ways," Fletcher told The Eagle in 1995. "I was meant to come to Washington to work for affirmative action."

In 1996, Fletcher ran unsuccessfully for president of the United States. Later, he became president and CEO of Fletcher's Learning Systems and publisher of "USA Tomorrow/The Fletcher Letter."

In 2000, Fletcher was featured in Fortune Magazine.

"I'm proud to say I set the stage for today's workplace and work force diversity efforts," he said. "Affirmative action changed the American workplace for the better, forever."

He died July 12, 2005.

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