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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Julius L. Chambers, June 18, 1990. Interview L-0127. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Decline of post-secondary desegregation due to conservative backlash

The trajectory of higher education desegregation depended upon each president's administration throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Chambers contends that federal courts had often overridden political pressures to avoid desegregation and civil rights gains. However, Ronald Regan's administration, in particular, represented a sharp retreat from higher education desegregation. Chambers argues that Reagan's endorsement of North Carolina's consent decree, which set enrollment goals for minority applicants, reaped fewer benefits for minorities than did the previously used quota system.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Julius L. Chambers, June 18, 1990. Interview L-0127. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

WILLIAM LINK:
How did you find the attitude of HEW? Particularly during, let's say, the Nixon and Carter administrations? The Office for Civil Rights, I suppose, would have been the most important agencies that would have been under HEW. Is there a group of people more sympathetic during the Carter years in those agencies? Were they ߞ
JULIUS L. CHAMBERS:
I think one could argue that. Let's see, we had under Nixonߞfirst of all, we started the law suit because Nixon said they weren't going to enforce Title VI. And I think that attitude prevailed throughout that term. And then we had Carter. He brought in some people who showed more sympathy for claims by minorities, that they were entitled to better opportunities in higher ed. We had theߞMary Frances Berry initially was the Commissioner of Education. And then we had some people in OCR who were trying to do more. There were, throughout the thing, political pressures that limited what anybody in OCR to do. That's why it was necessary to keep going back to court. [inaudible] And we had also, under Carter, a Justice Department that was much more sympathetic to the plight that minorities were raising. And then we had the Reagan era. One of the major political contentions being that government ought not to be that involved in all that higher ed. So there were ups and downs. We had to get a set of criteria in higher ed, because OCR wasn't doing anything. It wasn't about to come up with anything. And when they were directed to come up with some, we spent a lot of time trying to get those criteria improved, so they would be more effective. And then we've gone from lack of enthusiasm for the c riteria to almost complete abandonment for those riteria. And now the Adams case, being argued on the issue, whether the case should remain open and in court.
WILLIAM LINK:
What is your perception of the consent decree that happened in North Carolina in 1981? It became very quickly, six months after the inauguration of Ronald Reagan.
JULIUS L. CHAMBERS:
It was the complete abandonment of any meaningful effort to eliminate the vestiges of the past discrimination. If one just looked at, say, three, or four, or five issuesߞin a student assignment, the plan, the consent decree, say, is very low, in terms of the types of goalsߞthose are worse than they were when OCR was involved. In theߞthough that's true, both in terms of recruitment and actual enrollment, and retention and graduation. If one looks at the hiring of faculty membersߞreduced goals. The situation is really worse than it was inߞlet's see, in 1976 or before. And the same is true in administration. If one looks at the enhancement of the traditionally black institutions. We're basically abandoned what we accomplished. They talk very much now about enhancing A&T or enhancing North Carolina Central. That's just not in vogue, and we're back to the same thing we were doing before. If we talk about the governanceߞas I recall, when the Board of Governors first started off, they had a requirement for six members, minority members of the Board of Governors. What are we down toߞthree, four members, whatever? So if we look at that consent decree in terms of specifics, we see a worse situation than I think we had beforehand. And the effect of that decree on commitment and interest of people has also been disappointing. Nobody believes there is any incentive anymore in what you're doing. And we do have individual chancellors who talk about an interest in doing A, B, C, or D. But now there's no push from up high, I mean, from Washington or from Chapel Hill. [inaudible]
WILLIAM LINK:
The consent decree was part of the Reagan administration's attempt to close down all the structure of Federal involvement in desegregation?
JULIUS L. CHAMBERS:
I think they want to put it that way. I think it was more of a political payoff, at least the immediate [pause] move for that consent decree to the state for supporting the administration during that election of 1980. But the administration did come in office with a type of program of eliminatingߞor challenging the remedies in practically every area that were trying to provide some relief for minorities and women, and that continued. And it wanted to take a broader perspective, I guess, one could say that happened in North Carolina was part of the overall plan to eliminate desegregation.
WILLIAM LINK:
So you think there were political elements to it, too?
JULIUS L. CHAMBERS:
No doubt about it. No doubt about it. And there's no doubt about iߞwent from our Senator to the Administration, to the Department of Justice, French Smith, to the-then Assistant Attorney General in charge of civil rights to the-then Secretary of Education. And it has been continued, so. I think what happened with North Carolina was so close to the election and preceded real plans for the major assault the Reagan Administration tried to make on civil rights. That's why I'm saying it was something initially outside of what the administration wanted.