The Magazine

Civil Wrongs

Mary Frances Berry's legacy of 'ideological food fights.'

May 25, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 34 • By KENNETH L. MARCUS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

And Justice for All

The United States Commission on Civil Rights and the Continuing Struggle for Freedom in America

by Mary Frances Berry

Knopf, 432 pp., $27.95

Shortly after the 2004 election, I was recruited to be staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Mary Frances Berry's long reign as chairman was ending, and a new conservative majority was assuming office. This once-distinguished agency had slid into fiscal and moral insolvency during Berry's 20-year reign; worse, Berry had insinuated that she would not peaceably relinquish her seat upon its statutory expiration. It appeared that my first task would be to call in federal marshals to force the first involuntary transfer of power in the history of the republic. Shortly after my appointment, however, Berry agreed to leave without a fight.

For a while, it seemed that Mary Frances Berry would spare the commission one final indignity. But we now know that one more remained--in one respect, a farce worthy of Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Fifty years after President Eisenhower signed the commission into "temporary" existence, Knopf brings out the agency's first modern history. The catch is that it is written--and written badly--by the commission's most egregious member. From another perspective, the publication of this volume has a certain ironic elegance: As a new Democratic administration reshapes civil rights policy, it is appropriate to recall both the glorious history and the shabby transgressions of the civil rights movement. Mary Frances Berry's treatise largely accomplishes both tasks--albeit unwittingly.

In 1957 Eisenhower established the commission as an independent fact-finding agency. At first it courageously investigated racial hatred in America, inspiring the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act. As Berry recounts, powerful political figures sought to undermine investigations in order to avoid offending Southern Democratic members of Congress. She describes, for example, how John and Robert Kennedy connived in 1961 to obstruct the commission from conducting hearings in Mississippi. Berry provides a surprisingly lucid account of the commission's golden age, demonstrating how it became known at the time as the "conscience of the nation on civil rights."

Unfortunately, the second half of the commission's history has not been so conscientious, nor is the corresponding portion of Berry's account. During her turbulent tenure the commission came to be popularly known instead as "Little Hanoi on the Potomac" and a "Mickey Mouse agency"--to mention a few of the terms which commissioners used to describe themselves. Berry had famously enthused about Mao Zedong's educational reforms and Soviet social policies. Late in her tenure the General Accounting Office reported that the commission was "an agency in disarray" which lacked "basic management controls." Meetings became ideological food fights. Inevitably, Berry's portrayal of this period slips from historical treatise to grudge-driven political memoir, settling old scores and continuing
yesteryear's screaming matches.

Since her departure in 2004, the Civil Rights Commission has been painstakingly rebuilt, and in 2007 the Wall Street Journal observed that the agency "deserves a medal for good governance" after it had achieved unprecedented back-to-back clean financial audits. The commission began issuing bold, critical reports on affirmative action in law schools, anti-Semitism in higher education, race-neutral alternatives in government contracts, and diversity in public schools.

Under the commission's scheme of staggered terms, conservatives may expect to maintain their current majority control until late next year; President Obama's appointees will not command a majority until the end of 2012. This is a long wait for those, like Mary Frances Berry, who believe civil rights to be the left's exclusive possession. Accordingly, to silence conservative commissioners, Berry recommends a naked power grab: Specifically, she urges Congress to reconstitute the agency as a new "U.S. Commission on Civil and Human Rights," which would enable Democrats to wipe out conservative commissioners, replace them with Obama appointees, and muzzle the watchdog before it has a chance to bite.