David Hamilton Golland. A Terrible Thing to Waste: Arthur Fletcher and the Conundrum of the Black Republican. University Press of Kansas, 2019. pages cm. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2764-6.
Reviewed by Kenneth Pike (Florida Institute of Technology)
Published on H-Florida (October, 2019)
Commissioned by Jeanine A. Clark Bremer (Northern Illinois University)
The subtitular conundrum of David Hamilton Golland’s A Terrible Thing to Waste: Arthur Fletcher and the Conundrum of the Black Republican is that African Americans who favor affirmative action but otherwise reject the politics of the Democratic Party may likewise find the Republican Party a poor personal fit. This was not always so. Arthur Fletcher, the first African American to run for state office in Washington and a man Jesse Jackson once called the “father of affirmative action as we know it,” was a lifelong Republican. He was also the son of an unwed itinerant laborer; a civil rights activist; a World War II veteran; a professional football player; a long-shot candidate for elected office; a chronically un- and underemployed widower; a man who never allowed failure to steer him off the road to success. In biographing Fletcher, Golland makes an original and thoroughly researched contribution to the crowded field of American civil rights retrospectives. Less original is Golland’s tendency toward partisan gloss, which often intrudes on the narrative but might make Fletcher’s story more relatable to readers who are not themselves Republicans.
The text is divided into an introduction, conclusion, and seven chapters, with the first three devoted to Fletcher’s early years and path to political relevance. Little is known, and less for certain, of his childhood. Public recollections offered by Fletcher himself were sometimes confused or contradictory, dubious, even mythmaking. His significant athletic success, first in high school and later as a professional football player, is better documented, along with his military service, post-football employment woes, and eventual political pursuits. Golland invites readers to additionally accept stories of less straightforward provenance as important to Fletcher’s sense of self regardless of whether they are strictly veridical. So much the better for Golland’s own mythmaking, perhaps; in one aside, Golland speculates that Mary McLeod Bethune, identified by Fletcher as the inspiration of his first political feelings, “likely envisioned a day when the president might not necessarily be a man” (p. 19). This might well be true, particularly given Bethune’s relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, but what speculation on an inspiring stranger’s unuttered vision is supposed to add to Fletcher’s story is never made clear.
Similar digressions continue through the final three chapters of the book, which otherwise recount Fletcher’s decades of laborious, often thankless efforts translating the rhetoric of civil rights into functioning public policy and private progress. To the same extent that primary sources on Fletcher’s early life proved scant, Golland here wrangles with an embarrassment of riches. Archives including Fletcher’s personal papers and interviews with his descendants inform the narrative, giving readers a peek into the personality politics behind his projects, helpfully contextualizing victories as well as defeats. In these chapters Golland employs the metaphor of a roller coaster to characterize Fletcher’s life, and the point is well taken. He was tapped to direct the United Negro College Fund, only to be fired a year later--and not for any clear reason beyond, perhaps, being a Republican. He built a successful small business servicing government contracts, only to have it languish through the Carter years--again, Fletcher suspected, because of his politics. Civil rights legislation he supported as the chairman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights was vetoed by the president, but a similar bill was signed into law the following year, thanks in part to Fletcher’s refusal to stay beaten. Even the achievement for which he is best remembered was one he saw substantially dismantled in later years.
That achievement, the Revised Philadelphia Plan, is the focus of the narratively and numerically central chapter of A Terrible Thing to Waste. Implementing the Nixon-era executive order on affirmative action is generally regarded as Fletcher’s most consequential contribution to American civil rights policy, framing the portents of his past and setting the stage for his future personal and political projects. Throughout Golland’s earlier and later chapters, the historic African American struggle for civil rights sometimes reads more as carrying Fletcher along than as being meaningfully advanced by his contributions. But in connection with the Revised Philadelphia Plan, there is no shortage of evidence, no need to embellish, and only minimal political apologia. In this instance Fletcher, to borrow from his seemingly inexhaustible bank of sports metaphors, had control of the ball, rushed the requisite yardage, and reached the end zone. It was a major personal victory, setting him apart as someone who not only benefited from the civil rights movement, but personally enlarged and advanced it. So it is unsurprising that affirmative action remained of central concern to Fletcher throughout his political career, culminating in his boycott of the 1996 Republican National Convention “over the RNC’s decision to include an anti-affirmative action plank in the Dole-Kemp campaign platform” (p. 274).
This was the most serious protest Fletcher ever lodged against his party, and Golland’s concluding remarks offer an extended reflection on the attendant “conundrum.” He suggests that Fletcher was a lifelong Republican mostly as a matter of political strategy and personal loyalty to certain powerful patrons--not ideological alignment. Clearly Fletcher was not opposed to robust federal governance, at least in connection with civil rights, and it is clear that this sometimes put him at odds with small-government federalists in the party. But Fletcher presumably held political views on issues other than race. What were they? Golland describes Fletcher as a moderate Republican in the Nelson Rockefeller mold, but unlike Rockefeller, Fletcher lived into the twenty-first century. What did he think of the scandal-plagued tenure of Marion Barry, who defeated Fletcher in Washington, DC’s 1978 mayoral election? What were Fletcher’s views on abortion, environmentalism, same-sex marriage, the war on terror, and other historically partisan questions? Golland eventually observes that “Fletcher’s political ideology was better suited to the Republican Party than the Democratic,” but he does not elaborate on this claim or incorporate it into his analysis (p. 281).
At the heart of A Terrible Thing to Waste are three interwoven narratives. One emerges from Golland’s thorough research, chronicling Fletcher as a complicated but tenacious figure who rose to prominence and strove to advance the cause of civil rights. Another is Golland’s broader retelling of the historic struggle for civil rights, from the perspective of an underappreciated but fervent political ally. In these two strands, students of history will find A Terrible Thing to Waste a helpful reference to heterodoxy in both the Republican Party and the civil rights movement of the twentieth century. The third narrative, however, consists of Golland excoriating Republicans and sanitizing certain of Fletcher’s choices in ways that undermine the conundrum on which the story is scaffolded. Readers will come away with an increased understanding of why Fletcher and other African Americans might find the Republican Party a poor personal fit even today, but little reason to suspect this presents anyone with a genuine puzzle. This makes A Terrible Thing to Waste something of a wasted opportunity. Although the book succeeds as a scholarly treatment of Fletcher’s life, the attendant political commentary is of limited value to those who find Fletcher’s conundrum relatable, or anyone seeking evenhanded engagement on the complex relationship between racial identity and partisan politics. So it seems fitting that Golland’s criticism of Fletcher’s own book, The Silent Sell-Out: Government Betrayal of Blacks to the Craft Unions (1974), is that Fletcher’s arguments “broke down in their naked partisanship” (p. 177).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-florida.
Kenneth Pike. Review of Golland, David Hamilton, A Terrible Thing to Waste: Arthur Fletcher and the Conundrum of the Black Republican.
H-Florida, H-Net Reviews.
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