Taking Stock

Taking Stock – Brief Article

Mary Frances Berry

Although 40 years is a relatively short time in the life of a nation, particular spans of history can have profound consequences on the everyday lives of its citizens and how they view the future. The civil rights era beginning in the decade following World War II ushered in long overdue changes in how blacks and other disenfranchised people in the United States were treated. It also raised expectations about ending discrimination that have gone unfulfilled.

That is why, as an African American woman who has served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights since 1980, I look back on the Commission’s 40-year history with a mixture of satisfaction and disappointment. Much has been accomplished in the way of securing civil rights for all, especially when one considers how unyielding so many of our elected leaders and their constituents were to that idea at the earliest stages of the civil rights movement.

For this continent’s original inhabitants, for many who trace their family roots to the Nation’s distant past, and for increasing numbers of recent immigrants, civil rights still have not been nurtured to full growth. For them, the ideal of equal opportunity remains elusive or, worse, an empty promise.

No one should have to live without full enjoyment of the rights protected by our Constitution and laws against discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, age, disability, or national origin. That is part of a belief in the principle of equity that has bound us together as a people, despite what too often has been a gap between principle and practice.

Yet, in the late 1950s six million Americans whose skin was black were denied the right to vote. Living a segregated life they could not get served a soda in a drugstore of their choice, or use a public restroom of their choice, or swim at a public beach of their choice, or take whatever seat they chose on public transportation, or go to school with white children, or be buried in a cemetery where white people were buried. Hispanics, Native Americans, and other minorities also encountered discrimination throughout their lives.

Whatever prod our national leaders may always need to press ahead in combating discrimination in all of its forms can be found in a lesson arising from the sweep of history: where there is no progress in securing equality and equity, slippage intrudes as opposing forces better their footing.

Since the creation of the Commission in 1957, the agency has been both a watchdog and the Nation’s moral conscience on civil rights matters. Its independent investigations and reports have had a substantial impact on the formulation of laws, Executive Orders, and Federal regulations prohibiting discrimination against vulnerable members of our society. A major example, noted in Hugh Davis Graham’s article in this issue, was the Commission’s historic role helping to formulate a Voting Rights Act of 1965 that had real teeth. Two others are Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination in any federally assisted program, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibiting discrimination in the sale or rental of housing.

With the growing complexity and widening embrace of civil rights protections, there remains a need for independent studies containing factual findings and workable recommendations for battling bias and discrimination more effectively. Such credible reports can serve as guidebooks for national leaders charting a path among competing interests and philosophies. The Commission, in keeping with a tradition established over the decades, remains committed to investigating crucial civil rights problems and producing credible reports aimed at securing greater equality and justice for the people of this Nation.

Over the past six years this Commission and its State Advisory Committees have held numerous public hearings and forums that have documented the resurgence and divisiveness of racial and ethnic tensions in cities and rural areas of our Nation. My participation in such factfinding meetings has made clear to me that, despite important advances, racism in many guises still exists, as does religious, gender, age, and disability discrimination.

Still, we have it within our power to stop revisiting sins of the past upon the innocent children of America. As a historian I am acutely aware that civil rights intended to empower minorities, women, and other previously excluded groups are inextricably linked to our Nation’s most deeply held values and distinctive past. United by a commitment to democratic principles and enlightened by reason, dedicated and caring Americans can make it possible for an increasingly diverse populace to live together in equality and tranquillity.

The promise of America as a land of opportunity and renewal is still a worthy goal, and it is well within our reach.

COPYRIGHT 1997 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group