U. S. Commission on Civil Rights Must Be Replaced, Rights Leaders Say
By Hazel Trice Edney
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 former 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 because 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,” says 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 at the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission]. 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, continues, “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,” she said in the interview with the NNPA News Service. “It doesn’t matter who the president is. You need an independent watch dog 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 at the conclusion of the 400-page book. “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, bi-partisan 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 recalls 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 describes.
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 that had 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 recalls.
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 mouth pieces,” 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. Berry chuckles as she recalls the judge’s comment, “‘You can’t fire a watchdog for biting.'”
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.”
Now – though she mentions him by name only three times in the book – she’s challenging both President Barack Obama and Congress from the outside. She clearly views his administration as an opportunity to strengthen the Commission and return it to its original mission and purpose.
The movement is growing.
Laura Murphy, a senior consultant for the Campaign for a New Domestic Human Rights Agenda, a coalition of more than 50 civil rights groups that’s pushing for a new Commission among other causes, says they’re making headway.
“The United States has been cited for its failure to end racial profiling, for its failure to end the high rate of incarceration of juveniles. These are the very issues that a reformed and strengthened U. S. Commission on Civil and Human Rights could give attention to,” she says.
Murphy, former director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, says the group is in conversation with members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees. She says the Obama Administration has also been receptive.
“I think we will see hearings before the end of the year,” she said.
Currently the Commission has eight members, including six Republicans and two Democrats.
A move by Bush in 2004 created the conservative majority. Bush solidified the conservative Commission after two Republicans who had been Republicans when appointed – Russell Redenbaugh (who has since resigned) and Abigail Thernstrom – reregistered as independents. Bush then installed a fifth and sixth Republican.
Democratic President Obama will not get an appointment until 2010. And even then he’ll only get one.
Meanwhile, divisive issues such as police profiling and misconduct; affirmative action and same-sex marriage are not being dealt with in fact-finding hearings by the Commission, Berry says. Instead, in recent years, the Commission has been busy opposing civil rights progress, including its opposition to the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, hate crimes laws, and arguing against diversity as a benefit in public education.
Other civil rights leaders agree a new Commission is the answer.
A recent report issued by The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, led by President Wade Henderson, says the current Commission is nearly irreparably flawed.
“Today, the commission is so debilitated as to be considered moribund. With a new administration, there is the opportunity to take a fresh look at this venerable institution and make the necessary changes to restore it to its former status as the ‘conscience of the nation,'” states the report.
The report pushes for an ”entirely new entity that returns to the commission’s original mandate and expands on it to preserve and protect the civil and human rights of all American citizens.”
Titled, “Restoring the Conscience of a Nation”, the Report includes the following recommendations which essentially mirror those advocated by Berry:
Â¥Creation of a new commission, consisting of seven members. The members would serve four year staggered terms. Each commissioner will be appointed by the president, and be subject to Senate confirmation.
Â¥Authorization of the commission to hold hearings across the country to better understand the landscape of equal opportunity involving various regions and protected groups. Based on these hearings, and other information, the commission would have the responsibility to make policy recommendations to the president and Congress. The commission would retain the authority to subpoena witnesses to participate in such hearings.
Â¥The name of the commission would be the United States Commission on Civil and Human Rights in order to “reflect the human rights dimension of its work” and “make more explicit its authority to examine U.S. compliance with these international treaties as part of its existing mandate to examine compliance with legal obligations that affect civil rights.”