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Federal File: Racial Politics

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When a higher education group asked the ranking Democrat on the House education committee to attend its congressional-awards luncheon as an honoree, he responded with angry sarcasm.

Why? Because the National Association For Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, which represents predominantly black colleges and universities, intended to honor Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., at the same April 18 event.

Mr. Thurmond, 92, was known as a staunch supporter of racial segregation for much of his 60 years in politics, although he has backed some civil-rights measures in the past two decades.

"I would not want my presence ... to diminish the significance of the award you will bestow on Sen. Strom Thurmond, a great crusader for civil rights, racial justice, economic parity, and equal educational opportunity," Rep. William L. Clay of Missouri, the top Democrat on the Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, said in a letter to NAFEO's interim president, Wilma J. Roscoe. "His lifetime of dedicated struggle to the advancement of these causes stands heads and shoulders above all others."

Rep. Louis Stokes, D-Ohio, who, like Mr. Clay, is black, was also to be honored. In response to Mr. Clay's missive, NAFEO changed the format. Instead of giving the three lawmakers awards, the group "acknowledge[d] all of the legislators who attend[ed]," a letter from Ms. Roscoe said.

It is unclear who they might have been. Calls to Ms. Roscoe were referred to Talbert O. Shaw, the president of Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., and the chairman of the NAFEO board. Mr. Shaw couldn't be reached for comment.

Mr. Clay refused to attend. Mr. Stokes did not go, either, and his office said he would make no public comment. A spokeswoman for Mr. Thurmond said he had planned to attend but changed his mind after the format change.

After the event, Mr. Clay fired off another letter to NAFEO, in which he compared his and Mr. Stokes' work on behalf of civil rights with Mr. Thurmond's.

"In the interest of clarity," Mr. Clay wrote, "it is imperative that you explain the grounds for selection of Thurmond to your various constituencies."

In a letter of invitation to the luncheon, NAFEO said Mr. Thurmond "for many years [has] been a strong supporter of black colleges and universities [and has] always supported legislation that uniquely assisted black colleges and universities."

--Mark Pitsch
federal@epe.org

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