United States Commission on Civil Rights

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is a bipartisan, independent commission of the United States federal government, created in 1957, that is charged with the responsibility for investigating, reporting on, and making recommendations concerning civil rights issues in the U.S.


The Commission is composed of eight Commissioners. Four are appointed by the President of the United States, two by the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and two by the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

As of August 2016, the members of the Commission are:


The Commission was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which was signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in response to a recommendation by an ad hoc President’s Committee on Civil Rights. In calling for a permanent commission, that committee stated:

"In a democratic society, the systematic, critical review of social needs and public policy is a fundamental necessity. This is especially true of a field like civil rights, where the problems are enduring, and range widely [and where] ... a temporary, sporadic approach can never finally solve these problems.

"Nowhere in the federal government in there an agency charged with the continuous appraisal of the status of civil rights, and the efficiency of the machinery with which we hope to improve that status. ... A permanent Commission could perform an invaluable function by collecting data. ... Ultimately, this would make possible a periodic audit of the extent to which our civil rights are secure. ... [The Commission should also] serve[] as a clearing house and focus of coordination for the many private, state, and local agencies working in the civil rights field, [and thus] would be invaluable to them and to the federal government.

"A permanent Commission on Civil Rights should point all of its work toward regular reports which would include recommendations for action in ensuing periods. It should lay plans for dealing with broad civil rights problems. ... It should also investigate and make recommendations with respect to special civil rights problems."[2]

As then-Senator and Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson put it, the Commission’s task is to "gather facts instead of charges. ... [I]t can sift out the truth from the fancies; and it can return with recommendations which will be of assistance to reasonable men."

Since the 1957 Act, the Commission has been re-authorized and re-configured by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Acts of 1983 and 1991 and the Civil Rights Commission Amendments Act of 1994.

Soon after the passage of the 1957 Act, the then-six-member, bipartisan Commission, consisting of John A. Hannah, President of Michigan State University; Robert Storey, Dean of the Southern Methodist University Law School; Father Theodore Hesburgh, President of the University of Notre Dame; John Stewart Battle, former governor of Virginia; Ernest Wilkins, a Department of Labor attorney; and Doyle E. Carlton, former governor of Florida, set about to assemble a record.

Their first project was to assess the administration of voter registration and elections in Montgomery, Alabama. But they immediately ran into resistance. Circuit Judge George C. Wallace, who was elected as governor in support of white supremacy, ordered voter registration records to be impounded. "They are not going to get the records," he said. "And if any agent of the Civil Rights Commission comes down to get them, they will be locked up. ... I repeat, I will jail any Civil Rights Commission agent who attempts to get the records." The hearing went forward with no shortage of evidence. Witness after witness testified to inappropriate interference with his or her right to vote. The Commissioners spent the night at Maxwell Air Base, because all the city's hotels were segregated.

From there, the Commission went on to hold hearings on the implementation of Brown v. Board of Education in Nashville, Tennessee and on housing discrimination in Atlanta, Chicago and New York. The facts gathered in these and other hearings along with the Commission's recommendations were presented not just to Congress and the President but the American people generally, and they become part of the foundation upon which the Civil Rights Act of 1960, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 were built.[3]

A revolution in public opinion occurred during the late 1950s and early 1960s on issues of civil rights. The activities and reports of the Commission on Civil Rights contributed to that change. In 1956, the year before the 1957 Act, less than half of white Americans agreed with the statement, "White students and Negro students should go to the same schools." By 1963, the year before the 1964 Act, that figure had jumped to 62%. In 1956, a healthy majority of white Americans—60%—opposed "separate sections for Negroes on streetcars and buses." By 1963, the number had grown to 79% opposed—an overwhelming majority. Even in the South, minds were being changed. In 1956, 27% of Southern whites opposed separate sections on public transportation for blacks and whites. By 1963, the number had become a majority of 52%.

The change in views about the desirability of a federal law was even more dramatic. As late as July 1963, 49 percent of the total population favored a federal law that would give "all persons, Negro as well as white, the right to be served in public places such as hotels, restaurants, and similar establishments," and 42 percent were opposed. By September of the same year, a majority of 54 percent was in favor, and 38 percent opposed. In February 1964, support had climbed to 61 percent and opposition had declined to 31 percent.

In 1977 the Commission produced the report Sex Bias in the U.S. Code.

In 1981 President Ronald Reagan, looking to move the commission in a more conservative direction, appointed Clarence M. Pendleton, Jr., as the first black chairman of the Commission. A Howard University graduate, he was a conservative who opposed affirmative action and many of the Commission's activities. Pendleton reduced its staff and programs.[4]

In 1983, Reagan attempted to fire three members of the commission. They sued the administration in federal court to stay on. The authorizing legislation stated that a president could only fire a commissioner for "misbehavior in office," and it was clear that the terminations were the result of disagreements over policy. A compromise brokered in the Senate resulted in the current hybrid group of eight, half appointed by the president and half by the Congress, with six-year terms that do not expire with the inauguration of a new president. Since that time the commission has struggled to remain independent, and its agenda has oscillated between liberal and conservative aims as factions among its members have ebbed and waned. [5]

On September 5, 2007, Commissioner Gail Heriot testified about the agency's value on the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Heriot told the Senate Committee on the Judiciary:

"If the value of a federal agency could be calculated on a per dollar basis, it would not surprise me to find the Commission on Civil Rights to be among the best investments Congress ever made. My back-of-the-envelope calculation is that the Commission now accounts for less than 1/2000th of 1 percent of the federal budget; back in the late 1950s its size would have been roughly similar. And yet its impact has been dramatic."[6]

In 1990, Congress relied on a commission report to enact the Americans with Disabilities Act. In 2008, President George W. Bush announced that he would oppose the proposed Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act shortly after the commission issued a report recommending rejection of the bill.

List of Chairpersons, 1958–present

Commission structure

The eight commissioners serve six-year staggered terms. Four are appointed by the President, two by the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and two by the Speaker of the House of Representatives. No more than four Commissioners can be of the same political party. In addition, neither the two Senate appointees nor the two House appointees may be of the same political party. With the concurrence of a majority of the Commission’s members, the President designates a Chair and a Vice Chair. The Staff Director is also appointed by the President with the concurrence of a majority of the Commissioners.

The Commission has appointed 51 State Advisory Committees (SACs) to function as the "eyes and ears" of the Commission in their respective locations. The Commission’s enabling legislation authorizes the creation of these SACs and directs the Commission to establish at least one advisory committee in every state and the District of Columbia. Each state committee has a charter that enables it to operate and identifies its members. Each charter is valid for a term of two years, and the committee terminates if the charter is not renewed by the Commission. Each committee has a minimum of eleven members. The SACs are supported by regional offices whose primary function is to assist them in their planning, fact-finding, and reporting activities. Like the Commission, the SACs produce written reports that are based on fact-finding hearings and other public meetings.

Civil Rights Watch Dog

The Commission is often referred to as a "Civil Rights Watch Dog" that ensures the federal government is enforcing civil rights laws fairly and evenhandedly. Interestingly, this is a role the Commission has undertaken only in the last few decades. The original Commission was not configured to be an effective watch dog, since all its members were appointed by the President (subject to Senate confirmation) and were subject to dismissal by the President at any time. Moreover, there were no civil rights laws for the federal government to enforce and thus little for the Commission to oversee.

President Ronald Reagan attempted to exercise the power to dismiss by firing Carter appointee Mary Frances Berry. Berry, however, convinced Congress to re-charter the Commission in a way that would protect members from dismissal without cause. It was out of this re-chartering effort that the "watch dog" model for the Commission emerged. Along with Berry, Ford appointee Rabbi Murray Saltzman was fired by President Reagan for referring to Reagan's policy regarding the Commission to that of a "lap dog" rather than a "watch dog."

Under the re-charter, the Commission was given eight members rather than the original six. Only half would be appointed by the President, and a President would ordinarily have to be elected to two terms before he could appoint more than two. First-term Presidents would thus ordinarily have to wait a year or two before they would have any representation at all, and it would take time before all the appointees of previous Presidents would rotate off. The remaining four members would be appointed by Congressional leaders of both houses and both parties. All of this was thought to be crucial to maintaining the Commission's independence from the President, which in turn was thought necessary to the Commission's role as a civil rights watch dog. Since then, the Commission has sometimes been a thorn in the side of sitting Presidents.


  1. http://www.usccr.gov
  2. See President's Committee on Civil Rights, To Secure These Rights 154 (1947).
  3. Foster Rhea Dulles, The Civil Rights Commission, 1957–1965 (Michigan State University Press 1968)
  4. Samuel G. Freedman (February 12, 2009). "50 Years of Struggle". New York Times. Retrieved February 24, 2012.
  5. Mary Frances Berry. And Justice for All: The United States Commission on Civil Rights and the Continuing Struggle for Freedom in America. Knopf, 2009.
  6. See Gail Heriot, The 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and its Continuing Importance, Testimony before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary (September 5, 2007)
  7. Hesburgh timeline
  8. Berry, Mary Frances. And Justice For All: The United States Commission on Civil Rights and the Continuing Struggle for Freedom in America. Knopf, 2009. pp. 134-140.
  9. National Council of Churches
  10. New York Times obituary
  11. Resume of William Barclay Allen
  12. New York Times obituary of Fletcher

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