Civil Rights Division Turns 50

On December 9, 1957, the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division was created as part of the landmark Civil Rights Act. Charges of politicization within the division have persisted for several years. Now, 50 years later, NPR's Tony Cox explores its relevance and successes.

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TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

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COX: On December 9th, 1957, the Civil Rights Division was created as part of the landmark Civil Rights Act, which was passed three months prior. Under the leadership of Attorney General William Rogers, the division initially focused on voting and housing discrimination and had seven specific functions. Among them was to enforce all federal statutes affecting civil rights, investigate complaints, and make policy and legislative recommendations.

This month, on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, the issue of civil rights is still as relevant as it was in the 1957. However, it's the interpretation that has changed, and in some cases, dramatically.

Mr. DREW DAYS (Former Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division): Certainly, it's been my sense that there has been a serious falling off of meaningful enforcement in some of the major areas of responsibility of the division - in voting rights, in employment, in dealing with schools. Indeed, there seems to be a lessening of any genuine concern about the degree to which racial discrimination continues to be a significant problem in the United States.

COX: That's Drew Days who ran the Civil Rights Division for Democrat Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s. But it was Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, who, 20 years prior, had paved the way for federal involvement in civil rights enforcement that continues today.

Eisenhower told the nation in his January 1957 State of the Union Address, it was time to enact new legislation to better protect the civil rights of Negro Americans.

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President DWIGHT EISENHOWER: I urge the people in all sections of the country to approach these integration problems with calm and reason, with mutual understanding and good will, and in the American tradition of deep respect for the orderly processes of law and justice.

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COX: By that September, federal troops were clashing with angry whites during the desegregation of Little Rock's Central High School in Arkansas. At the same time, Congress responded to the president's request by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first such legislation since Reconstruction.

On December 9th, the Civil Rights Division was born and ushered in a new era of federal voting and civil rights enforcement that had survived 50 years through 10 U.S. presidents. But while the act may have survived, some of its enforcement policies have not as each White House brought its own views to bear.

Under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, civil rights policies towards school busing and affirmative action shifted dramatically as he sought to restore enforcement powers back to the states.

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President RONALD REAGAN: But I can assure you that this administration is dedicated and devoted to the principle of civil rights, and in spite of the fact that I do believe in returning more to our system of federalism, recognizing that there are functions that can be better performed at the state and local level.

COX: William Bradford Reynolds ran the Civil Rights Division for President Reagan and is the longest-serving assistant attorney general in the division's history.

Mr. WILLIAM BRADFORD REYNOLDS (Former Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division): I would like it to be remembered as being a time when a hard look was taken at some of the remedial measures that had been in place, that the difficulties that those measures were causing particularly in the minority communities were uncovered and identified, and that measures were fashioned as alternatives that were more responsive to the promises that the civil rights laws hold out for large numbers of minorities in this country.

COX: Roger Clegg was deputy attorney general under both Presidents Reagan and the senior George Bush. Clegg says it is the prerogative of the White House to interpret civil rights laws as it sees fit.

Mr. ROGER CLEGG (Former Deputy Assistant Attorney General): Absolutely. You know, this is a democracy and elections have consequences. And when the president is elected, he is in charge of the executive branch and that includes the Justice Department, and that includes the Civil Rights Division, as part of the Justice Department, has to fall in line with his agenda.

COX: But that view has generated great controversy over what critics see as federal mishandling of civil rights. It's created clashes if ideology between career attorneys and politically appointed leadership within the division.

Drew Days, the first African-American to head the Civil Rights Division, watched a sea change occur between the Carter and Reagan administrations.

Mr. DAYS: But I didn't think that there would be an about face in so many respects once the Reagan administration came in. I found it quite shocking and really out of keeping with what had been, really, a tradition in the Civil Rights Division through Republican and Democratic administrations.

COX: Bill Lee ran the Civil Rights Division in the Clinton administration from 1997 to 2001. He says he watched another major shift in policy enforcement occur when the current President Bush took over in 2000.

Mr. BILL LEE (Acting Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division, Clinton Administration): In the year since I left in January 2001, I believe that enforcement is diminished quite a bit. And I think that that is not what Congress wanted when it gave that jurisdiction to the Civil Rights Division.

COX: Enforcement has also been impacted by turmoil within the Justice Department over the last 18 months, including internal ranker and resignations from the top down. With the new attorney general now in place and the end of the Bush era at hand and despite assurances from the outgoing president, they are appeared to be more questions than answers about the direction of the future of civil rights enforcement.

President GEORGE W BUSH: Progress for this country for African-Americans and all Americans depends on the full protection of civil rights and equality before the law. My administration and its Justice Department has vigorously enforced the civil rights laws.

COX: But for some, like Mary Frances Berry - the former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights - there remain many, many doubts.

Dr. MARY FRANCIS BERRY (Former Chairman, United States Commission on Civil Rights): The whole array of civil rights issues at the division that they're supposed to deal with - there are real problems and you can see that by career people leaving in droves as they did during the Reagan administration and now during Bush two. There are plenty of issues and more conflicts around the civil rights - the whole range of civil rights issues. You just need somebody able and competent with leadership from an assistant attorney general and an attorney general and the White House.

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