The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

Congress created the United States Commission on Civil Rights in 1957 as an independent advisory commission, charged with investigating and reporting on all levels of government to ensure all citizens' civil rights were protected.

During its first decade of existence, the commission was an integral player in key civil rights legislation involving desegregating schools, enforcing voting rights, and banning discrimination of employment. Reports issued by the Commission on discrimination and education helped set the framework for Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination by businesses and state and local governments receiving federal funds, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination and created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In addition, the commission's hearings on voting rights in the South and the resulting reports in 1959 and 1961 gave proponents of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 critical support to pass the bill.

Originally, the commission was comprised of six members, all of whom were nominated by the President and subject to Senate confirmation. The combination of Senate confirmation and lifetime appointment was thought to ensure nonpartisanship, autonomy from politics, and an ability to impartially investigate all aspects of government.

The commission functioned well and with integrity for many years. However, shortly after taking office in 1981, President Ronald Reagan fired Commission Chairman Arthur Flemming, a liberal Republican, and replaced him with Clarence Pendleton, a conservative Republican bent on dismantling the progress the commission helped America achieve in the previous 25 years. Soon after, Reagan removed three more members of the commission, replacing them with hardline conservatives.

President Reagan's brash firings were met with broad opposition. In addition to outrage from civil rights groups, Republican and Democratic policymakers voiced outrage at what they perceived to be the President’s overt attempt to politicize the agency with ideological appointees that were not committed to the agency’s mission.

In response, Congress decided to restructure the commission in an attempt to restore the commission's independence and allow it to continue to provide impartial policy recommendations to the White House and Congress. Under the new plan, the commission grew from six to eight members. Four, including the chairperson, are appointed by the President and the other four are appointed by members of the Congress-- two by the Senate Majority Leader and two by the House Majority Leader. No more than four members can at any one time be of the same political party.

However, in recent years, questions have been raised regarding whether this change in structure has unintentionally inhibited the commission’s ability to do effective and impartial civil rights oversight and reporting. Whether, in fact, this new structure has led to more rather than less politicization of the agency, and thus has transformed the commission into an agency that is becoming less and less relevant to the work of civil rights enforcement and oversight.

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