Commission Work

Historian Mary Frances Berry’s new book looks back to ready readers for the next chapter in American civil rights.
February 1, 2009

When asked by publishers if she’d be interested in writing a memoir about her years as a member and chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Mary Frances Berry declined. “People are always writing memoirs,” she says, “and sometimes I think it’s pretentious. But I said I’d love to write a history of the commission and the role it played in the Civil Rights Movement, which I think has not been emphasized.”

Berry’s new book, And Justice for All: The United States Commission on Civil Rights and the Continuing Struggle for Freedom in America, is unmistakably not a memoir. Beginning with the commission’s establishment under the Civil Rights Act of 1957, Berry offers a meticulously cited account of five decades in the life of this independent federal agency charged with investigating, reporting on and making recommendations concerning civil rights issues in America.

While it would go on to play a key role in framing landmark legislation—including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990—Berry found that the commission was not originally expected to press for change. Rather, she explains, President Eisenhower conceived of it as a sort of safety valve to alleviate building pressures associated with the early Civil Rights Movement.

"There were ordinary people who had grievances, who had tried going to every government agency, asking everybody to help them, and nobody would listen. The commission would listen." - Mary Frances Berry

“It was after Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” says Berry. “The United States was being criticized by allies in Europe, and by developing nations that were becoming independent, for not giving African Americans first-class citizenship. Eisenhower thought that the commissioners would be good mainstream citizens with reputations that people would respect; but they were, as he put it, ‘moderate men’ who weren’t likely to come up with anything that he would find unpleasant.”

To the dismay of some, the Commission on Civil Rights did not shirk its mandate. “It went ahead and did some work,” says Berry, “because the first time the commissioners—many of them from the North—went to Alabama and held a hearing, they were shocked about what they saw.”

According to Berry, what made the commission so uniquely effective, from its inception up until the Reagan administration, was its willingness to perform what she calls its listening function. “There were ordinary people who had grievances, who had tried going to every government agency, asking everybody to help them, and nobody would listen,” Berry explains. “The commission would listen.”

Berry herself was appointed to the commission by President Carter in 1980. Her nearly 24-year tenure in that role, serving as chair from 1993 to 2004, was not without its challenges. “When Reagan fired commissioners,” says Berry, “I ended up, with a colleague of mine, suing him, and we were reinstated. But after that the commission was broken in terms of its function. When I was chair I tried to do some good work, and we did; but it was always a struggle.”

Berry argues that the current rules governing commission appointments present serious problems. “I think it’s been a disaster,” she says. “When Reagan fired commissioners, and Congress passed a compromise, they changed it into a sort of hybrid, jury-rigged structure—with half the people appointed by Congress with no presidential involvement and half by the president with no Senate confirmation.”

Berry also believes that since the Reagan administration, the Republican Party has seen the commission as a way to try to subvert civil rights policy and the courts’ interpretations of civil rights legislation. “You have a structure that tries to go in two directions at the same time,” she explains. “Half the people will be trying to do what the commission has always done, and the other half will be trying to stop them.”

Berry hopes, and has reason to believe, that the Obama administration will take steps to remedy these structural concerns, while also perhaps expanding the scope of the commission’s mandate to include sexual orientation and international human rights issues. “I have heard that people on the transition team are in favor of my proposal for a new Commission on Human and Civil Rights,” she reports. “So I think that the chances are good that they will in fact do something about the commission.”

When asked if she has any plans to get involved in federal politics again, Berry says that she’s content to watch her former students take on roles in the Obama administration, pointing out, “I have plenty of opportunities to weigh in when I need to.”