10/04/2011 02:44 pm ET Updated Dec 04, 2011

President Clinton's Civil Rights Legacy: From Little Rock to the Nation

In their 1992 campaign book, Putting People First, Bill Clinton and Al Gore unveiled a "New Covenant" for American progressivism rooted in the values of opportunity for all, responsibility from all and a renewed sense of community.

During that campaign, Governor Clinton also famously pledged as president to put together a cabinet and an administration that "looked like America." For African Americans, that vision was a welcome departure from the previous 12 years of back-tracking and race baiting on an issue that has been America's constant curse since the first slave ship landed at Jamestown in 1619.

But after centuries of empty words and broken promises that had stifled the growth of an African American middle class and rendered so much of black America invisible to the rest of America, many northern blacks from my generation were skeptical. There were exceptions.

People like Stetson Kennedy of Jacksonville, Florida; Lyndon Johnson of Stonewall, Texas; and Jimmy Carter of Plains, Georgia had taken heroic steps for equality. But the image of southern whites seared into many African American minds looked more like Birmingham's Bull Connor with fire hoses and attack dogs, Alabama Governor George Wallace blocking the schoolhouse door, and Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus calling out the National Guard and laying siege to Little Rock's Central High School.

With his overt emphasis on racial reconciliation, Bill Clinton had the wisdom and the courage during that campaign to challenge whites and blacks to break from the habitual use of race as a wedge issue. He asked that we begin to see America's growing diversity as a great strength, a reason to draw together and a reflection of our common humanity.

As president, Bill Clinton lived up to his promise. His cabinet and White House staff did, indeed, look like America. He appointed more people of color and women than any president in history, including Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, for whom I wrote speeches for two years before becoming a White House speechwriter in March of 1995. President Clinton eventually promoted me to become the first African American director of White House speechwriting in history.

As one of the few African American political speechwriters in the country, I was used to being the only black person in the room. But it was different in the Clinton White House. I had plenty of company. During my tenure as chief speechwriter, of the 28 assistants to the president, the highest staff rank, 14 were either people of color, women or both -- the most in history.

They included: Deputy Chief of Staff Maria Echaveste; Director of Political Affairs Minyon Moore; Director of White House Personnel Bob Nash; Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Mickey Ibarra; Director of Cabinet Affairs Thurgood "Goody" Marshall; Director of Management and Administration Mark Lindsay; Director of White House Photography Sharon Farmer; and Director of the President's Office for One America, my good friend, Ben Johnson.

Ben's One America office was an outgrowth of the president's unprecedented initiative on race. Launched in 1997 in a speech at the University of California at San Diego, President Clinton's Race Initiative was a bold invitation to the American people to speak honestly and openly about the causes, effects and remedies of lingering racial division. In that speech the president laid out the challenge in historical terms:

More than 30 years ago, at the high tide of the civil rights movement, the Kerner Commission said we were becoming two Americas, one white, one black, separate and unequal. Today we face a different choice: will we become not two, but many Americas, separate, unequal and isolated? Or will we draw strength from all our people and our ancient faith in the quality of human dignity, to become the world's first truly multi-racial democracy. That is the unfinished work of our time, to lift the burden of race and redeem the promise of America.

Not since the presidency of Lyndon Johnson had the nation been challenged to confront this issue so forthrightly. The centerpiece of the president's effort was the appointment of a commission, headed by the distinguished historian, John Hope Franklin, charged with organizing and leading national town hall dialogues on ways to build One America in the 21st century. It was a bold move, neither universally supported within the White House nor by naysayers across the country. But it had the effect of taking the issue of race out of the shadows and exposing it to the light of open discourse in the spirit of reconciliation.

I was proud to be one of the White House staffers assembled to advise the president on this initiative. And of the many speeches I wrote for the president, which covered the full gamut of domestic policy, including the State of the Union, I have to say that I am most proud of my contributions to his statements on civil and human rights.

Like the president, I am a child of the '60s who came of age during the height of the civil rights era and was greatly inspired by people like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Daisy Bates, the surrogate mother of the Little Rock Nine. I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Bates in 1997 while researching the president's speech that commemorated the 40th anniversary of the integration of Central High, that civil rights turning point.

But President Clinton did more than talk the talk of equal opportunity and racial healing; he put in place policies that made a real difference. He strengthened civil rights enforcement and appointed a record number of African American and women judges. His policies created 22 million new jobs, leading to historically high rates of employment and income for African Americans and Hispanics. The president also launched an effort to end racial and ethnic health disparities. He took a strong stand against racial profiling and a rash of new church burnings, and he advocated "mending, not ending" affirmative action.

The president did not achieve all he wanted in the quest for One America, but his commitment to the cause was as strong on his final day in office as it was on his first. In fact, in the last days of his presidency he asked me to help him produce a final report to Congress on "The Unfinished Work of Building One America."

That report contains concrete recommendations in the areas of economic and social progress, education, civil rights enforcement, criminal justice reform, health disparities, election reform and civic responsibility. But the president concluded the report by appealing to Americans to look within to examine their personal attitudes about race and diversity. "Building One America requires a new kind of leadership. Instead of looking outward for signs of hope, we must first look in the mirror and know that change is our responsibility."

That's what I like most about President Clinton. He possesses an unshakeable faith in the goodness of the American people, a bedrock belief in the oneness of humanity, and a profound understanding that real change begins in the heart.

Thank you, Mr. President for continuing to uphold our highest ideals and for giving me the honor of standing with you along the way.

J. Terry Edmonds was Assistant to the president and director of speechwriting during President Clinton's final years in office.