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LASTWORD: Strange Bedfellows and HBCUs – The Politics behind the Black College Act

Michael A. Tongour was a legislative assistant in the offi ce of Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). Tongour was a hard worker, who like me, was new to the U.S. Senate – and seemed unaware of his boss’ checkered history in the African-American community. That history was largely due to his Dixiecrat background, including his walking out of the 1948 Democratic Convention due to a civil rights plank in the party platform about equal treatment for Black Americans in the military. There were also persistent rumors, later confirmed, about him having a Black daughter in the Orangeburg, S.C., area.

It was Thurmond’s annual task to get the Senate to adopt a resolution identifying a certain week, and later September, as “Black College Month,” usually coinciding with the annual conference of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Sure as clockwork, Tongour showed up in late August 1985 with his Senate resolution seeking the signature of my boss, Sen. Paul Simon, on Thurmond’s resolution. Tongour’s arrival provided a great opportunity – the one I had been seeking – to secure some bipartisan support for Simon’s effort’s to move his Historically Black College and University Act bill in the Senate.

As a recently elected senator from Illinois and a member of the minority Democratic Party at that time, Simon had little clout on the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee. Sens. Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy of Massachusetts and Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island occupied the positions of leadership on the Democratic side. Sen. Robert T. “Bob” Stafford of Vermont was committee chair and Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana was a key leader on education and job-training issues for the Republicans. I knew I needed help, and there were few members of the Labor and Human Resources Committee with HBCUs in their states. South Carolina was one of them.

After agreeing to have Simon sign on Thurmond’s resolution, I told Tongour, “If your boss really wants to do something meaningful for the HBCUs, you should get him to co-sponsor Paul’s bill amending Title III of the Higher Education Act of 1965 to provide funding for the HBCUs!” Tongour responded, “Get me a draft of Sen. Simon’s bill and I’ll show it to my boss.”

That exchange spawned a friendship between Tongour and I that has lasted until today and created a working relationship between Simon and Thurmond that led to bipartisan support for the Historically Black College and University Act in the committee and on the fl oor of the Senate. With strong support from Pell of Rhode Island, mostly because of Brown University’s longstanding relationship with Tougaloo College in Mississippi, and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the only other senator on the committee with HBCUs in her state, Simon succeeded in enacting “race specifi c” legislation to enhance the nation’s HBCUs.

While Thurmond and Tongour’s stafflevel work was not always proactive – Thurmond’s presence as a supporter and cosponsor of the Historically Black College and University Act had a signifi cant impact on the ultimate outcome: Simon’s bill passed virtually intact. An example of Thurmond’s positive impact occurred during staff-level discussions on critical issues such as how long Congress would authorize the remedial activities in the bill. Because Thurmond had some direct knowledge of the six HBCUs in South Carolina, especially what are now South Carolina State and Claflin universities, he brought through Tongour some real time and definitive knowledge about the need to remediate, over time, these institutions – which were denied state and federal support in the past.

It’s important to keep in mind that Simon’s rationale for developing and urging Congress to adopt the Black college act was based on the research that I did as a consultant for the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education. Simon’s interest in HBCUs hinged on the substantial number of HBCU alumni located in Chicago, most of whom had been recruited to teach in the predominantly Black schools in the city’s public school system.

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