This is the story of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, through its extraordinary fifty years at the heart of the civil rights movement and the struggle for justice in America.
Mary Frances Berry, the commission’s chairperson for more than a decade, author of My Face Is Black Is True (“An essential chapter in American history from a distinguished historian”—Nell Painter), tells of the commission’s founding in 1957 by President Eisenhower, in response to burgeoning civil rights protests; how it was designed to be an independent bipartisan Federal agency—made up of six members, with no more than three from one political party, free of interference from Congress and presidents—beholden to no government body, with full subpoena power, and free to decide what it would investigate and report on.
Berry writes that the commission, rather than producing reports that would gather dust on the shelves, began to hold hearings even as it was under attack from Southern segregationists. She writes how the commission’s hearings and reports helped the nonviolent protest movement prick the conscience of the nation then on the road to dismantling segregation, beginning with the battles in Montgomery and Little Rock, the sit-ins and freedom rides, the March on Washington.
We see how reluctant government witnesses and local citizens overcame their fear of reprisal and courageously came forward to testify before the commission; how the commission was instrumental in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965; how Congress soon added to the commission’s jurisdiction the overseeing of discriminating practices—with regard to sex, age, and disability—which helped in the enactment of the Age Discrimination Act of 1978 and the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.
Berry writes about how the commission’s monitoring of police community relations and affirmative action was fought by various U.S. presidents, chief among them Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, each of whom fired commissioners who disagreed with their policies, among them Dr. Berry, replacing them with commissioners who supported their ideological objectives; and how these commissioners began to downplay the need to remedy discrimination, ignoring reports of unequal access to health care and employment opportunities.
Finally, Dr. Berry’s book makes clear what is needed for the future: a reconfigured commission, fully independent, with an expanded mandate to help oversee all human rights and to make good the promise of democracy—equal protection under the law regardless of race, color, sexual orientation, religion, disability, or national origin.
About the Author
Mary Frances Berry was born in Nashville, Tennessee. She received a bachelor’s and master’s degree at Howard University, a doctorate in history from the University of Michigan, and a juris doctor degree from the University of Michigan Law School. Dr. Berry was the assistant secretary for education in the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. She has received thirty honorary doctoral degrees and numerous awards for her public service and scholarly activities, including the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins Award and Image Award, the Rosa Parks Award of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She has also received the Hubert H. Humphrey Civil Rights Award from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. In addition to having been the chairperson of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission for eleven years, Dr. Berry is Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches history and law.
“A powerful and inspiring story of the American civil rights movement–a story of change, vision and courage. Change has come to America and one of the ways it happened was through the work of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, formed against all odds in 1957 by President Eisenhower and the Congress. The commission, during its five decades on the battlefront of injustice and inequality, moved far beyond Eisenhower’s initial vision for it, and became a major factor in the success of the civil rights movement that has led us to the victories we enjoy today. Attacked and undermined at times by politicians and unsympathetic Presidents, the commission invited ordinary people to testify at its hearings in their towns and cities and in Washington, D.C. Sometimes under threat of reprisal, even death, those struggling for equal justice came to rely upon the commission’s impartiality, and independence. It was the commission’s reports and recommendations that helped to gain the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the language minority protections enacted in 1975, the Age Discrimination Act of 1978 and the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. Mary Frances Berry, the commission’s chairperson for a decade, has written its too little-known history. It is an important, galvanizing and moving book.”
–President Bill Clinton