And Justice for All: The United States Commission on Civil Rights and the Continuing Struggle for Freedom in America


This is the story of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, through its extraordinary fifty years at the heart of the civil rights movement and the struggle for justice in America.

Mary Frances Berry, the commission’s chairperson for more than a decade, author of My Face Is Black Is True (“An essential chapter in American history from a distinguished historian”—Nell Painter), tells of the commission’s founding in 1957 by President Eisenhower, in response to burgeoning civil rights...

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This is the story of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, through its extraordinary fifty years at the heart of the civil rights movement and the struggle for justice in America.

Mary Frances Berry, the commission’s chairperson for more than a decade, author of My Face Is Black Is True (“An essential chapter in American history from a distinguished historian”—Nell Painter), tells of the commission’s founding in 1957 by President Eisenhower, in response to burgeoning civil rights protests; how it was designed to be an independent bipartisan Federal agency—made up of six members, with no more than three from one political party, free of interference from Congress and presidents—beholden to no government body, with full subpoena power, and free to decide what it would investigate and report on.

Berry writes that the commission, rather than producing reports that would gather dust on the shelves, began to hold hearings even as it was under attack from Southern segregationists. She writes how the commission’s hearings and reports helped the nonviolent protest movement prick the conscience of the nation then on the road to dismantling segregation, beginning with the battles in Montgomery and Little Rock, the sit-ins and freedom rides, the March on Washington.

We see how reluctant government witnesses and local citizens overcame their fear of reprisal and courageously came forward to testify before the commission; how the commission was instrumental in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965; how Congress soon added to the commission’s jurisdiction the overseeing of discriminating practices—with regard to sex, age, and disability—which helped in the enactment of the Age Discrimination Act of 1978 and the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.

Berry writes about how the commission’s monitoring of police community relations and affirmative action was fought by various U.S. presidents, chief among them Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, each of whom fired commissioners who disagreed with their policies, among them Dr. Berry, replacing them with commissioners who supported their ideological objectives; and how these commissioners began to downplay the need to remedy discrimination, ignoring reports of unequal access to health care and employment opportunities.

Finally, Dr. Berry’s book makes clear what is needed for the future: a reconfigured commission, fully independent, with an expanded mandate to help oversee all human rights and to make good the promise of democracy—equal protection under the law regardless of race, color, sexual orientation, religion, disability, or national origin.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A powerful and inspiring story of the American civil rights movement–a story of change, vision and courage.  Change has come to America and one of the ways it happened was through the work of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, formed against all odds in 1957 by President Eisenhower and the Congress. The commission, during its five decades on the battlefront of injustice and inequality, moved far beyond Eisenhower’s initial vision for it, and became a major factor in the success of the civil rights movement that has led us to the victories we enjoy today. Attacked and undermined at times by politicians and unsympathetic Presidents, the commission invited ordinary people to testify at its hearings in their towns and cities and in Washington, D.C.  Sometimes under threat of reprisal, even death, those struggling for equal justice came to rely upon the commission’s impartiality, and independence.  It was the commission’s reports and recommendations that helped to gain the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the language minority protections enacted in 1975, the Age Discrimination Act of 1978 and the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.  Mary Frances Berry, the commission’s chairperson for a decade, has written its too little-known history. It is an important, galvanizing and moving book.”

–President Bill Clinton

Library Journal

Starting with its formation in 1957 by President Eisenhower, Berry (Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought, Univ. of Pennsylvania), brilliantly scans the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights' origins, challenges, and accomplishments, particularly during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. The Commission's public hearings, reports, and extended jurisdiction were instrumental in the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Age Discrimination Act of 1978, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Berry, who chaired the Commission for 11 years, includes some very disturbing and heart-rending testimonies from government witnesses and local people amid attacks from Southern segregationists, death threats, and fear of reprisal. She also covers her ideological differences with Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush; she resigned from the Commission in 2004. She raises provocative questions regarding the relationship between the Commission and Congress, shrewdly arguing for the Commission's enduring significance, and recommending that it be reorganized, independent, and with a mandate that will include all aspects of human rights and promotion of "liberty and justice for all." This incisive and comprehensive analysis of the Commission supplements other major works on the Civil Rights Movement. With excellent source notes, it is highly recommended for academic and public libraries.
—Edward G. McCormack

Kirkus Reviews
The U.S. Civil Rights Commission's former chairperson cheers what it once was and laments what it has become. Berry (American Social Thought/Univ. of Pennsylvania; My Face is Black is True, 2005, etc.) set out to document the commission rather than write a memoir of her time as a member. Still, the book works best when it combines her personal story with the institution's history. Amid worsening racial conflict, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 established the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights as an independent, bipartisan fact-finding agency with the power to subpoena. Intended only as temporary window-dressing for the Eisenhower administration, the commission resolutely stuck around and established itself as the nation's conscience on civil rights. Initially focused on the plight of African-Americans in the South, it produced reports and recommendations that drove the key civil-rights legislation of the mid-'60s. It took on discrimination more broadly in the '70s, battling the Nixon administration along the way. Although the 1976 election of Jimmy Carter promised a new era of cooperation, the commission remained underappreciated. Appointed by Carter in 1980, Berry soon faced President Reagan's attempts to pack the committee with his own supporters. She was fired in 1983, then reinstated under pressure, although Reagan continued to assault the commission's independence. Civil-rights advocates were resilient enough to secure passage of the Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Civil Rights Act of 1991. President Clinton appointed Berry chairperson of the commission in 1993. Even with minimal funding, her commission produced numerous reports and recommendations, and investigated the voting-rightsviolations that occurred in Florida during the 2000 presidential election. In 2004, however, the White House and Congress united to undermine the commission once again, and President Bush effectively fired Berry that year. At that point, she decided to write this book. Both a history and a call for a new offensive against discrimination, it ends by recommending a revitalized commission on civil and human rights. An unflinching look at America's disengagement with civil rights. Author tour to Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. Agent: Charlotte Sheedy/Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307263209
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/20/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 9.52 (w) x 6.56 (h) x 1.47 (d)

Meet the Author

Mary Frances Berry was born in Nashville, Tennessee. She received a bachelor’s and master’s degree at Howard University, a doctorate in history from the University of Michigan, and a juris doctor degree from the University of Michigan Law School. Dr. Berry was the assistant secretary for education in the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. She has received thirty honorary doctoral degrees and numerous awards for her public service and scholarly activities, including the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins Award and Image Award, the Rosa Parks Award of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She has also received the Hubert H. Humphrey Civil Rights Award from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. In addition to having been the chairperson of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission for eleven years, Dr. Berry is Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches history and law.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Responding to the “Negro” Protest

Roberta Tucker slowly gathered herself to speak before the United States Commission on Civil Rights hearings in Tallahas

see after the 2000 presidential election. It was her first appearance before any official inquiry, and it had not been easy to come forward. She faced a packed hearing room, the glare of a mass of television cameras, and a gaggle of print and radio media as she testified about how a white Florida Highway Patrol trooper stopped her on her way to vote. She was driving just south of Tallahassee on the only main road leading to her polling place in Woodville. The officer looked at the forty-nine-year-old woman’s license and then let her drive on. She was puzzled because “nothing was checked, my lights, signals, or anything that they usually check.” Angered by the memory, she spoke more rapidly. “I was intimidated by it and I was suspicious of it.”

John Nelson, fifty-two, another African American witness, at first was too nervous to speak. Then, finding his voice, he recalled the unmanned Florida Highway Patrol cars parked outside his polling place in Monticello, twenty-five miles east of Tallahassee. Nelson testified that he started to turn back and then forced himself to go forward. “I thought that was unusual. It makes you wonder, why is it there? What’s wrong?” At his precinct the intimidation continued as, for the first time, instead of just asking for his voter registration card, the poll worker demanded two pieces of identification.

Apostle Willie Whiting, unlike Tucker and Nelson, was eager to testify. The fifty-year-old African American pastor of the House of Prayer Church in Tallahassee relished describing his election-day experience before the commission. As he stood in the polling place with his family, a poll worker told him he was a convicted felon and could not vote. Whiting protested that he had never even been arrested, but to no avail. Asked by general counsel Edward Hailes how it felt, he answered in a booming voice, “It didn’t feel good.” His family and “other people at the polling place” observing him. Whiting said he felt “sling-shotted back to slavery” by the shame it brought. One after another, African American, Latino, Haitian, older American, and other citizens who were disabled described a nightmare of official government-implemented disenfranchisement.

The testimony in Florida resembled in some ways the commission’s first hearing in Alabama, in December 1958. These were the early years of modern racial protest, when the term “race relations” began to take on new meaning. In Montgomery, blacks had refused to ride city buses for more than a year to end transportation segregation. In Birmingham, bombs were exploding, including one in the home of Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights leader Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and his family on Christmas morning. Meeting in the Fifth Circuit Courtroom in the Federal Building in Montgomery, the only venue in this cradle of the old Confederacy where blacks and whites could meet together, the commission heard testimony about the endemic violence and intimidation. Commissioners stayed at Maxwell Air Force Base because integrated hotels were legally impermissible.

At the 1958 hearing, twenty-six African American witnesses, all of them educated, property-owning taxpayers who met the state’s residence and legal requirements for voting, told the commission that they were denied the right to register to vote and faced implied and open threats. Risking their livelihood and their lives just by testifying, witnesses came forward to tell of their despair over their treatment and their burning desire to vote. Tuskegee resident Charles E. Miller, a Korean War veteran, told the commission, “I have dodged bombs and almost gotten killed, and then come back and been denied to vote—I don’t like it. I want to vote and I want to take part in this type of government. I have taken part in it when I was in service. I think I should take part in it when I am a citizen.”

Aaron Sellers, owner of a 240-acre farm in Bullock County, told of waiting for nine hours, in a separate room, while whites were quickly registered. Intimidation capped off the boredom. As Sellers and five other “Negroes” waited in line, a white man asked what was their “trouble.” When they answered, “We are waiting to register,” the white man replied, “If I were you all—you are citizens already. If I were you I would go on back home.” When he returned and realized they hadn’t left, the white man yelled angrily, “Well, I thought I told you all to get the hell out of here.” Although they had waited for hours, intimidated and frightened, they left.

The five white and one African American men on the commission who listened to these courageous African Americans were just adjusting to their duties. In the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, the Montgomery bus boycott, continued black protest and white reaction, this new commission had been established by President Eisenhower and Congress as a response to the emerging civil rights crisis. By the end of the Eisenhower administration, these men would reach well beyond the president’s political purposes, and the commission would play a major role in the struggle for civil rights.

John Hannah, the commission chairman, was a second choice after retired Supreme Court Justice Stanley Reed first accepted and then turned the president down. Reed said that it undermined the image of the Court for justices to take on other governmental roles after their tenure. Hannah, who had been Eisenhower’s assistant secretary of defense, was president of Michigan State University. At Defense, one of his responsibilities was the completion of the integration of the armed forces and civilian personnel in the services.

The son of an Iowa chicken farmer, Hannah earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in poultry husbandry at Michigan State and then made his way up the administrative ladder. He eventually married the daughter of the Michigan State president, and then succeeded his father-in-law as president of the university in 1941. As Michigan State president, he essentially transformed an agricultural college into a major Big Ten research university.

The other commissioners appeared to fulfill Eisenhower’s political needs. His staff understood that the president wanted a “Negro” on the commission and he wanted someone whom the Senate would easily confirm. E. Frederick Morrow, the first and only African American professional on the White House staff, recalled from his conversations with senior staffer Maxwell Rabb that a confirmable “Negro” requirement automatically disqualified any “social worker or member of NAACP, etc.” from becoming a commissioner.

White House staffers settled on sixty-two-year-old “sturdy, bulb- nosed” Ernest Wilkins, a Chicago lawyer and former president of the Cook County Bar Association, for the “Negro” slot. Wilkins, who was “accepted by the establishment black and white,” had already been confirmed as an assistant secretary of labor for international affairs. In almost three years at Labor, he had quietly presided over the president’s committee charged with preventing racial discrimination in government contracts, officially chaired by Vice President Richard Nixon. Wilkins apparently worked well with A. Philip Randolph, the organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, who led the 1940s March on Washington protests that were principally responsible for the creation of the contracts committee, and the only black vice president of the American Federation of Labor– Congress of Industrial Organizations union (AFL-CIO). Wilkins also received high marks for his representation of the United States in international labor organizations.

Wilkins’s publicly reported comments on racial matters as an assistant secretary of labor were benign and inoffensive to whites. When whites stoned Vivian Malone, a black woman, for trying to attend classes at the University of Alabama, Wilkins called the incident “deplorable.” However, he suggested no remedy and tepidly said that it should be seen as affording some people the opportunity to gain “new insights into their own lives” from the problems “involved in change.” He also told an Urban League dinner on February 15, 1956, that “the cloak of freedom is sitting much better on our collective shoulders these days—though not too well at that.” He continued: “There needs to be a little tailoring done here and there—for instance, in Mississippi, South Carolina and Washington DC—I have no doubt that it will finally get done.”

Eisenhower also wanted “moderate” white Southerners on the commission. He appointed sixty-four-year-old Robert G. Storey, the dean of Southern Methodist University’s Law School and a renowned Dallas attorney who had served as executive trial counsel for the United States at the Nuremberg trials of major war criminals after World War II. Storey had also served as president of the American Bar Association, as president of the Inter-American Bar Association, and as a member of President Truman’s Hoover Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government.

The president’s other Southern “moderate” appointee, seventy-two-year- old Tampa lawyer Doyle E. Carlton, was the governor of Florida during the Roosevelt years. He had dealt successfully with the collapse of the state’s land boom, a violent hurricane, the Mediterranean fruit fly infestation, and the nation’s Depression. His only other foray into politics was an unsuccessful run in 1936 for a Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate. Carlton, a friend and active supporter of then Florida Governor Leroy Collins and Senators Spessard Holland and George Smathers, was eminently confirmable.

The commission was formed at a time when the Mason-Dixon Line demarcated race relations, a condition that had persisted since before the Civil War. But that North-South divide also determined seniority and power in the Senate. Eisenhower’s nominees needed confirmation by the Judiciary Committee, chaired by Senator James Eastland (D-Miss.). To overcome this hurdle, the president also appointed former Virginia governor John S. Battle, a well-known and outspoken Southern segregationist, to the commission in November 1957. Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr., of Virginia, Battle’s political mentor, had denounced the idea of a commission as “a vehicle for witch-hunting at its worst, and dangerous beyond the comprehension of most living Americans.” A staunch defender of the racial conventions of Southern society, Battle had made his views widely known through his speech at the 1952 Democratic convention defending Virginia for its refusal to accept a loyalty oath binding delegates to support the convention decisions. The tall, distinguished-looking Virginian pleaded that his state be allowed the “freedom of thought and freedom of action” that had been “enunciated by Thomas Jefferson—in whose County I happen to live—the great patron saint of this Party.” At his confirmation hearing, Battle assured the committee that Eisenhower had chosen him because he believed “it might be helpful if there was some member of the commission who had . . . strong southern views.”

Charismatic and black-haired, with gentle features set off by a remarkable cleft chin, Father Theodore Hesburgh, the president of Notre Dame University, was Eisenhower’s youngest commission selection. At forty years old, Hesburgh was head of the best-known Catholic institution of higher education in the country, a post he had assumed in 1952 at the age of thirty-five. With this bipartisan group of appointees, Eisenhower expected easy confirmation and then moderate commission recommendations. Carlton, Battle, and Storey were Democrats, Hesburgh was an Independent, and Hannah and Wilkins were Republicans.

The commission had its first experience with the growing conflict over race in the 1958 Alabama hearings. As the commission staff prepared for the hearings, Alabama voting officials defied subpoenas and refused to make their records available for inspection. The registrars in Macon County, source of most of the African American complaints, refused to cooperate on orders from the state’s attorney general, John Patterson. In two other counties, Judge George Wallace, the future governor, impounded all registration records and announced that he would “jail any commission agent who attempts to get the records.”

When state and local officials testified, they were uniformly hostile. The commission’s vice chair, Robert Storey, asked Grady Rogers, a member of the Macon County Board of Registrars, about the testimony that prospective voters were racially segregated. Rogers answered, “At times. But, I don’t care to answer that question on advice of counsel.” When Storey inquired, “Why do you refuse to answer it?” Rogers answered, “Because it might tend to incriminate me.” When Storey repeated the line of questioning, Rogers consulted with Attorney General Patterson (soon to be governor) and replied that he was “a judicial officer under the State laws of Alabama” and his actions “cannot be inquired into by any body.” Each subpoenaed Alabama state and local government official mouthed the same defense.

Commissioner Ernest Wilkins asked Harrell Hammonds, judge of probate of Lowndes County, whether it was true that there were no “Negroes” registered in his county. He responded, “That’s what they say.” Wilkins continued, “In other words, out of a population of 17,000 or 18,000, 14,000 or 15,000 Negroes and 3,000 or 4,000 whites, you have approximately 2,200 or 2,300 whites registered and not a single Negro! Don’t you think that is a rather unusual and peculiar situation?” Hammonds replied, “It might be unusual and peculiar in some places; yes.” Wilkins and the other commissioners were quite startled at their first encounter with the raw racial exclusion that the Alabama officials regarded as commonplace and their defiance when questioned.

Dorothy Woodruff, one of three Lowndes County registrars, was asked whether white prospective voters were asked to demonstrate literacy. She answered, “After we meet, we discuss it and if their qualifications are up to par we send them their certificate. We have never had any that haven’t been up to par.”

Storey asked her, “Is that true as to both the blacks and the whites?” Woodruff responded, “We have no blacks.”

Eventually even Commissioner Battle, the former Virginia governor, who supported segregation, was exasperated by the evasive, chilling responses provided by the state and local officials. The segregationist commissioner thundered, “I have come to the state of my ancestors. . . . My grandfather, Cullen A. Battle, was . . . the commanding officer of a brigade of Alabama troops which was honored by a resolution of the Confederate Congress. . . . My grandfather was subsequently denied his seat in Congress, to which the people of Alabama had elected him, because he had served the Confederate cause.

“So, I come to the people of Alabama as a friend. The President . . . was not in error when, in asking me to serve as a member of this commission, he said he wanted someone with strong Southern sentiments, which I have. . . . It is from this background ladies and gentlemen that I am constrained to say in all friendliness, that I fear the officials of Alabama have made an error in doing that which appears to be an attempt to cover up their action.” He thought they should appear and defend their segregationist behavior.

At the request of the commission, the Justice Department obtained a court order for the information sought. However, the Alabama legislature instructed the counties to completely destroy all papers concerning rejected applications. Therefore the inquiry necessarily sputtered to an end.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

I Responding to the "Negro" Protest 9

II Among Friends 38

III "So Glad You Finally Made It" 67

IV "The Dinosaur Finally Opens One Eye" 102

V Killing the Messenger 132

VI Fulfilling the Spirit of the Law 154

VII "A Pocket of Renegades" 182

VIII Speak First, Investigate Never 216

IX "Mickey Mouse Agency" 245

X Here You Come Again 272

XI "You Can Forget Civil Rights in This Country" 302

Index 401

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