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Putting the President in touch with civil rights

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How can America keep up its concern for the rights of all through good times and bad? The question did not begin with the present administration, though it is undergoing severe criticism on civil rights from within and without its own Republican constituency.

This week's statement by the Civil Rights Commission lauds President Reagan for denouncing bigotry and violence. But it recognizes perceptions that enforcement of civil rights laws is diminishing. And it cites the administration's ''active opposition to all but the most limited and ineffectual forms of affirmative action.''

But consider the commission's report on the year 1979 during the previous administration, which had earlier been praised for its strong civil-rights initiatives: ''The lack of enforcement by the executive branch of government, the weakening of good legislation by Congress, and the diminishing will and vision on the part of many Americans are discouraging.''

Does anyone doubt that, among those three elements of decline, the most crucial is the will and vision of the American people?

If that will and vision were to have a new birth, no administration, no Congress could stand by and allow the nation's hard-won past achievements for women and minorities to be diminished, let alone reversed as some charge now.

Is it time to reconsider what the Civil Rights Commission called for as long ago as 1977? An improved presidential capability ''to monitor, direct, coordinate, and improve federal civil rights programs.'' The problems of civil rights enforcement, the commission warned, were often directly attributable to and exacerbated by the absence of leadership from policymaking officials.


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