Memo to Labor Secretary W. Willard Wirtz

In an April 20, 1964 memorandum, Daniel Patrick Moynihan made the case for more aggressive action on behalf of African Americans.

Library of Congress

Editor’s Note: This memorandum was composed by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then serving as assistant secretary of labor, and sent to Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz on April 20, 1964. It was the first time he made clear the scale of the proactive efforts he envisioned if the government were to achieve not just an equality of opportunity for African Americans, but also an equality of outcome.

Has the time come to organize an inquiry into the subject of unequal treatment for the Negro?

Those responsible for public policy in America are being asked where they stand on this point. It seems to me, however, that the response, in general, is one of bewilderment and confusion at a wholly unfamiliar proposition. The subject is much in need of analytical and philosophical discussion, and we have not the accustomed leisure to reach a consensus.

American doctrine is centered on the proposition of equal opportunity: of equal protection of the laws. The social struggles of the past have characteristically centered on the question of whether this group or that was being denied equal treatment.

The Civil Rights Bill will mark the consummation of that effort as far as the Negro is concerned.

Now comes the proposition that the Negro is entitled to damages as to unequal favored treatment—in order to compensate for past unequal treatment of an opposite kind.

We could cope with such a proposition were it put in terms of the rights of a group of workers, or of bond holders—functional groups—but have no precedent for treating with an ethnic group. (Consider the difficulty encountered in justifying “benign” quotas in activities such as housing projects which are designed to achieve a balance of races.)

But we cannot avoid it. The Negroes are asking for unequal treatment. More seriously, it may be that without unequal treatment in the immediate future there is no way for them to achieve anything like equal status in the long run.

Whitney Young has spoken of a “Marshall Plan” for the Negro. This term may have a negative effect with some people. Would the analogy of infant industries be better?

In any event, do you think the President might under any circumstances come out for some form of special treatment—as part of your plans for the coming Summer? Obviously this is filled with political peril, but I suspect we may have to face it anyway.