THE announcement by Ward Connerly, a black Californian, and a group of other conservatives that they were forming a commission on race as a counterpoint to President Clinton's panel, which they charged was conducting a monologue rather than a dialogue, again underscores the sharp shift in the civil rights terrain.
With the exception of the White Citizens' Council, the equivalent of manicured Kluxism in the South that was formed in 1955 to battle the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision, no group in modern memory has so cynically attempted to derail civil rights efforts.
Mr. Clinton, in creating the advisory panel a year ago, said his goal was to focus the nation on seismic demographic changes that will soon produce a population of "over 100 different racial and ethnic groups." That is a very modest goal that is intended to strengthen America's social fabric for 21st century challenges.
Using Mr. Connerly as their black face in ending California's affirmative action programs in higher education through Proposition 209 -- and reassured by the lack of effective response from the civil rights community -- the emboldened conservatives have shown the same kind of destructive blindness that caused so much racial turmoil in the South in the 1960s. They have not learned from the mistakes of old standpatters like Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor of Birmingham, Ala., and his state's governor, George Wallace. Instead, they have intensified their war on Mr. Clinton's race panel, which though headed by the esteemed historian John Hope Franklin, lacks anyone with a civil rights enforcement background to help guide it.
Meanwhile, Mr. Clinton can be reassured that he is demonstrating the type of leadership on civil rights that the NAACP has sought throughout its history.
President Harry Truman, by heeding the NAACP's demand in 1947 and creating his committee on civil rights, showed his sincerity in positioning America to meet the Cold War challenges. His committee's report, "To Secure These Rights," provided the blueprint for the 1957 Civil Rights Act, which broke the psychological barriers to such measures. But it was President Lyndon Johnson, a Texan, whose benchmark leadership played the decisive role in winning passage of the most comprehensive civil rights laws of the century. President Jimmy Carter, from Georgia, was similarly supportive, noting that the civil rights revolution was the best thing that ever happened to the South because it freed the region from its debilitating Jim Crow practices.
Given the political strength of his conservative opposition and the lack of consensus among blacks themselves on civil rights, Mr. Clinton's leadership is as impressive as his predecessors'. At least they did not have to urge African-Americans, as Mr. Clinton has had to do, to speak out bluntly on affirmative active and other issues.
At the second town meeting in Houston, which was on the role of race in sports, Mr. Clinton did ignite a hot debate, but it was between two panelists themselves, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the Olympic gold medalist, and Jim Brown, the older football star, over whether successful black sports figures had an obligation to help other blacks in such ways as creating financial resources for investments.
Ms. Joyner-Kersee's response showed that among African-Americans these days it's every man for himself. Disagreeing with Mr. Brown, she insisted that: "We have a choice, and that choice is not for us to do that." Yet, as Mr. Brown was so well aware, that is the choice that so many immigrant groups, most recently Cubans, Koreans, and Indians, have made with impressive results in developing businesses.
To demonstrate their sincerity, therefore, Mr. Connerly and company, as a first step, could expand the dialogue on how best African-Americans, not only in sports, but also in other areas, might best develop businesses and other economic opportunities to avoid friction with other groups. That, indeed, would be a significant contribution.
Denton L. Watson is author of "Lion in the Lobby, Clarence Mitchell Jr., Struggle for the Passage of Civil Rights Laws."
Pub Date: 5/15/98