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RECOLLECTIONS OF LUTHER HOLCOMB
VICE CHAIRMAN OF THE
EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION
FROM 1964-1974

prepared by
DANA WHITAKER*
April 28, 2000

"Our purpose was to establish lines of communication."

Luther Holcomb

I. Background

A. Please tell me about your personal history.

The very early years of my childhood were spent in Sherman, Texas. When I reached my teenage years, my father, who was a minister, moved my family to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Upon graduation from Central High School in Oklahoma City, I enrolled in the University of Oklahoma at Norman. Now, because this was during the depression, I had to return to my home town after only one semester of college. I was home only a short while before my family moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where my father became the head of all of the Baptist affairs. When I left home to be on my own, I moved to Dallas and followed in my father's footsteps by becoming a minister.

B. Please describe your experiences or observations of discrimination, especially employment discrimination, you encountered prior to working for the EEOC.

I had been living in Dallas for several years and became involved in a variety of political organizations. The area concerning racial matters was not a popular area in Dallas in which to be involved. Dallas was viewed as a difficult and conservative city. Many people wanted racial justice, but did not know quite the price to pay or what to do about it. There were segments of Texas that were not prepared for racial justice or equal employment. On the other hand, there were those individuals who did not favor any sort of resolution of racial relations but realized the time had come to do something about the growing problem. The public wanted someone, anyone, to be constructive in tackling the issues of racial and employment discrimination, as opposed to a lot of emotional demonstrations. At that time, one could find the topic of equal employment on the agenda of any major organization in any city in America.

C. What previous experiences, if any, prepared you to work for the EEOC?

As I mentioned before, prior to EEOC, I was very involved, politically, in Dallas's community affairs, especially racial matters. Many businessmen would head a few of the committees relative to racial matters, but they would be torn in different directions with too many responsibilities. For example, some businessmen were lawyers and had practices to run and cases to try, resulting in little time to devote to the cause of racial justice. So, I was approached to serve on various committees and I did so with great enthusiasm; I worked around the clock. I believed in racial justice and equal employment, though no one knew what to call it at that time. I served on every committee in Dallas relative to racial matters in general, not just employment discrimination. I served with Irving Goldberg on a statewide committee, based out of Dallas, concerning equal employment. Irving Goldberg was perhaps one of the most brilliant lawyers in Texas and had considerable influence on me. (Later, President Lyndon Johnson would appoint Irving as an appellate judge on the 5th Circuit in New Orleans.) Irving and I were on this committee with 4 or 5 others. We took our positions seriously and worked closely to decipher the best way to approach the Texas legislature concerning the problem of employment discrimination. At that time, we never dreamed there would be an equal employment commission.

D. Were you involved in President John Kennedy's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity?

I was not involved directly with President Kennedy's committee on equal employment opportunities. This type of organization was beginning to unfold at the time of Kennedy's death.

Now, we cannot discuss the issue of equal employment without mentioning the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. Again, I was at the forefront. Erik Jonsson, one of the founders of Texas Instruments, was a local citizen [of Dallas] and chaired a committee of twenty of the most prominent businessmen in Dallas to decide whether to extend an invitation to President Kennedy to visit Dallas. There had been quite a bit of discussion about this. I doubt a cross-section of Dallas really wanted President Kennedy to come to our city.

To refresh your memory, there was a bit of feuding going on between Senator Ralph Yarborough, a liberal, and Governor John Connally, a conservative. With Lyndon Johnson as the Vice President of the United States (and former chairman of the most influential committee in the U.S. Senate, the Senate Democratic Policy Committee), and his close friend, John Connally, as Governor of Texas, a strong political structure existed for Texans. Texas influence had reached a peak at that time. Senator Yarborough was divisive with Governor Connally. President Kennedy's purpose to visit Texas was to woo the citizens of Texas and resolve the Yarborough-Connally conflict.

Let me return to the discussion relative to the meeting at the Adolphus Hotel regarding President Kennedy's visit to Dallas. Former Dallas mayor, R.L. Thornton was one of the members on the committee. He was President of the State Fair of Texas. Thornton had kept quiet during the entire meeting until the end when he stood up and said, "Gentlemen, our discussion today has been about the President of the United States." R.L. Thornton had a way about saying 'President of the United States' as though it was a sacred term. You see, he was from an era that felt American citizens ought to have a certain respect for the Office of the President, whether we like the man or not. Thornton found it ridiculous that we would even think of opposing President Kennedy's coming to Dallas. Why, the very fact that the man was President should be reason enough. Thornton said "If you do not invite him [President Kennedy] to Dallas, I am going to place a call to him tomorrow and invite him to open the State Fair of Texas." After this statement, the tone of the meeting changed. The next day, a call was placed to Governor Connally, who was traveling with the President, to invite President Kennedy to speak at a luncheon in Dallas on November 22, 1963, after a prescheduled breakfast meeting in Fort Worth. A climactic dinner in Austin was planned with all the cross-section of political figures due to be there. I had planned on going to Austin with Bill Moyers immediately after the luncheon.

On November 22nd, I appeared at Love Field in Dallas with Governor Connally to meet President Kennedy upon his arrival from Fort Worth. Governor Connally introduced me to the President by saying "Mr. President, this is Luther Holcomb. He is going to offer the invocation at the luncheon today." President Kennedy looked at me and his facial expression was trying to say to me that he was willing to accept me as a Protestant. He looked at me with a warm smile and about the invocation he said "Make it a good one." All of us noticed the large crowd that had gathered to see President Kennedy and the First Lady. Mrs. Connally leaned over to the President and said "Look at those people out there, Mr. President, they like you (with emphasis). We are happy to have you in our State." Then, of course, we all get into the cars to drive through downtown Dallas to the location of the luncheon. I rode in the 5th car and noticed nothing unusual. I remember hearing gun shots and the motorcade stopping. Earle Cabell, who had been a longtime mayor of Dallas, was sitting across from me and said in a stunned way "That sounded like gunfire to me." He was a hunter so he was familiar with the sounds of gunfire. I will always remember the look that came over the people in the crowd. Then, the motorcade took off at 85 to 90 miles an hour heading to Parkland Memorial Hospital. My car came upon the site of the luncheon where President Kennedy was scheduled to speak before 500-600 people. I asked to be let out of the car because I felt I should be with the people who were waiting for the President. The driver reluctantly stopped the car to let me out. When I arrived at the luncheon, Erik Jonsson asked me to make the announcement to the assembly. My announcement of the tragedy was the first announcement to the public. I have never seen so many people become so overwhelmed with grief. I saw men slipping their arms around their wives and crying along with the women. I cannot tell you how shocked we were in Dallas. Of course, this was true nationwide, but especially true in Dallas.

II. Employment at EEOC

A. How were you recruited to work for the EEOC?

I would not say that any one person recruited me. I was deeply involved in the life of a city which had one crisis after another. I was fortunate in that I knew a great many members of the business world and of various organizations, such as the NAACP and the Urban League. I would not say I was overly active, nationally, but I knew many political figures from visits to Dallas and Austin, including President Johnson's highest staff member, Walter Jenkins.

After President Kennedy's assassination, it was a time of sorrow, not only for one family, but for the city of Dallas. Several weeks after the assassination we were nearing the end of a "period of mourning," though Dallas will never completely get over the events that took place in November of 1963. The City scheduled a prayer breakfast to honor the policeman killed during the assassination. At the same time I was attending this prayer breakfast, a call was going through to my office from Bill Moyers at the White House. I was emotionally drained by the time I returned to my office from the prayer breakfast. My secretary told me that I received a call from the White House. Naturally, I returned the call. Bill Moyers wanted to know if I would be in a position to come to Washington, D.C. on a Monday to discuss an appointment. Bill requested I arrive Sunday evening because they do not run behind schedule at the White House. When I arrived in Washington, I spoke to Bill Moyers. Jack Valenti and many other White House staff members came by to shake hands with me expressing their hopes that I would accept the offer. To give you an example of the informal Texas atmosphere that prevailed in the White House, I will tell you a humorous story about President Johnson. While I was speaking with Bill about the possible appointment as Vice Chairman of the EEOC, President Johnson peered from the door and asked "What did Luther say?" The President did not know I was listening. One of the staff members told Johnson that Luther viewed it favorably. With that, President Johnson replied "Tell him [Luther] I was going to take him to lunch, but if he has already accepted, have Bill take him." I visited with several White House staff and cabinet members and told them that I was in a position to consider the appointment.

B. What were your reasons for accepting the position as Vice Chairman at EEOC?

I was ready to represent the EEOC and work for the cause of equal employment. I had been fighting for it for many years. Further, I find that I possess a willingness to face differences of opinion and try to make some compromise out of it.

C. When did you begin working for the EEOC?

1964. Approximately a year before EEOC opened its doors for business.

D. Please tell me about the duties and responsibilities as Vice Chairman.

As Vice Chairman, I interpreted my duties as working closely with the Chairman. I think it hinders progress if you have a member of the commission who wants to attract attention to himself. I never had ambitions along those lines. In the beginning of an agency, various types of subcommittees must be created to study specific areas such as the budget, regulations and personnel. I worked closely with the individual who managed these subcommittees, Tom Powers. In my judgment, members of a new agency must work on public relations. In Washington, a new agency must offer a willingness and openness with certain key members of Congress and Cabinet. I worked very hard to establish these meetings and found they provided a great deal of insight for all parties.

Additionally, my duties included traveling to many cities in America, like Chicago and Atlanta, to speak and to research specific problems within the particular city and discuss ways in which the EEOC could cure the problems. When I arrived in a city, an organization, such as the NAACP, would gather and we would build a meeting to discuss what was happening in that specific city and surrounding area. These meetings proved to be very helpful to me and other EEOC employees.

III. Early Experiences (focusing on 1965-1970)

A. Do you have any particular recollections of, or experiences with, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr.?

People ask me all the time, what type of person was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr. Roosevelt was a very strong individual. His strength was in his heritage. He, as well as his siblings, was close to his mother, Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt was a wonderful woman. I would expect that he exhibited more of her characteristics than his father's traits. In the early years, he took me to his boyhood home in Hyde Park, New York and told me about experiences with his mother and family. Roosevelt told me that, during the war, he would ride in the front seat of the car with the driver, and in the back seat sat his father and Winston Churchill. You can only imagine riding in a car like that. Roosevelt was a witness to history. His father and Churchill cannot carry on a conversation without it being monumental. Roosevelt and I became very good friends. I would not change anything for my relationship with Roosevelt during that time in my life.

Roosevelt was very close to President Kennedy. He was in Annapolis, Maryland giving a speech the day of President Kennedy's assassination. Though Roosevelt's long-term goal was to become Governor of New York and then President, like his father, Roosevelt wanted the cabinet position of Secretary of Commerce. It is the number one position in relationship to business. I cannot tell you how strongly he wanted it. Johnson persuaded Roosevelt to accept the EEOC Chairman position instead. Johnson convinced Roosevelt that it would be better for Roosevelt's political career if he pursued the governorship of New York as the former EEOC Chairman, as opposed to the former Secretary of Commerce. Thus, Roosevelt accepted the appointment of Chairman of the EEOC. For me personally and for the great cause of equal employment, President Johnson's appointment of Roosevelt was a good move. In fact, it was the most important thing to happen to EEOC. The EEOC was run by a name with international recognition. With Roosevelt as Chairman, the EEOC received attention. When I went to the Hill representing the EEOC, people listened to me.

I do not want to present Roosevelt to you as just a figurehead. Roosevelt had flashes of brilliance. In the beginning of EEOC, Roosevelt and I met with the Secretary of Labor, W. Willard Wirtz. Our approach to him was almost one of humility. We had been asked to do a job and there was no precedent for it. We needed the Secretary's help to get started. Roosevelt said that it was very important that we select the appropriate personnel. Wirtz pointed to a young man near the door and said "That young man is your answer." This young man was Tom Powers. We hired him as the "executive director," if you will, of the EEOC and placed him third in charge. It was a very important move to hire Tom as executive director. He was highly respected by all lawyers and an exceptional person. After the EEOC, Tom pursued a successful law career. Of course, now he is retired.

Now, some people did not like Roosevelt. I admit that Roosevelt did not pursue everything with complete dedication. It was a habit of Roosevelt, not conceit, to be late to meetings or skip appointments entirely. I am not saying this critically about Roosevelt; it was his nature. He was not a good planner. However, there is no substitute for the name. I want to emphasize to you that out of the vast number of commissions in Washington, D.C., it was a benefit to have the name "Roosevelt" as chairman of your commission in the beginning. I do not have to identify with you when I use the name "Roosevelt."

Roosevelt finally resigned, as I remember, as chairman. However, I did not become the new chairman. I did not think it was a good idea to move into such a position because both President Johnson and I were from Texas. Furthermore, everyone would admit that the EEOC was a delicate area and it would be better if I ran errands of interference and solve problems rather than take the ceremonial lead.

B. Do you have any particular recollections of, or experiences with, President Lyndon Johnson?

After President Kennedy's death, President Johnson moved quickly to create the agency for equal employment. Johnson always supported the under-privileged. Because he was a genius for understanding the U.S. Senate and had a natural instinct for politics, President Johnson passed many civil rights laws through Congress. He would make fun of people who wanted to conduct a "study" of discrimination that may be occurring against an individual or group of individuals. His rationale was one knows discrimination is occurring, so do something about it. He could run circles around most leaders in Texas.

When the EEOC was in the planning stages, President Johnson would go to a reception or convention where he was due to be one of the main speakers. Senators and presidents of companies would greet him socially and ask "Who are you going to appoint as chairmen of this new agency, EEOC, to keep the business community abreast of happenings?" Johnson would just say "I am making progress." He had my name and Roosevelt's name in his pocket but would not divulge it!

When the EEOC was created, Congress announced an official meeting at the White House. It was one of the most exciting noon day meetings for EEOC. President Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt, Jr. were the keynote speakers. Many people were present, including representatives of the NAACP and the Urban League. President Johnson wanted the people of America to know that he was dedicated to civil rights and placed the EEOC at the top of his agenda. President Johnson perhaps delivered one of his strongest speeches on civil rights.

C. Do you have any particular recollections of, or experiences with, President Richard Nixon?

Well, President Nixon appointed me for another term, which I accepted. I really had no connection with anyone in President Nixon's administration. Nixon re-appointed me because people who came in contact with me during the previous years felt I was someone with whom they could communicate. They felt I had grasped the problem.

D. Do you have any particular recollections of reactions of members of the general public to the creation of the EEOC?

During the creation of the EEOC, the NAACP sought to be a constructive ally of the EEOC. The NAACP had an exceedingly strong person as president, Roy Wilkins. At the EEOC, we treated Roy Wilkins like a partner. I had frequent meetings with him. He was of high quality and well-dedicated to the cause of equal rights. Along with the NAACP, the Urban League played a major role in the development of the EEOC. I was not only a witness but a participant in the creation of these relationships. Representatives of these organizations were welcome in my office anytime; they did not have to make an appointment. They frequently came to my office and I always stopped to meet with them. We did not know a lot about equal employment, but we worked together and had a good name behind us, Roosevelt. If I had any talent, it was knowing the people personally on the Hill (i.e., President Johnson and Congress).

I traveled a great deal as a representative of EEOC. You see, Franklin Roosevelt, Jr. wanted only to make speeches in New York due to personal political reasons. So, I filled many of his engagements throughout the country, in addition to my own engagements. Thus, I had the opportunity to learn what the people throughout the country really thought about the EEOC. In general, the majority of America was against the EEOC. EEOC brought to the attention of the public a neglected area; an area that most people found unnecessary to cure. When Roosevelt or I received an invitation to speak at a meeting, that invitation came about because a minority or a female was on the planning committee. However, businessmen would attend the meetings because they were interested in whether I was going to advocate a very liberal program or give recognition to the business community.

E. Please describe the types of cases that were investigated in the early years of the EEOC.

The investigators would say one that had merit. Women wanted to know about vacation time and policies concerning pregnancy. Presently, companies take the initiative on the subject of maternity leave. They have plans that pay women, I would not say adequately, but enough to keep the companies in a safe zone should a case develop.

While we are on the subject of women. . .The period regarding equal rights for women moved slowly in the beginning of EEOC. At that time, women did not have the best leadership. I have vivid memories of a meeting held New York City in mid-1960s concerning women's rights. Clifford Alexander presided over it and I was part of the program. Clearly, there was tension at the meeting. Women felt as if the EEOC was moving too slowly with respect to women's rights. Women wanted to be certain that EEOC was looking out for their interests as strongly as the EEOC was looking out for racial interests. I will admit, in the beginning, our number one objective was racial discrimination in the workforce. As a result, women were falling into second place.

I think there is a lot to be done with regard to women's rights. Thus far, there has been a problem in obtaining a good line of communication between the women of America and those at EEOC concerning the improvement of gender relations. During your lifetime, there will be an increasing interest in women, not necessarily more than race, because race will always be a dominant factor.

F. How did America's business community react to the EEOC in the early years?

EEOC was involved in the regulation of businesses and some businesses had more problems than others. Naturally, there was opposition to EEOC during the decade I was there. I imagine there is opposition to it today. In the early years, we were probably viewed as troublesome and created problems for businesses. The average company executive was uncomfortable with government and felt the EEOC should not exist. He felt the EEOC did not understand the problems businesses faced every day. Thus, EEOC was opposed by any individual or group that felt like the government was becoming too big. Many people felt businesses had enough problems without another agency looking over their shoulder.

In the early years of EEOC we officed at 1800 G. Street, N.W., about two long blocks from the White House. Within the first year of EEOC, a business organization, represented nationally (which will remain unnamed), opened an office in the same building as the EEOC. This particular organization wanted to keep a close watch on our agency and any changes that could affect the business community. Franklin Roosevelt, Jr. asked me to be somewhat of a liaison to this organization in order to establish lines of communication with the business community.

I would advise any business to avoid the image of anti-EEOC. There is nothing wrong with controversy, but if you do nothing but have controversy, then it can be a waste of time.

G. Did you develop any special relationships with the other EEOC chairpersons, investigators or employees?

In 1965, we were in the process of hiring Chester Gray from Cleveland, Ohio, as an investigator for the EEOC. Prior to his hire date, Chet went into a restaurant in Birmingham and was arrested. Why was he arrested? I hate to say so, but the reason was his skin is black. He immediately called me and said he was in trouble. Because my skin is white, I was able to call Alabama and have him released from jail by saying "This man [Chet Gray] is not only a good citizen, but he works for the government." When Chet arrived in Washington, D.C. there was some confusion about his salary. He called me about the situation. Chet said it was worse than Birmingham. Together, we went to the White House to determine a solution to the situation. Coming down the corridor was a man from Texas named Marvin Watson. "Marvin, my friend here needs some help about his salary." Right there in the corridor, Marvin pulled out a piece of paper and increased his salary and handed the paper to me. To this day, Chet Gray calls me often to tell me that he remembers how I helped release him from jail in Alabama and increase his salary in Washington.

IV. Experiences of later years (1970-your departure from the EEOC)

A. How did your position as Vice Chairman of the EEOC change over time?

In the beginning, I would go to the Hill and Congressmen who approved my appointment would ask me "Now, what is this job you are doing?" Few people knew of the EEOC and its purpose. As the years went by, I increased the public's awareness.

As I mentioned to you before, Roosevelt missed meetings and appointments, wanting only to concentrate on New York. Because of his habits, my role as Vice Chairman increased. People called me when Roosevelt did not keep his appointments. They would agree to reschedule another appointment with Roosevelt, but asked if I would be available to come in his absence. I kept quite a few appointments.

B. In what ways, if any, did the EEOC change over time?

In the beginning, the EEOC and its employees were in the learning stages of operating an agency. Some people were ready to work for the EEOC, while others were not, due to its unpopularity and challenge. I will admit to you that during the early years, we were bewildered as to which way to turn. The agency was under attack. Everyone wanted to know about the Civil Rights Act. In government, like in business, mistakes will be made. However, I think the EEOC performed better than the public realized. After the first few years, personnel became more experienced and willing to work for the EEOC.

C. When did you leave the EEOC?

I left the EEOC in 1974. I may have made a mistake by not serving another term. However, I was limited because of my wife's health. We returned to Texas, the place we call home. We lived in Houston for one year, before settling in Dallas.

V. Life after EEOC

A. Where did your career take you after you left the EEOC?

I became a consultant for various companies concerning company policies in relation to personnel issues.

B. What are your observations of the EEOC since your departure?

The EEOC is coming into its own. It is not quite as controversial as it used to be and is here to stay. It is a much quieter agency. In recent years, we have not seen dynamic works out of any racial organizations. However, I do not think we have seen the end of racial problems. The situation is not any better than it was during the 1960s. The coasting of racial organizations may be due, in part, to the prosperity of the nation. People are not as inclined to find fault in their working conditions if they have good jobs with reasonable salaries.

The influence of the economy weighs heavily on the EEOC. If the economy begins to decline, which it will, companies need to take a hard look at their personnel practices. Naturally, you are going to have a racial problem if you have an employment problem. Any personnel problem should be taken seriously. Companies must constantly work at building lines of communication to prevent anyone from being mistreated. Most companies are keeping better records than there were in the early years of EEOC. However, a few companies find a comfort zone when placing pictures of minorities in their company literature. This is not the only answer. An African-American told me the other day "They need to touch my pocketbook and quit taking my picture."

As I mentioned before, it is important to watch the economy. I am afraid the high salaries will not last forever and when this starts to change, it is going to be rough. I am afraid we take too much for granted now. When the economy changes, we will see a much stronger EEOC.

* At the time Dana Whitaker interviewed Mr. Holcomb and prepared this transcript, she was a candidate for a Master of Arts Degree in Legal Studies at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. She received her degree on May 12, 2000.


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