The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) mourns the loss of former board member and civil rights pioneer Clarence C. Finley, who not only played an instrumental part in integrating the United States military, but also blazed trails in corporate America as the first Black president of a major division of an international corporation. Clarence gave his time, energy, and expertise to LDF for nearly 35 years as a member of the Board of Directors. Mr. Finley passed away on July 21, 2016 in California after an extended illness.
“Clarence Finley was a graceful man with firm principles,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of LDF. “He was dedicated to civil rights and had a passion for imparting his knowledge to the next generation. He broke barriers for African-Americans in the military and in business; his life served as an inspiration for everyone who had the privilege of knowing him.”
Clarence Finley was born August 24, 1922 in Chicago, IL, the fourth of six children. His father left when he was 11, and his mother struggled to raise the family. Clarence graduated from high school at the age of 16 and was offered two college scholarships, but turned them down to stay home and take care of his mother, who had fallen ill. Instead, he enrolled at a local junior college, working his way through school by delivering newspapers, cutting lawns, cleaning basements, and performing other odd jobs.
After graduating, Clarence joined Charm Tred, a carpet manufacturer, making $12 a week as a file clerk. It was the 1940s and another war was raging across Europe and the Pacific. In response to Pearl Harbor, Clarence, who had a pilot’s license, volunteered for an experimental fighter-pilot program that prepared Black men for aerial combat: the vaunted and trailblazing Tuskegee Airmen. These men were the first Black aviators in the United States military. Clarence Finley was one of five members of the first aviation cadet class to complete training. He was commissioned a second lieutenant and received Army Air Corps silver pilot wings. He served as Executive Officer of the 99th Fighter Squadron, one of four all-black squadrons that formed a special unit known as the Red Tails. Because of their extraordinary effort, the Red Tails, including Clarence Finley, received two Presidential Unit Citations.
Clarence returned to Charm Tred at the end of World War II and quickly rose through the ranks. During this time, he also earned an accounting degree from Northwestern University and a law degree from John Marshall Law School. He spent years juggling his professional and academic careers, working full-time six days a week and going to school at night.
Burlington Industries acquired Charm Tred in 1959, and Clarence stayed on as comptroller. He continued to rise in the company, becoming corporate group Vice President; then President of Charm Tred-Monticello in 1970. By the time he retired, Burlington had become the world’s largest manufacturer of textiles, and Mr. Finley was responsible for six divisions of the company. He was the first Black executive to rise to the rank of division president in a major multinational firm.
Clarence, who broke barriers for African-Americans both in the United States military and in the world of business, supported LDF’s work and mission for more than half a century; he served on the Board of Directors under every Director-Counsel except founder Thurgood Marshall. He made his first contribution in 1963, and in 1982 Clarence joined LDF’s Board of Directors.
During his time on the Board, Clarence contributed his time and his wisdom, serving on both the Executive and Finance Committees. In 1991, Clarence resigned from the Board due to a move to California, but then-President and Director-Counsel Elaine Jones invited him to serve once again in 1993. In 1997, he became Director Emeritus, a position in he held until his passing.
After his retirement, Clarence stayed active in the fight for civil rights, dedicating his time to several volunteer organizations. In addition to his work with LDF, he also headed the finance committee of the Tuskegee Airman Scholarship Fund. He routinely spoke to younger generations about his experience, believing that successful Black business executives had a responsibility to encourage a new group of leaders.
“Clarence believed young people should never settle for the status quo,” said Sherrilyn Ifill. “His advice was to ‘always make that extra effort.’ We are grateful for his decades-long service and dedication to LDF.”
Clarence leaves behind a daughter, Ingrid. His wife Emma passed away in 2007.
Founded in 1940, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is the nation’s first civil and human rights law organization and has been completely separate from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1957—although LDF was originally founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights. LDF’s Thurgood Marshall Institute is a multi-disciplinary and collaborative hub within LDF that launches targeted campaigns and undertakes innovative research to shape the civil rights narrative. In media attributions, please refer to us as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund or LDF.