Bill Clinton on Civil Rights

President of the U.S., 1993-2001; Former Democratic Governor (AR)


Overturn DOMA; it provided an excuse for discrimination

Among the most prominent voices to hail the Supreme Court's decision calling DOMA unconstitutional was the Democratic president who signed it into law: Bill Clinton. "By overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, the Court recognized that discrimination towards any group holds us all back in our efforts to form a more perfect union," said the former president in a joint statement with his wife. "We are also encouraged that marriage equality may soon return to California."

But, of course, Clinton was the president who allowed DOMA to become law in the first place, in 1996. Bill Clinton formalized his own evolution on March 7, when he wrote in support of the Supreme Court invalidating one of his most controversial actions as president. Referring to the words about discrimination he offered in defense of signing DOMA in 1996, Clinton wrote: "Reading those words today, I know now that, even worse than providing an excuse for discrimination, the law is itself discriminatory. It should be overturned."

Source: Michael O'Brien, NBC News, "Clintons Hail DOMA Ruling" , Jun 26, 2013

Promised open gays in military; but compromised with DADT

During the campaign, Clinton had endorsed permitting gays to serve openly in the military. The president-elect indicated that he intended to issue this executive order as one of his 1st acts in the White House.

The incoming administration found itself under withering attack from the active-duty military, led by its highest-ranking officer, General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and (according to polls) the nation's most admired African American.

It quickly became evident that if Clinton went through with the executive order, he would be choosing to begin his new administration with a high-profile battle against a Democratic-controlled Congress, and he would be standing with a distinct minority of the electorate. Much to the chagrin of his numerous backers in the gay-rights movement, he compromised by accepting a congressional policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" regarding current members of the armed forces.

Source: The Case for Polarized Politics, by Jeff Bell, p. 37 , Mar 6, 2012

Do the hard work of bridging racial divisions

Writing in the Washington Post, the columnist William Raspberry suggested that the "Call" was "just what is needed--at least for starters: Listening carefully to each other and to the whole community; bringing people together, not in confrontation, but in trust, to tackle the most urgent needs. Raspberry, a persistent voice for rational racial dialogue, linked the "Call" to President Clinton's speech at the University of Texas on October 16, in which he urged Americans to do the hard work of bridging racial divisions that stemmed in part from "the fact that we haven't learned to talk frankly, to listen carefully and to work together across racial lines." The "Call" was launched formally at the National Press Club in Washington D.C., on May 23 1996.

The organizers described it as "an effort to encourage political leaders to engage in open, honest conversation about race and its impact on national life."

Source: Trustbuilding, by Rob Corcoran, p. 81 , Mar 4, 2010

1997: Lead a great and unprecedented conversation on race

In 1997, Clinton announced his intention to lead the American people in a "great and unprecedented conversation on race" and the implications for the 21st century of Americans of so many diverse backgrounds living and working together. Calling for a "candid conversation," he said: "We have talked at each other and about each other for a long time. It is high time we began talking with each other. Racial dialogue will not be easy at first. We will have to get past defensiveness and fear and political correctness. We have torn down barriers in our laws. Now we must tear down barriers in our lives, our minds and our hearts."

Clinton launched a blue- ribbon advisory board to raise the issue of racial reconciliation onto the national agenda, and to develop recommendations for national policies to bridge opportunity gaps. "One America," as the president's race initiative was named, gave significant exposure & validation to a dialogue movement already at a high level of development.

Source: Trustbuilding, by Rob Corcoran, p. 89 , Mar 4, 2010

1978: Supported ERA peripherally in first Governor race

In 1978, Hillary’s presence next to Bill at campaign events--and their vigorous support for the equal Rights Amendment--further inflamed the Moral Majority right, still in its infancy. At a campaign stop, a woman started hollering at Bill, “Talk about the ERA!” Bill said, “Okay, I’ll talk about it. I’m for it. You’re against it. But it won’t do as much harm as you think it will or as much good as those of us who support it wish it would. Now let’s get back to schools and jobs.”
Source: A Woman in Charge, by Carl Bernstein, p.142 , Jun 5, 2007

Unlike most white politicians, didn't need Jesse Jackson

Q [to Former Congressman Mike Espy, who later became Clinton's USDA Secretary]: Did the Congressional Black Caucus criticize your early support of Bill Clinton?

A: Yes. I wanted to be known as President Clinton's best friend in the Black Caucus. They used me a lot, during the campaign, to answer charges. The Sister Souljah thing was one [where Jesse Jackson criticized Clinton on race].

Q: What was Bill Clinton's relationship with Jesse Jackson?

A: Jesse was used to being the emissary for white politicians in the black community, and Bill didn't need that. He could go himself. He was raised among black people, in the Deep South. Bill operated in a world that was truly diverse, where he was comfortable, and Jesse operated in a world that was a bit limited. He was the foremost black leader, and Bill wanted to be the foremost leader. That's where they began to diverge, and it was resented in some ways.

Source: U.Va. MillerCenter.org interview of USDA Secretary Mike Espy , May 15, 2006

No quotas and no reverse discrimination

Today, I am directing all our agencies to comply with the Supreme Court's Adarand decision, and also to apply the 4 standards of fairness to all our affirmative action programs that I have already articulated: no quotas in theory or practice; no illegal discrimination of any kind, including reverse discrimination; no preference for people who are not qualified for any job or other opportunity; and as soon as a program has succeeded, it must be retired. Any program that doesn't meet these four principles must be eliminated or reformed to meet them.

But let me be clear: Affirmative action has been good for America.

Affirmative action has not always been perfect, and affirmative action should not go on forever. It should be changed now to take care of those things that are wrong, and it should be retired when its job is done. I am resolved that that day will come. But the evidence suggests, indeed, screams that that day has not yet come.

Source: A Patriot's Handbook, by Caroline Kennedy, p.345 , Apr 13, 2005

Believed in affirmative action on racial & personal grounds

Clinton believed that symbolic gestures of racial reconciliation--like affirmative action, which mostly benefits middle class blacks--were not only necessary, but they also reflected an emerging American reality. In the end, the affirmative action decision was quite personal for the President. He simply could not stand up in front of his African-American friends--who had sacrificed for the civil rights cause--and say the politically expedient words: Affirmative action is unfair & we should end it.
Source: The Natural, by Joe Klein, p.151 , Feb 11, 2003

1991: Pledged to allow gays to serve openly in military

In his very first press conference as President-elect, on 11/11/91, he made a serious mistake. Asked if he would stand by his pledge to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the military, Clinton said yes. The military issue had never been very important to the homosexual activist groups, who were more concerned with equal job protection, marriage rights, and AIDS funding; oddly, the Republicans had chosen not to highlight this lesser Clinton pledge during the campaign. And a more alert President-elect could easily have slipped past the question. (The classic Clintonian response would have been: "Yes, we're going to ask the military to study the situation and come up with a plan"--to be implemented sometime in the next century.)

"It sent precisely the wrong message," said a campaign advisors. "I'm not saying he shouldn't have taken that position. But as the first thing he did?"

This was also the first glimmer of a significant problem: Clinton's uncertainty about--and unfamiliarity with--the military.

Source: The Natural, by Joe Klein, p. 44-45 , Feb 11, 2003

MLK didn't fight for freedom to abandon family

In 1993, Clinton made a stunning, impromptu performance before a group of black ministers in Memphis--perhaps the best speech a President has ever delivered to a black audience. He spoke informally, but without patronizing; and he spoke brazenly, presuming to know what Martin Luther King might say if he were still alive: "'I fought for freedom,' he would say, 'but not for the freedom of children to have children, and the fathers of the children to walk away and abandon them as if they don't amoun to anything. That is not what I lived and died for.'"

The reception was sensational; the ministers seemed to sense as many African-Americans did, that the President was FAMILY. He was willing to confront black audiences with some difficult truths--abou the need for welfare reform (a big applause line with socially conservative black middle-class audiences) and parental responsibility--but he was equally insistent on the need for racial tolerance and a determined government effort to promote diversity.

Source: The Natural, by Joe Klein, p. 81-82 , Feb 11, 2003

1996: Supported affirmative action despite its unpopularity

According to Hillary Clinton, Bill had to know exactly how "angry white males" felt--he had to feel it himself--before he could, in the summer of 1995, with an election looming (and with Dick Morris brandishing all sorts of polls showing how unpopular his position was), maintain his longtime support for affirmative action.

The decisions Clinton made on affirmative action and welfare reform, as he approached his reelection campaign of 1996, were very different and yet entirely similar. A cynic might say that he split that difference--he gave the Old Democrats affirmative action and the New Democrats welfare reform. And while his anguished equivocation under the moral authority of each decision, Clinton was ultimately consistent--he had stood for both throughout his political career; indeed, both were integral to his governing vision.

Source: The Natural, by Joe Klein, p.150-151 , Feb 11, 2003

1995: On affirmative action: “mend not end”

The 1995 Adarabd v. Pena case was a landmark Supreme Court ruling against government racial preferences and quotas. Prior to Adarand, the government sponsored in one form or another more than 160 racial preference programs allocating some $10 billion through overt racial spoils systems. Those submitting the lowest bid, for example, would not get certain jobs or contracts unless they ore their companies fit certain racial or ethnic profiles. Bill Clinton responded with a slogan he must have borrowed from Jesse Jackson: he wanted to “mend not end” these discriminatory programs, benignly labeled ‘affirmative action,’ and used an executive order to continue the profiling.
Source: The Final Days, by Barbara Olson, p. 79 , Oct 25, 2001

1993: Issued gays-in-military policy ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’

Within days of being sworn in as president, Clinton issued an order about homosexuals in the military, changing existing policy to what became ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ That order responded to pressure from Clinton’s homosexual supporters, who had raised $3.5 million dollars for him.
Source: The Final Days, by Barbara Olson, p. 78 , Oct 25, 2001

Work to End Racial Profiling

To help determine where and when racial profiling occurs, Pres. Clinton directed the Departments of Justice, Treasury and Agriculture to collect data on the race, ethnicity, and gender of individuals subject to certain stops by federal law enforcement. The President also supports legislation to help state and local police forces to collect the same data. The President has also supported increased resources for police integrity and ethics training and to improve the diversity of local police forces.
Source: WhiteHouse.gov web site , Aug 1, 2000

End Discrimination Against People With AIDS

President Clinton supports the Supreme Court’s decision in Bragdon v. Abbott, which reinforces the protections offered by the Americans With Disabilities Act for Americans living with HIV and AIDS. The President directed the Justice Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to vigorously prosecute those who discriminate against people with AIDS, leading to actions against health care providers and facilities that violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Source: WhiteHouse.gov web site , May 1, 2000

First President to appoint open gays

Creating the most diverse Administration in history, the President has appointed openly gay men and lesbians to all levels of government, including judicial appointments and top Executive Branch positions requiring Senate confirmation. In fact, President Clinton is the first President to appoint an openly gay or lesbian person to an Administration post. The President has nominated more than 150 openly gay and lesbian appointees.

On October 6, 1997 and again on January 6, 1999, the President nominated James C. Hormel to be U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg. Although Mr. Hormel’s qualifications were never in question, and it was generally agreed that his nomination would have easily won a floor vote, a handful of conservative Senators blocked the nomination. On June 4, 1999, President Clinton announced the recess appointment of James Hormel, making Mr. Hormel the first openly gay U.S. Ambassador.

Source: WhiteHouse.gov web site , May 1, 2000

Women should get equal pay for equal work

We also can't reward work and family unless men and women get equal pay for equal work. Today the female unemployment rate is the lowest it has been in 46 years. Yet, women still only earn about 75 cents for every dollar men earn. We must do better, by providing the resources to enforce present equal pay laws, training more women for high-paying, high-tech jobs, and passing the "Paycheck Fairness Act."
Source: Pres. Clinton's 2000 State of the Union message to Congress , Jan 27, 2000

Include sexual orientation in Hate Crimes

Discrimination or violence because of race or religion, ancestry or gender, disability or sexual orientation, is wrong, and it ought to be illegal. Therefore, I ask Congress to make the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the Hate Crimes Prevention Act the law of the land.
Source: State of the Union Address , Jan 19, 1999

Help minority- and women-owned businesses compete

The President signed the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century into law on June 9, 1998. The Act protects the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) Program, a program that ensures that minority and women-owned businesses have an opportunity to compete for transportation projects. The Administration helped defeat an amendment to the House version of this bill that would have eliminated the DBE Program. In a different measure, the President also approved the creation of a new program to target assistance to minority-owned businesses in industries that continue to reflect the effects of discrimination. As a result, thousands of minority-owned businesses will be able to compete more effectively for government contracts.
Source: WhiteHouse.gov web site , Jun 9, 1998

Affirmative Action is still an effective tool

Promise: To oppose racial quotas.

Status: The President ordered a review of the federal government's affirmative action programs and concluded that affirmative action is still an effective tool to expand economic and educational opportunity. The Supreme Court [decided that] an affirmative action program may not have quotas, reverse discrimination, or preferences for unqualified individuals. Thus, during President Clinton's tenure, racial quotas have been effectively eliminated.

Source: State of the Union, by T.Blood & B.Henderson, p.112 , Aug 1, 1996

OpEd: Clinton administration has a love affair with quotas

Although quotas are increasingly unpopular with the populace--one poll indicated that 77% of blacks and 73% of whites oppose quotas--the Clinton administration continues to cherish them. A number of truly ludicrous personnel directives have grown out of the Clinton administration's love affair with quotas. For example, the 1994 Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) performance standards for evaluating managers and supervisors included such criteria as "speak[ing] favorably about minorities, women, persons with disabilities, and others of diverse backgrounds," "participating as an active member of minority, feminist, or other cultural organizations," and "participating in EEO and Cultural Diversity activities outside of HUD."
Source: Agenda For America, by Haley Barbour, p.148 , Apr 25, 1996

Affirmative action: mend it, don’t end it

The Supreme Court rejected the notion that we could ever be separate but equal, and Democrats and Republicans alike passed laws against discrimination and created affirmative action programs to redress centuries of wrongs for minorities and women.

Affirmative action was intended to give everybody a fair chance, but it hasn’t always worked smoothly & fairly. Today there are those who are determined to put an end to affirmative action, as if the purposes for which it was created have been achieved. They have not. Until they are, we need to mend affirmative action, most certainly, but not end it.

That is exactly what we are trying to do: end abuses, prohibit quotas, subject affirmative action to strict review, oppose any benefits to those who aren’t qualified, but make that extra effort to see that everyone has not a guarantee, but a chance.

Source: Between Hope and History, by Bill Clinton, p.132 , Jan 1, 1996

Affirmative action is a moral imperative

It is, in a way, ironic that this issue should be divisive today, because affirmative action was begun 25 years ago by a Republican president with bipartisan support. It began simply as a means to an end of enduring national purpose equal opportunity for all Americans.

So let us today trace the roots of affirmative action in our never ending search for equal opportunity. Let us determine what it is & what it isn't. Let us see where it's worked and where it hasn't, and ask ourselves what we need to do now. Along the way, let us remember always that finding common ground as we move toward the 21st century depends fundamentally on our shared commitment to equal opportunity for all Americans. It is a moral imperative, a constitutional mandate, and legal necessity..

Source: A Patriot's Handbook, by Caroline Kennedy, p.340 , Jul 19, 1995

People of all races are equal in the eyes of God

Q: What would you do to end racial division?

CLINTON: I grew up in the segregated south, thankfully raised by a grandfather with almost no formal education but with a heart of gold who taught me early that all people were equal in the eyes of God. I saw the winds of hatred divide people and keep the people of my State poorer than they would have been, spiritually and economically. I've done everything I could in my public life to overcome racial divisions. We are too divided by race, by income, by region. I have devoted a major portion of this campaign to going across this country and looking for opportunities to go to African-American groups, Latino groups, Asian-American groups, and say the same thing: If the American people cannot be brought together, we can't turn this country around. If we can come together, nothing can stop us.

BUSH: I think Gov. Clinton is committed. But I do think it's fair to note that Arkansas is one of the few States that doesn't have any civil rights legislation.

Source: The First Clinton-Bush-Perot Presidential Debate , Oct 11, 1992

Shift from group preferences to economic empowerment of all.

Clinton adopted the manifesto, "A New Agenda for the New Decade":

Strengthen America’s Common Civic Culture
The more ethnically and culturally diverse America becomes, the harder we must all work to affirm our common civic culture -- the values and democratic institutions we share and that define our national identity as Americans. This means we should resist an “identity politics” that confers rights and entitlements on groups and instead affirm our common rights and responsibilities as citizens. Multiethnic democracy requires fighting discrimination against marginalized groups; empowering the disadvantaged to join the economic, political, and cultural mainstream; and respecting diversity while insisting that what we have in common as Americans is more important than how we differ. One way to encourage an ethic of citizenship and mutual obligation is to promote voluntary national service. If expanded to become available to everyone who wants to participate, national service can help turn the strong impulse toward volunteerism among our young people into a major resource in addressing our social problems. It will also help revive a sense of patriotism and national unity at a time when military service is no longer the common experience of young Americans.

Source: The Hyde Park Declaration 00-DLC6 on Aug 1, 2000

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Other past presidents on Civil Rights: Bill Clinton on other issues:
Former Presidents:
Barack Obama(D,2009-2017)
George W. Bush(R,2001-2009)
Bill Clinton(D,1993-2001)
George Bush Sr.(R,1989-1993)
Ronald Reagan(R,1981-1989)
Jimmy Carter(D,1977-1981)
Gerald Ford(R,1974-1977)
Richard Nixon(R,1969-1974)
Lyndon Johnson(D,1963-1969)
John F. Kennedy(D,1961-1963)
Dwight Eisenhower(R,1953-1961)
Harry S Truman(D,1945-1953)

Past Vice Presidents:
V.P.Joseph Biden
V.P.Dick Cheney
V.P.Al Gore
V.P.Dan Quayle
Sen.Bob Dole

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Page last updated: Feb 22, 2022