The U.S. Civil Rights Commission’s former chairperson cheers what it once was and laments what it has become.
Berry (American Social Thought/Univ. of Pennsylvania; My Face is Black is True, 2005, etc.) set out to document the commission rather than write a memoir of her time as a member. Still, the book works best when it combines her personal story with the institution’s history. Amid worsening racial conflict, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 established the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights as an independent, bipartisan fact-finding agency with the power to subpoena. Intended only as temporary window-dressing for the Eisenhower administration, the commission resolutely stuck around and established itself as the nation’s conscience on civil rights. Initially focused on the plight of African-Americans in the South, it produced reports and recommendations that drove the key civil-rights legislation of the mid-’60s. It took on discrimination more broadly in the ’70s, battling the Nixon administration along the way. Although the 1976 election of Jimmy Carter promised a new era of cooperation, the commission remained underappreciated. Appointed by Carter in 1980, Berry soon faced President Reagan’s attempts to pack the committee with his own supporters. She was fired in 1983, then reinstated under pressure, although Reagan continued to assault the commission’s independence. Civil-rights advocates were resilient enough to secure passage of the Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Civil Rights Act of 1991. President Clinton appointed Berry chairperson of the commission in 1993. Even with minimal funding, her commission produced numerous reports and recommendations, and investigated the voting-rights violations that occurred in Florida during the 2000 presidential election. In 2004, however, the White House and Congress united to undermine the commission once again, and President Bush effectively fired Berry that year. At that point, she decided to write this book. Both a history and a call for a new offensive against discrimination, it ends by recommending a revitalized commission on civil and human rights.
An unflinching look at America’s disengagement with civil rights.