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
Long Road to Justice: The Civil Rights Division at 50


The best way to solve any problem is to remove its cause.

- Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom 60

Fifty years ago, the attempt to integrate Little Rock High School demonstrated the need for the federal government to finally say "enough" - enough of allowing the states to defy the U.S. Constitution and the courts, and enough of Congress and the Executive Branch sitting idly by while millions of Americans were denied their basic rights of citizenship. The 1957 Civil Rights Act and the creation of the Civil Rights Division were first steps in responding to a growing need.

For years, we in the civil rights community have looked to the Department of Justice as a leader in the fight for civil rights. As this report outlines, in the 1960s and 1970s, it was the Civil Rights Division that played a significant role in desegregating schools in the old South. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was the Civil Rights Division that required police and fire departments across the country to open their ranks to racial and ethnic minorities and women. It was the Civil Rights Division that forced counties to give up election systems that locked out minority voters; and it was the Civil Rights Division that prosecuted hate crimes when no local authority had the will.

In recent years, however, many civil rights advocates have been concerned about the direction of the Division's enforcement. Over the last six years, politics too often appears to have trumped substance and altered the prosecution of our nation's civil rights laws in many parts of the Division. We have seen career Civil Rights Division employees - section chiefs, deputy chiefs, and line lawyers - forced out of their jobs in order to drive political agendas. 61 We have seen whole categories of cases not being brought, and the bar made unreachably high for bringing suit in other cases. We have seen some outright overruling of career prosecutors for political reasons, 62 and also many cases that have been "slow walked" to death.

In order for the Division to once again play a significant role in the struggle to achieve equal opportunity for all Americans, it must rid itself of the missteps of the recent past, but also work to forge a new path. It must respond to contemporary problems of race and inequality with contemporary solutions. It must continue to use the old tools that work, but must also develop new tools when they don't. It must be creative and nimble in the face of an ever-moving target. The following are recommendations for a way forward.

60. King, Jr., M.L. Stride toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. New York: Harper, 1958.

61. Savage, C. "Civil Rights Hiring Shifted in Bush Era: Conservative Leanings Stressed." The Boston Globe, 23 July 2006.

62. Eggen, D. "Criticism of Voting Law Was Overruled: Justice Dept. Backed Georgia Measure Despite Fears of Discrimination." The Washington Post. 17 November 2005: A01; Eggen, D. "Justice Staff Saw Texas Districting As Illegal: Voting Rights Finding On Map Pushed by DeLay Was Overruled." The Washington Post. 2 December 2005: A01.

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