Leaders Want New Civil Rights Commission

Hazel Trice Edney | 8/12/2009, 11:10 a.m.

Largely because of right wing political domination and appointees of 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 to do what it did when it was doing what it was supposed to do. [The new commission] needs to 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 at the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission]. And most of them are found to be valid.€

Berry resigned from the Commission in late 2004.

€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,€ Berry said.

€The fact that Obama is president doesn€t mean that the issues just went away. 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,€ a history of the Commission and America€s €continuing struggle for freedom,€ Berry said 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 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was established by Congress in 1957 to be an independent, bi-partisan body 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.
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 often provide testimony about their personal experiences of injustices.

In her 24 years on the Commission, Berry became known for her fights with presidents, including challenges to Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In the book Berry writes, €President George W. Bush essentially €fired€ me.€

Now, she is challenging both President Barack Obama and Congress from the outside. She views his administration as an opportunity to strengthen the Commission and return it to its original mission and purpose.

Laura Murphy, a senior consultant for the Campaign for a New Domestic Human Rights Agenda, a coalition of more than 50 civil rights groups, is pushing for a new Commission.