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Chipping away at civil rights

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Rather than just killing the messenger of bad news, shrewd politicians strike at the message itself. Last November, Ronald Reagan's replacement of activist Chairman Arthur S. Flemming of the United States Commission on Civil Rights with political loyalist Clarence M. Pendleton Jr. sparked charges that he was killing a 25-year-old tradition of messages about the persistence of discrimination and the laggard enforcement of civil rights laws. Subsequent events have only confirmed the gravity of this critique. President Reagan has not only ended the administrative ban against tax exemptions for segregationist schools (followed by a belated concession to seek some form of congressional remedy) but, more quietly, has sought to undermine voluntary affirmative action plans and weaken an extension of the Voting Rights Act.

Through six presidential terms, the Civil Rights Commission has been the single, consistent civil rights advocate in the national government. Presidents have generally spared the commission from usual tests of partisan allegiance, and its three chairmen (two of them Republican appointees) have responded with a commitment to the ideals of civil rights rather than the fortunes of political parties. Although a fact-finding agency with no executive authority, the commission has contributed to the framing of landmark civil rights legislation and has provided the only independent scrutiny of federal enforcement efforts.

Alone among federal agencies, the Civil Rights Commission has exposed the gap between rhetoric and performance on civil rights. In its initial 1959 report, the commission upbraided the Department of Justice for so laxly enforcing the Voting Rights Act of 1957 - the first federal civil rights law since Reconstruction - that in ''nearly two years,'' it ''had brought only three actions under its powers to seek preventive civil relief'' against voter discrimination. Noting that even concerted litigation would be ineffective ''against the prejudice of registrars and jurors,'' the commission also foreshadowed the administrative procedures later incorporated in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, now up for renewal.

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