By Hazel Trice Edney
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – The 52-year-old U. S. Commission on Civil Rights, historically a leading force for overturning racist policies and enacting civil rights laws against Jim Crow segregation, has become obsolete and must be replaced, say civil rights leaders who are moving to make it happen.
Largely because of right wing political domination and appointees stacked by the Bush administration, rights leaders say the eight-member
Commission has done little for civil rights progress lately and over the past several years has done more to turn back the clock.
“There should be a new commission. You need a commission to do what it did when it was doing what it was supposed to do, which is look at all these new problems – the old ones and the new ones,” said constitutional law expert Mary Frances Berry, a former member of the commission, who served 11 years as its chair.
“Discrimination complaints on the basis of race have increased exponentially. And most of them are found to be valid. This has just happened over the past few years.”
Berry, who resigned from the Commission in late 2004, continued, “People are still having problems on their jobs, we’ve still got police, community
issues and everything. People are getting shot, every kind of issue you can think of.
“The fact that Obama is president doesn’t mean that the issues just went away. It doesn’t matter who the president is. You need an independent watchdog that will investigate and look at civil and human rights issues and try to build consensus and make recommendations, and work to try to get something done.”
In her new book, “And Justice for All,” an extensively researched history of the Commission and America’s “continuing struggle for freedom,”
Berry says the current commission must be replaced with a U.S. Commission on Civil and Human Rights in order to renew its power against injustice.
“The addition of human rights could make clear a concern with the nexus between race, sex, disability, age, national origin, sexual orientation, religious discrimination, poverty and civil liberties concerns,” Berry writes. “A civil and human rights commission could also monitor U. S. compliance with the international human rights covenants to which we are a party and encourage adoption of those we have not approved.”
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is supposed to be an independent, bipartisan body that was established by Congress in 1957 under the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It is primarily a fact-finding body that looks into allegations of discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, age, disability or national origin.
Berry recalled how the Commission worked with civil rights greats Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young and others to document facts that led to civil rights laws.
“The impact of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is sort of an overall missing piece of how we got over,” she said.
While civil rights battles raged in the streets, lunch counters and jail cells, the Commission, which still has an advisory committee in each state, would visit communities, using subpoena power to compel both Blacks and Whites to give often shocking testimony about their personal experiences of injustices as well as those they witnessed.
“The Commission from that time until the Reagan administration was a force for trying to make change. They would make recommendations. They worked with everybody,” Berry recalled.
Then the Reagan politics began. In 1983, two years after he took office, Reagan fired Berry, Blandina C. Ramirez and Murray Saltzman from the Commission after they publicly disagreed with him on his administration’s civil rights policies.
“They decided to fire commissioners and appoint those who would be mouthpieces,” Berry said.
Rather than accept Reagan’s action, Berry and Ramirez sued and won back their seats after the Federal District Court in Washington, D.C. ruled that the commissioners served as watchdogs.
In her 24 years on the Commission, Berry became known for her fights with presidents, including challenges to Jimmy Carter, Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. She resigned from the Commission in late 2004 amidst intense disputes with President Bush and his appointees on the Commission. In the book she states, “President George W. Bush essentially ‘fired’ me.”
Mary Frances Berry is the Geraldine R. Segal professor of American Social Thought and professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pa., where she teaches history and law.