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The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights: Still work to do

Current and past members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights gathered Tuesday at the Library of Congress to celebrate the commission's 60th anniversary. Havre de Grace resident William B. Allen, who served from 1987-92 and is a former chairman, is sixth from left.
Current and past members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights gathered Tuesday at the Library of Congress to celebrate the commission's 60th anniversary. Havre de Grace resident William B. Allen, who served from 1987-92 and is a former chairman, is sixth from left. (Courtesy photo/Carol Allen)

Havre de Grace resident Dr. William B. Allen was appointed to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights by President Ronald Reagan in 1987 and served until 1992. He was chairman in 1988-89.

Allen wrote the following essay for Tuesday’s 60th anniversary observance of the commission held at the Library of Congress. He also joined a panel discussion to give his perspective on the commission, whose mission, according to its website, is “to inform the development of national civil rights policy and enhance enforcement of federal civil rights laws.”

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The work of the Commission on Civil Rights interests me far more than my experience serving on the Commission. Thus it occurred in 1996 that I testified before the House Committee deliberating its reauthorization that there remained important work for the Commission to do. Illustrative of the atmosphere at the Commission, however, was the fact that as I entered the hearing room that morning, I witnessed the concluding testimony of the then current Chair, displacing responsibility for problems in the Commission’s then current operations to the tenure of the twice-removed chair who had left office four years earlier! I was the past chair being scapegoated, even as I appeared to speak on behalf of the Commission’s mandate.

Indeed, I joined the Commission in an era of divisiveness, and it is lamentable that the divisiveness characteristic of that time continued unabated for thirty-five years thereafter. That explains why it occurred that the challenge with which I left the Commission in 1992, to foster a national conversation on race, was never successfully managed despite the idea having been embraced by the national Administration in the ensuing eight years.

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Still, important work remains for the Commission to perform, lamentably, I may add, inasmuch as three score years have passed since it received the mandate to usher the nation into an era in which its services would no longer be needed.

Decisively, we must conclude that not the Commission per se but the nation has failed to meet the challenge of putting behind itself the remaining task of redemption and reconciliation inherited from the social and political compromises slavery engendered.

Three years ago we celebrated the 1964 civil Rights Act. On that occasion I described the progress of our civil rights struggle from the 1896 Plessy era to now. Still we have not advanced beyond the observation that I made heretofore: the common understanding of civil rights has become confused. In most minds, civil rights are some vague thing having to do with “other people.” They are treated as the product of a momentary movement in the latter portion of the 20th Century.

Civil rights are better defined as the rights to common or equal participation in civil
 society. Natural law governs participation in civil society. A it pertains to human action it is a standard of conduct for beings whose self-directed motions are not determined by regularities of material bearing. That rule lies at the bottom of what are termed “civil rights” as we see in tracing the meaning.

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The best articulation of civil rights from the founding came from James Wilson, [Declaration of Independence and Constitution signatory and Supreme Court Justice]. Further, illustrative Supreme Court defenses of civil rights show how far the decisions of the court were regulated so as to tie advances in civil rights to advances in understanding natural law. Finally, the seminal statement of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” clearly expresses the fundamental ground of equality identified by James Wilson (and the Declaration of Independence) as essential to civil rights; it also invokes the entire sweep of Western reflection on the meaning of justice in such a way as to show the pursuit of civil rights as nothing less than perfecting civil relations in light of natural law.

To defend civil rights for black people meant to prove that “segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound; it is morally wrong and sinful.” The moral error is the denial of common or equal position in the civil society, and it ends by withholding “the honest administration of the government and the impartial administration of justice.” The examples Dr. King used covered the same categories established by Justice Wilson.

If it is warrantable to insist that all human beings should live in accord with the law of nature, then it is an absolute requirement that all be secured the civil opportunity to do so. For that reason, civil rights can be meaningfully defined only as the common or equal participation in civil society. That raises the issue of whether the turn taken after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not lead us away from rather than toward civil rights. That remains the question of urgent moment for the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights.

W. B. Allen USCCR 1987 - 1992

William Allen is dean emeritus of James Madison College at Michigan State University where he was a professor of political philosophy. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Pepperdine University and a Ph.D from Claremont Graduate University. He serves on the boards of Upper Chesapeake Health and the Harford County Public Library and is a former member of National Council on the Humanities.

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