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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Peter Holmes, April 18, 1991. Interview L-0168. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Impact of decision in <cite>Adams</cite> case on the OCR's approach to desegregation

Holmes discusses the various challenges the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) faced from 1969, when the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) began to investigate the state of desegregation in ten southern states, through his administration as OCR director from 1973 to 1975. In particular, Holmes addresses the impact of judge John H. Pratt's ruling in the <cite>Adams</cite> case (1973) on the OCR's efforts to enforce policies of desegregation. Holmes also specifically focuses on the ramifications of such policy making for the systems of dual higher education in the South.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Peter Holmes, April 18, 1991. Interview L-0168. 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:
Tell me a little bit about the Office of Civil Rights when you took over andߞwell, we're going back to 1969, since you've had a good bit of contact with it. Describe in a little bit more detail the problems that the office had, if it had problemsߞappeared it did in retrospectߞparticularly the problems in had in enforcing an order after 1973. I mean it must have been a tremendous challenge in a way to have been given such a blanket order from Pratt, that required so much without a great deal of specificity in a way.
PETER HOLMES:
Yeah. Well, I guess itߞby necessity, I'll have to generalize. I mean, the Pratt order, I thought, was an unfortunate development, quite frankly. It, in effect, set down some very specific, very inflexible timetables, as I recall. Certainly very burdensome recording requirements on the office. Recording requirements that in effect required us to report directly to the plaintiffs in the case. And they, in effect, wereߞbecame a sort of ex officio representatives of the government, if you will, under the court order. I thought the order was unnecessary to begin with, because I felt like the department, in particularly, the Office for Civil Rights, very diligently was carrying it out its responsibilities under the law. The order was multifaceted. It hadߞit wasn't exclusively ready to the higher education issue, as you know so well.
WILLIAM LINK:
Yeah.
PETER HOLMES:
What it involved was the elementary and secondary education issues. Of course, the focus of the office had beenߞthe focus of the office had been in the elementary and secondary education area. And it was in that period of '69, '70, '71, and '72, where a concerted effort was made to negotiate successfully in those southern border states, desegregation plans at the elementary and secondary level. The office was sort of, as I recall, and I don't want to misrepresent anything but, the issue of higher education and desegregation was an issue that was sort ofߞit was an issue that was raised, as I recall, by the former director of the Office of Civil Rights and the former administration, after the former president had lost reelection, and before the new president came in. As I recall, and I may misstate it, but it's my recollection, a number of letters were sent out officially citing for noncompliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act in the state higher education systems. This was a very difficult area. An extremely difficult area to work in. The law was not sharply defined. Theߞyou did not haveߞyou don't have compulsory attendance, such as you have in elementary and secondary levels. And the law, neither the law nor the policies were clearly defined with regard to the higher education desegregation issue. The mere fact, however, that those letters had been sent out, prior to the incoming Nixon administration, putting states on notice, were on the record. And, well, certain steps were taken in the period of '68 through '72 - '73, on the issue that the states, the fact that nobody had been brought to the bar and been cited for non-complianceߞor not cited, but Federal funds cut off, what have you. It was sitting out there and Pratt through it in his order that you have toߞthat the office had to undertake certain steps with regard to higher education desegregation. Those were very difficult years. The focus of the policies, the focus of the initiatives of the Office for Civil Rights were not in the higher education area at the time. They were in the elementary and secondary education area. During that same period you had Executive Order 11246 that come up, dealing with employment, affirmative action in employment in higher education. Federally funded higher education systems throughout the country. So, much of our higher education divisions responsibilities at the time, during that period, were devoted primarily to enforce an Executive Order 11-246 of Higher Education Affirmative Action, standards with regard to higher education employment. Efforts with regard to the dual higher education systems in the south took a secondary to triciary place, quite frankly, in our policy priorities.
WILLIAM LINK:
So, most of your attention was occupied with these other matters?
PETER HOLMES:
Correct.
WILLIAM LINK:
And you dealt with this as it came out, sort of?
PETER HOLMES:
That's right.
WILLIAM LINK:
Did you feel yourself in something of a difficult position regarding this?
PETER HOLMES:
An extremely difficult position. I mean, you're in an extremely difficultߞand I don't have it here but I have itߞI have it at home, a picture sitting in the Cabinet Room at the White House with President Nixon, at the time, and the presidents of probably twenty-five black colleges from around the country, whoߞI don't know how they got the meeting with the President, but they got the meeting with the President to express their concern that the pressures with regard to higher education desegregation were going to spell the end, the demise of black colleges as we know them. It's a tough issue, yes. A very difficult issue. And the law was very unclear. And what is it? It's 1991, many, many years later and we still see the issue in the courts. We now see the Supreme Court taking surge on a case out of Mississippi. So, very difficult issues. And not clearly defined, you know, not ߞwith very little law, very little policy on how you address the issues.
WILLIAM LINK:
What was the attitude generally of the White House? Was there much White House involvement? Or was it something ߞ
PETER HOLMES:
I don't think there was much White House involvement. I mean, I refer to the fact that the black college presidents had a meeting with the President, with Nixon, in the White House, at the time. I mean, it was an issueߞthere was a domestic policy staff at the White House. They followed closely the enforcement of programs in the domestic policy area, by all the agencies, all the departments. But was there political interference? No, I don't think there was political interference by the White House at the time. Or anything that anyone could say related to that. There was a sensitivityߞsensitivity at the White House, a sensitivity at the level of secretary of HEW. A sensitivity in the director of the Office for Civil Rights, that the area we were embarking on, by attempting to eliminate the vestiges of the duality in the higher education system was a very difficult area to address and one of which there was really no law or policy for. And a wide, a very wideߞno unanimity. No unanimity whatsoever, within the Civil Rights community, or the black community, as to how the issue should be readdressed.