Clifford Alexander helped shape the history of civil rights

Ink from the pens on Clifford Alexander's wall helped write American history. President Lyndon B. Johnson gave him pens from the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—crowning achievements of the civil rights movement, ending segregation, banning discrimination in the workplace, and helping African Americans overcome legal barriers to vote.

The 84-year-old New York City native's life is a testament to the fight for racial equality.

Alexander graduated from Harvard University in the 1950s becoming the first African American student body president. He did it at a time when the Ivy League school capped black enrollment at about a dozen students per year.

Later he also earned a law degree from Yale University.

Then he became a top advisor to President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. He was the only African American on LBJ's team.

The White House, civil rights leaders, and legislators engaged in debates about forming that landmark legislation. Alexander was a liaison to civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney Young, John Lewis, Dorothy Height, the NAACP's Roy Wilkins.

Alexander described the exchanges among the leaders and the president in the Oval Office as being practical and the nitty-gritty of getting something done. And finally, they got it done.

Alexander was counsel to the commander in chief at many pivotal moments during the civil rights movement, including the appointment of Thurgood Marshall as the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. He said that the president told Marshall that he didn't appoint him because it was good politically; he appointed him because Marshall, like Johnson, was "of the people."

From the historic Civil Rights Act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was created. As its first black chairman, Alexander made a policy of leaning on Hollywood, TV networks, and advertising agencies to rethink their approach. He believed that including women and minorities would set a tone for society. During his time at the EEOC, the agency urged many industries to change, including the New York City subway system and its ads with only white characters.

Leaving government, Alexander became the first black partner at a major Washington, D.C., law firm, ran unsuccessfully in the District of Columbia's first mayoral race in a century, and hosted a syndicated news commentary show.

Then President Jimmy Carter called him about a job. He offered the former National Guardsman the post of Secretary of the Army—also a first for an African American. By the time he left that position, 30 black generals were serving in the Army—more than five times as when he started. Among them was Colin Powell, who went on to become the African American to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and also become its chairman.

Alexander said that he is frustrated with what he sees in society today when it comes to equality and inclusiveness. He said that the country is better off using the talents of all the men and women. We said that the United States is a "heck of a lot better off" not talking about Muslims as an "excluded religion," not calling Latinos "rapists," and not presenting blacks as if "we own them."

Clifford Alexander is a voice from the past hoping for a better future.