And Justice for All : The United States Commission on Civil Rights and the Continuing Struggle for Freedom in America

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2009-01-20
  • Publisher: Knopf
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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 ofMy 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 agencymade up of six members, with no more than three from one political party, free of interference from Congress and presidentsbeholden 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 practiceswith regard to sex, age, and disabilitywhich 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 democracyequal protection under the law regardless of race, color, sexual orientation, religion, disability, or national origin.

Author Biography

Mary Frances Berry received bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Howard University, a doctorate in history from the University of Michigan, and a Juris Doctor from the University of Michigan Law School. Dr. Berry is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought at the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Washington, D.C.


Chapter 1

Responding to the “Negro” Protest

Roberta Tucker slowly gathered herself to speak before the United States Commission on Civil Rights hearings in Tallahas

see after the 2000 presidential election. It was her first appearance before any official inquiry, and it had not been easy to come forward. She faced a packed hearing room, the glare of a mass of television cameras, and a gaggle of print and radio media as she testified about how a white Florida Highway Patrol trooper stopped her on her way to vote. She was driving just south of Tallahassee on the only main road leading to her polling place in Woodville. The officer looked at the forty-nine-year-old woman’s license and then let her drive on. She was puzzled because “nothing was checked, my lights, signals, or anything that they usually check.” Angered by the memory, she spoke more rapidly. “I was intimidated by it and I was suspicious of it.”

John Nelson, fifty-two, another African American witness, at first was too nervous to speak. Then, finding his voice, he recalled the unmanned Florida Highway Patrol cars parked outside his polling place in Monticello, twenty-five miles east of Tallahassee. Nelson testified that he started to turn back and then forced himself to go forward. “I thought that was unusual. It makes you wonder, why is it there? What’s wrong?” At his precinct the intimidation continued as, for the first time, instead of just asking for his voter registration card, the poll worker demanded two pieces of identification.

Apostle Willie Whiting, unlike Tucker and Nelson, was eager to testify. The fifty-year-old African American pastor of the House of Prayer Church in Tallahassee relished describing his election-day experience before the commission. As he stood in the polling place with his family, a poll worker told him he was a convicted felon and could not vote. Whiting protested that he had never even been arrested, but to no avail. Asked by general counsel Edward Hailes how it felt, he answered in a booming voice, “It didn’t feel good.” His family and “other people at the polling place” observing him. Whiting said he felt “sling-shotted back to slavery” by the shame it brought. One after another, African American, Latino, Haitian, older American, and other citizens who were disabled described a nightmare of official government-implemented disenfranchisement.

The testimony in Florida resembled in some ways the commission’s first hearing in Alabama, in December 1958. These were the early years of modern racial protest, when the term “race relations” began to take on new meaning. In Montgomery, blacks had refused to ride city buses for more than a year to end transportation segregation. In Birmingham, bombs were exploding, including one in the home of Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights leader Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and his family on Christmas morning. Meeting in the Fifth Circuit Courtroom in the Federal Building in Montgomery, the only venue in this cradle of the old Confederacy where blacks and whites could meet together, the commission heard testimony about the endemic violence and intimidation. Commissioners stayed at Maxwell Air Force Base because integrated hotels were legally impermissible.

At the 1958 hearing, twenty-six African American witnesses, all of them educated, property-owning taxpayers who met the state’s residence and legal requirements for voting, told the commission that they were denied the right to register to vote and faced implied and open threats. Risking their livelihood and their lives just by testifying, witnesses came forward to tell of their despair over their treatment and their burning desire to vote. Tuskegee resident Charles E. Miller, a Korean War veteran, told the commission, “I have dodged bombs and almost gotten killed, and t

Excerpted from And Justice for All: The United States Commission on Civil Rights and the Continuing Struggle for Freedom in America by Mary Frances Berry
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