Ousted Civil Rights Leader Speaks Out
Feb. 9, 2005 -- In an exclusive interview with Tolerance.org, Mary Frances Berry, former chairperson of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, forecasts an ongoing rollback of civil rights.
By Camille Jackson | Staff Writer, Tolerance.org
In December, Mary Frances Berry, 66, the first African American female chairperson of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was forced to resign from her post.
Berry had served nearly 25 years on the commission, which monitors and investigates civil rights complaints and submits its findings to the president and Congress. To her, struggle is nothing new.
A week before the Bush administration forced her out, Berry and vice-chair Cruz Reynoso submitted a 166-page report critical of the President — Redefining Rights in America: The Civil Rights Record of the George W. Bush Administration.
In a letter to President Bush accompanying the report, Berry and Reynoso wrote, "your administration has missed opportunities to win consensus on key civil rights issues ranging from affirmative action, to fair housing, to immigration, to voting rights. Instead, you have adopted policies that further divide an already deeply torn nation."
Response to the report was swift. The White House announced a new appointee before Berry actually resigned.
Berry was replaced with black conservative attorney Gerald A. Reynolds, who in an article in The New York Times described himself as "insensitive" to racial discrimination and expressed his belief that traditional civil rights groups might "overstate the problem."
At first, the outspoken Berry, also a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania and known for her non-partisan, no-holds-barred approach in the battle for civil rights, resisted leaving her post prematurely. Technically, her six-year term wasn't up for another month.
Her resistance allows some to dismiss Berry as ornery, but other civil rights leaders, like NAACP Board Chairman Julian Bond, say her "tenure has been fabulous, (and) her replacement is a disaster."
Two months after stepping down from her national civil rights post, Mary Frances Berry, who has been largely silent about her resignation, spoke to Tolerance.org about her struggle, what she's learned working as a champion of civil rights, and what the future holds.
What is it like working for civil rights under an unsympathetic administration?
I've worked under a clearly unsympathetic administration before — in Reagan's years. The difference is that the Justice Department is supposed to enforce the civil rights laws and supposed to take the information that the commission finds and pursue it to see if any enforcement actions need to be taken. Just as Eisenhower envisioned, the commission hunts down whatever violations there are. During an unsympathetic administration, the justice department doesn't respond. Such as when we did the 2000 election in Florida, (and) we asked the Justice Department to pursue and see if they could find something. They didn't do anything.
How did the Justice Department justify its inaction?
They never even gave excuses. They just didn't do anything. They would say they were too busy. In a sympathetic administration that supports civil rights, they would follow up and get back to the commission.
How does the commission normally function?
The commission gets individual complaints from people complaining about [national] agencies that haven't responded to complaints. We monitor the enforcement of civil rights. For example, we've received complaints about negligence in education, in criminal justice, in employment. The commission is supposed to go out and follow up on these complaints. In an unsympathetic administration the monitoring function, the prodding and persuasive function, doesn't happen.
What have you learned during your time on the commission?
I've learned that it does no good to have civil rights laws if they are not enforced. A man from Florida asked me the other day, "Why do we still have school segregation? We have a law that says it's illegal." I explained to him, nothing will change unless the law is enforced.
What can we do to make sure laws are enforced?
Three things: get media exposure, elect people who will enforce the law, and hire private attorneys to pursue injustice. This is the time right now; the Civil Rights Commission is out of the game in trying to help with the civil rights laws that are on the books. We can't expect that agency to lean on the investigations like it used to.
What can we expect?
That they'll try to do reports undermining civil rights gains. I'm expecting them to start attacking affirmative action, to say things like racial profiling is not a problem. I would assume that we can expect them to downplay these things that people have come to expect under the imprimatur of the civil rights commission. Gerald Reynolds was in The New York Times saying he didn't think discrimination existed! We shouldn't expect [the agency] to say anything different.
What advice do you have for those of us working under the umbrella of civil rights?
The rest of us have to work harder to expose problems when and where they exist. That means electing officials who will enforce the laws and getting (national and grassroots civil rights) organizations ... involved.