When President Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925 in 1961, he directed government contractors to "take affirmative action" to ensure that hiring and employment practices were free of racial discrimination. It was the first official use of that controversial phrase, a big step in the nation's evolution from legal slavery to a color-blind society.
But it was President Johnson who - just a year after three civil rights workers had been murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in 1964 - put the heart and muscle into Kennedy's order. He told the graduating class at predominantly-black Howard University in Washington, "You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying, 'You are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe you have been completely fair....
"We seek not just freedom but opportunity," the author of the "Great Society" declared. "Not just legal equity, but human ability - not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result."
The results of that effort have changed the political and social portrait of the United States in ways that are both profound and irreversible. From university campuses to corporate boardrooms, from executive suites to military-service academies and the officer corps, African-Americans and other minorities are much better represented than they were just a generation ago.
Some of that has been by government decree - requirements that public institutions make special efforts to include minorities on payrolls, in classrooms, and in the awarding of contracts. In other cases - as with the recent Jayson Blair scandal at The New York Times - it's been part of voluntary efforts to increase diversity through special training programs and rapid advancement. Such efforts - whether seen as an attempt to atone for sins of past discrimination or as a quota system that relies on "reverse discrimination" - have never been without controversy.
But they've also happened over a period when the demographic profile of the United States shifted, when notions of race and ethnicity got more complex, and as diversity and multiculturalism became valuable in their own right - especially among traditionally conservative institutions such as business and the military.
While the Bush administration was arguing against affirmative action in the landmark University of Michigan cases just decided by the US Supreme Court, many of its presumable political allies stood on the other side of the issue. More than 40 Fortune 500 companies - Microsoft, Intel, American Airlines, Procter & Gamble, Eastman Kodak, PepisiCo, and General Motors among them - filed legal briefs siding with the university.
So, too, did retired Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Adm. William Crowe, Gen. Hugh Shelton, and Gen. John Shalikashvili. "Compelling considerations of national security and military mission justify the consideration of race in selecting military officers," they asserted in their legal brief.
Meanwhile, political leaders around the country see the need to expand opportunities for minorities as well.
In Massachusetts last week, Gov. Mitt Romney (R) created a new Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity. "My administration is committed to assembling a state government workforce that reflects the fabric of our community," said Governor Romney.
Is 40 years enough time to have pushed affirmative action as a means of ending discrimination? It depends how one defines the action and determines the goal.
According to recent polls, Americans are against "preferences," but they favor "assistance" and "special efforts" to help minorities in jobs and education. They clearly value racial diversity in higher education, and they approve of affirmative action in jobs and education for those coming from "an economically disadvantaged background," regardless of race or ethnicity. At the same time, they apparently believe the job is not finished.
"How close do you think we are to eliminating discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities in America for once and for all?" a Los Angeles Times poll asked earlier this year. Just 38 percent said the goal was "close" to being achieved, while 59 percent said "not too close" or "not close at all."
For most Americans, the issue may be felt strongly. But it's more idealistic or political than it is personal. "Relatively few people, white or black, report having real-life experiences with affirmative action," the Pew Research Center reported last month. Of those polled, 11 percent (mostly whites) said they had been hurt by affirmative action and 4 percent (mostly blacks and Hispanics) said they had been helped.
(President Bush himself benefited from a form of affirmative action - admitted to Yale University as a "legacy" student because his father and grandfather were Yale graduates. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has acknowledged that affirmative action - the desire for diversity - helped her faculty and administration career at Stanford University. Secretary of State Colin Powell - who disagrees with the president on the the issue - likewise credits affirmative action with helping his military career.)
Still, the political trend is away from vigorous affirmative action, especially if it's perceived as including "preferences" or "quotas."
In 1997, Californians effectively ended affirmative action there by approving a ballot measure declaring: "The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting."
A year later, voters in Washington State passed a similar measure, and in 2000 Florida banned race as a factor in college admissions. An upcoming California ballot measure - the "Racial Privacy Initiative" - would eliminate racial check-off boxes on most California government forms, effectively declaring a color-blind society there.
The measure's author and chief advocate is Ward Connerly, a Sacramento businessman and member of the University of California Board of Regents.
"The concept of giving extra points or lowering standards through explicit measures that we call affirmative action is all but dead," says Mr. Connerly, who wrote California's 1997 ballot measure and notes that "race lines are blurring as people blend."
"In the fullness of time, racial categories will someday crumble under their own weight as a result of the natural forces of human interaction in a free society," adds Connerly, who is of African- American, Irish, and native American descent.
Whether or not that's true, it's clear that officially categorizing races and designating "minorities" is becoming more complicated. The US Census Bureau reported last week that Hispanics now make up nearly half of US population growth; in 2001 they passed non-Hispanic blacks as the largest minority group in the country. Meanwhile, the Census Bureau now allows people to check more than one of 63 boxes in how they identify themselves racially, ethnically, and even culturally.
Shortly after issuing his executive order, President Kennedy declared that "race has no place in American life or law." He was speaking of the need to end centuries of official discrimination in American life.
But today's context is different - widespread immigration, rapid globalization of economy and culture, the voluntary desegregation of institutions, and, above all, much more tolerance of (indeed, an eagerness to join with) people who appear different but value the same things. In that sense, race may always have a place in American life.
1866: Civil Rights Act of 1866 declares that all people in the US have the same right to equal protection of all laws and proceedings.
1934: To prevent racial discrimination, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes directs a percentage of Works Progress Administration contracts to African-Americans.
1961: President Kennedy, by executive order, directs federally funded contractors to "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed ... without regard to race, creed, color, or national origin."
1978: The Supreme Court rules in the University of California Regents v. Bakke decision that colleges and universities can consider race as a factor in admissions policies, but may not impose quotas.
1979: The Supreme Court upholds voluntary affirmative action plans by private employers.
1996: Proposition 209 is approved by California voters, outlawing race or gender preferences at all state-government institutions. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals outlaws affirmative-action programs in public higher education institutions in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The Supreme Court refuses to hear the decision.
January 2003: President Bush announces he will file a brief opposing Michigan's race-influenced admissions policies, likening them to a "quota system."
Sources: 'Compelling interest: Examining the Evidence on Racial Dynamics in Colleges and Universities,' Stanford University Press, 2003. Congressional Quarterly Researcher.