The Civil Rights Commission

The role of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is, by making studies and issuing reports, to move the U.S. government forward, inch by agonizing inch, on civil rights. Spasmodically, and somewhat surprisingly, it has done so. Up to now. It could, for example, travel south, discover that despite a voting rights law Negroes still were deprived of the right to vote, recommend more federal legislation, and help embarrass the government into action.

Now with a string of ostensible victories in the South set down in the statute books, the Commission has sallied forth into the vast, vague “urban crisis.” The encounter has been an unnerving one for the commissioners. It demonstrates perhaps better than anything else the enormous gulf between the Negro in trouble and the white man who might do anything about it.

One difficulty lies in the very concept of the Commission, a group named not so much for its expertise — on the contrary, in fact — but for the prestigious and allrightnik authenticity its names will lend to controversial ideas. When famous deans, university presidents, and editors say that people ought not to be deprived of the right to vote, well, there must be something to that. The group should be ahead of the public in its thinking, but not so far ahead that it loses its audience.

To put the Civil Rights Commission in perspective, it is fair to recall that when it was established under the 1957 Civil Rights Act there were legitimate grounds for suspecting that this was the classic cop-out, a way of postponing action with further study. The suspicions were not alleviated when the judicious President Eisenhower carefully balanced the Commission membership between three Northerners and three Southerners. (This always reminds me of the Jules Feiffer cartoon of Mr. Eisenhower discussing the Little Rock crisis at a press conference. The President was warning against “extremists on both sides” — those who want to blow up the schools and those who want to keep them open.) But the Commission turned out to be a sleeper; few would have anticipated its strong reports on voting, schools, housing, administration of justice, and other racial issues. A good deal of this is of course attributable to the staff, a younger group dedicated full time not only to the furtherance of civil rights, but also to the education of the commissioners, who can devote but a fraction of their busy lives to the problem.

Saviors or “feds”?

When the Commission scheduled a week of hearings in the San Francisco Bay area earlier this summer, the staff had decided that the time had come, as one put it, “to lower them a little further into the vat.” In Mississippi, Negroes had welcomed the commissioners as saviors, and accorded them the respect and awe to which deans and presidents and editors have become accustomed. When the commissioners went to Cleveland last year to learn what a ghetto is, they heard a few rumbles of discontent, but nothing to offend their sensibilities too seriously. In San Francisco they were confronted with anger, suspicion, even scorn; they were annoyed.

Sitting there, high on the dais in what is called the Ceremonial Courtroom and resembles a paneled airplane hangar inserted in the nineteenth floor of the Federal Building, the commissioners seemed to many witnesses not so much saviors as just more representatives of the “feds,” of “the man,” come to look them over and to go away and do nothing, and the witnesses had already had quite enough of that. “We get a lot of people,” said Edward hecks, a Negro community organizer in east Palo Alto, “looking in our noses and ears and eyes and tape recording us, but we don’t see anything after that. People come into the area,” he continued, “and when they hear us giving different points of view they say, can’t you get together, and when we try to get together, they say there’s a power struggle going on.”

“We’re tired of being studied all the time,” said Orville Luster, a softspoken middle-aged Negro who has had success working with teen-age groups. “All we get is a tremendous amount of beautiful reports that aren’t even read.”

Wilfred Usscry, national chairman of CORE, pointed out that in 1966 he had attended a grand White House conference “To Fullfill These Rights,” but, “I have heard nothing since about moving that program. I am one who feels disenchantment with the system,” said Ussery. “I would like to say that there is hope, but I don’t see any hope. I am very serious about that.”

“A little pill”

The commissioners protested that they wanted “facts.” “We’re just trying to learn,” Erwin Griswold, dean of the Elarvard Law School, sternly told a group of high school students, all potential dropouts involved in a special project to keep them in school. “If you could present us with facts . . . mere expressions of emotion are not helpful, are not relevant.”

“The facts,” replied cighteenyear-old Patricia Delago, “are behind the emotions, pushing the emotions out.”

Miss Dclago, speaking quietly and rapidly, then gave the commissioners some facts, about crowded classrooms, prejudiced teachers, counselors who give a student five minutes of advice, usually that there is no point in pursuing a career. “You won’t give the boys a measly job when they’re sixteen or seventeen, but when they’re eighteen you’ll send them to Vietnam. You’re like our doctor, and we get an appointment with you, and you give us a little pill to solve our problems. Then you say we’ll be back in seven years. . . . You give us a half hour to listen to all our problems. We have to live with them all our lives.”

“I would like for each and every one of you,” said one of Miss Delago’s fellow students, “to come out to our school someday . . . to see how we are being cheated out of an education. We walk down the hall just like packs of cattle, that’s how small the school is. I want to ask you right now, What is going to happen to the people who drop out?”

Commission chairman John Hannah, president of Michigan State University, felt put upon. “We are here to listen,” he said, his face reddening with anger. “We have to take whatever God gave us . . . to make you the best possible citizen. . . . An education is something that every person has to achieve for himself.” Hannah droned on about what makes America great, about Founding Fathers. The students somehow did not find this an answer. “You look bored,” said Hannah, growing angrier still, “we’re going to terminate your part of the hearing. . . . This Commission has been the victim for the past twenty-four hours of some sideshows. Father Hesburgh can preach a better sermon than I can.” The Reverend Theodore M. Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame University, another commissioner, did just that.

“Patricia,” said Father Hesburgh, in low, mellow tones, “I want to say something. I’ve been in seventy countries. . . . I spent a lot of time recently in Latin America.” Father Hesburgh gave a brief travelogue of Latin America, the fjords of southern Chile, and so on, and continued: “The one thing that we have in this country that they don’t have is equality of opportunity. What you’re getting now would look like paradise compared to what they get there. . . . Now I know it’s not perfect here either,” and that’s “the only reason this group exists. We move all around this country. We all have ten full-time jobs. We look at these problems in our spare time, if there is such a thing. Freedom of opportunity is not something you get on a platter. This man next to me [Eugene Patterson, editor of the Atlanta Constitution] won a Pulitzer Prize this week. You don’t get those with Green Stamps. . . . I hope you grab every opportunity you have, and I hope we can create more and more opportunities. We’ve all got to put down our buckets where we are.” In a series of unfortunate remarks, the latter was an ill-timed recollection of a saying of Booker T. Washington’s, a man who, one Negro remarked to me later, “didn’t know how empty the well was.”

Sitting ducks

A good part of the commissioners’ discomfiture was at finding themselves sitting ducks for anger and frustration at the federal government, over which it had minimal influence yet whose identity it could not escape. And that identity, away from Washington — that other world where the well-laid plans are made — is not a happy one. The government, said one of the witnesses before the Commission, “speaks with a forked tongue.”

A war on poverty is proclaimed, and the warriors retreat at the first skirmish; a school aid program focusing on the poor is begun, and in no time politicians talk about ending it. Executive orders on civil rights are issued, but they are not carried out. Federal programs to provide jobs and improve housing are enacted, but if local officials don’t want to accept the programs, nobody can make them.

For years, for example, there has been a federal policy, recently reaffirmed in still another executive order, that there should not be racial discrimination in jobs provided through federal contracts. But neither the union leaders nor contractors who came before the Commission felt responsibility for translating the order into jobs for Negroes. “A union’s primary responsibility,” said A1 Clem, business manager of Operating Engineers, Local No. 3, “is to its members.” How many Negroes were in his union? “I have no way of knowing.” Didn’t the 1964 Civil Rights Act require unions to keep records by race? Yes, but the government forms had not yet reached the union.

James Childers, president of the AFL-CIO Building Trades Council, patiently explained to the Commission that Negroes were represented in the unions, perhaps “not as much as they would like to be — not as much as their leaders say they would like to be. They are represented as much as the Negroes want to be.” Joseph Mazzola, business manager of the Plumbers Union, Local 38, said that although his union had twenty Negroes “that we know of” out of some three thousand members, and the NLRB had charged it with discrimination, the union “never” discriminated against minorities. What if a contractor wanted a federal contract and was told that first there must be a guarantee of more jobs for Negroes? “Naturally we would get in touch with our attorneys,” replied Mazzola, “to protect the rights of our members.”

“I think you’re barking up the wrong tree when you say it’s the contractor’s responsibility,” explained Morton Harris, administrative officer of the S. S. Silverblatt Company, which had won a $30 million federal contract to build a Post Office building in Oakland. The Commission staff found that there were no Negro plumbers, or electricians, or steam fitters, or operating engineers, or ironworkers on the job. In a total work force of two hundred, there were eighteen Negroes. Mr. Harris believed that he had fulfilled his obligations under the executive order: he “personally” had sent the unions a copy of the order, and he had been assured by the unions that they were in compliance with the order.

Perhaps the representative of the Labor Department’s Office of Contract Compliance, which has responsibility for carrying out the executive order, would explain to the Commission how the order was enforced. Vincent Macaluso, who flew out from Washington for the occasion, was full of good news about the Department’s new “affirmative action program,” and professed himself “confounded” by Mr. Harris’ remarks. If a contractor has a collective-bargaining agreement which interferes with his performance on a government contract, declared Mr. Macaluso, “he should simply not do business with the government.” Well, mused the Commission’s counsel, some contractors didn’t see it that way; had the government ever established its credibility by terminating a construction contract? “Not to my knowledge,” replied Mr. Macaluso. “There is a feeling that after all the contractor is in a very hard spot.” There is also a feeling, William Taylor, the Commission’s staff director, reminded Mr. Macaluso, that the Department of Labor is “susceptible” to the craft unions, and that this inhibits enforcement of the order.

In 1962, after long delay and with much fanfare, President Kennedy signed an executive order forbidding racial discrimination in the sale or rent of federally financed or insured housing. The primary responsibility for enforcing the order was placed on the Federal Housing Administration, which insured mortgages, and which is part of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The FHA decided that enforcement of the housing order was dependent on “citizen action.”

“Not personally motivated . . .”

Mrs. Lois Matusek and Mrs. Lucy Buchbinder, two San Francisco citizens who took up the challenge, reported on the “rather frustrating” results of trying to help the government enforce its own policies. “I can call the HUD man,” said one, “and he says I’m awfully sorry, I can’t get this information for you. I couldn’t make an appointment with the U.S. Attorney because they said one agency couldn’t monitor another. . . . When I ask Washington I usually get a gung ho letter back . . .” but little happens. “At the district level,” explained Mrs. Matusek, “the attitude of the personnel can water down the modified nonaggressive policy even further.” The local FHA representative, “three times in my presence, said he was not personally motivated” to carry out the order.

Jack Tuggle, regional representative of the FHA, told the Commission that he was afraid that if the FHA singled out a specific FHAbacked subdivision developer and ordered him to comply with the federal nondiscrimination policy, it would be “stigmatizing” him; “it might serve as an attraction for excessive — I’ll use the word ‘imbalanced,’ I believe that’s a socially acceptable word now” — influx of Negro buyers. The FHA backs over 51 percent of the housing built in the Bay area, Mr. Tuggle pointed out, and he would not like to do “anything that would tend to cause us to lose our position in the market.”

San Francisco had not applied for assistance under the new Model Cities Act, the most promising and comprehensive slum rehabilitation program yet. Mayor John F. Shelley, white-haired, pink-faced, surrounded by a retinue of aides and photographers, affably explained why not. The coordination of local programs required by the Model Cities Act could not be carried out without a change in the city charter, the mayor said, and he did not want “that kind of thing on the ballot at this time because I am a candidate for re-election.”

Making trouble

Officialdom, federal and local, has made it clear that one way to petition for the federal beneficence that has been promised back in Washington is to riot, bach spring, officialdom predicts a “long hot summer” and pledges special help to areas where there is trouble. This naturally makes making trouble a very tempting strategy. Even representatives of Mexican-Amcrican and Chinese communities in the Bay area suggested to the Commission that the possibilities of the riot cycle are not lost on their people.

The attitude has spread, said Larry Wong, a Presbyterian minister and poverty-program worker in Chinatown, “that until a community produces a riot the power people will not produce action.” There was no attention to Hunter’s Point in San Francisco, Mr. Wong pointed out, until the Negroes there rioted.

But the government also appears to speak with the “forked tongue” when riots break out. When trouble exploded at Hunters Point last fall — citizens of the area say it was not nearly so serious as pistol-happy police and the press made out — Mayor Shelley sent a desperate telegram to the White House, asking for help, fames A. Richards, a young Negro leader of a youth group trying to stabilize Hunter’s Point, described the area to the Commission: “no recreation facilities, education facilities. cultural programs, health facilities, transportation facilities — it’s just ole tore-down houses to put people there and keep it a ghetto. I suppose. . . . It wasn’t a major riot, the way people tended to see it. The reasons behind it were major, and they still are ”

What happened after the riot? People came out and “made false promises. Things are not getting better; they’re getting worse.” The commissioners dkl not press Mr. Richards for details; he talked nervously and quickly and inarticulately, he was not their kind of witness. “After the riot,” he explained to me later, “I had meetings with representatives of all the federal agencies. They were taking surveys all over the place. They said they were going to find jobs. They talked as if there were going to be real security, but they left us standing the same way. Some got jobs working two, three hours in the Post Office. About three jobs with the Telephone Company. They never contacted me after that.”

The other side of the gulf

There is reason to wonder whether the commissioners understood Mr. Richards and the other young men and women like him any better for having come to San Francisco. “We want facts,” Commissioner Robert S. Rankin, a Duke University political science professor, told me as the week-long hearings neared the end, echoing Dean Griswold, “but we’re getting emotions.” “The only thing I got out of these hearings,” Chairman Hannah remarked, “is that the Mexican-Americans arc upset with us.”

Perhaps the gulf, continually widened by differences of class, by mutual frustrations, by the sheer passage of time, is now too great to bridge. Humble sharecroppers and civil rights leaders in Brooks Brothers suits arc now a small and fading part of the picture. This is not to suggest that the issues the commissioners face would be simple but for a failure of understanding; far from it. Nor are they standing alone on the other side of the gulf; a great crowd of politicians and officials, most of America, in fact, is standing right there with them. Perhaps they learned more than they appeared to in San Francisco. The real point is that if they cannot grasp what the witnesses were telling them, if they can no longer budge the federal government and the nation, who can?

Elizabeth Brenner Drew


Douglas Kiker, the ATLANTIC’S Washington correspondent. is also on NBC’s capital staff. Peter Braestrup is a New York TIMES reporter based in Bangkok. Elizabeth Brenner Drew writes regularly for the ATLANTIC from Washington.