The veteran activist sounds off about the impact and everyday heroes of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

America faced a pivotal moment in race relations in 1957 when Arkansas officials balked at the court-ordered desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock. Televised footage of National Guard troops preventing black children from entering the school shocked the nation and prompted President Dwight D. Eisenhower to create the United States Commission on Civil Rights. In the years since, the commission has provided a public forum for investigating civil rights and produced numerous reports that led directly to landmark legislation, starting with the 1960 Civil Rights Act. Mary Frances Berry, a lawyer and historian, was appointed to the commission in 1980 by Jimmy Carter, and later named its chair by Bill Clinton. She resigned in 2004, rather than battle the Bush administration in court over her seat. Controversial, sharp-tongued and sharp-witted, Berry wrote And Justice For All to examine the commission’s often contentious past from her unique set of perspectives. As she sees it, “Everyone—myself, Barack Obama, everyone—needs help to overcome. This book is about ordinary people overcoming, with a little help from their government.”

How will Obama’s presidency affect civil rights and the commission?

Well, we can either go the last mile in changing the way we look at questions of equality and justice, or we can let things stagnate on the grounds that, look at us, we just elected Obama, we don’t have to do anything else. Obama will have his Justice Department and agencies. But nothing is the same as having a commission devoted to human rights. I would like a new human rights commission, with a new clearance and confirmation process.

What would make this new human rights commission different?

The commissioners would be nominated by the president and thoroughly checked out—right now an ax murderer could be appointed!—then approved by the Senate, so the public has a voice in the process once again. I’d also like to see the commission take advantage of new technology like the Internet to both reach and hear from the public. But the heart of it is, the commission needs to be able to look at issues of race, poverty and gender as connected, and not be told, “Oh, that’s a class issue, so don’t look at it.”

You’ve made history and are a historian. How does that shape your work?

It’s very clear with this book, where I approach what one might think is a political topic about which one might simply express opinions. After the 2004 contretemps with President Bush, when I resigned from the commission, I was asked if I wanted to write a memoir. As a historian and scholar, the first thing that occurred to me was it would have to be researched, the kind of archival and oral history and legal research I do as a historian. My natural instinct is to research before I reach any conclusions. I may have hypotheses, but I don’t value simply expressing opinions.

How long did it take to finish?

About two years to research, about a year and a half to write. Then another six months to find all the photographs. Why were the photos so important? I consider the history of the civil rights commission to be the history of how it engaged ordinary people who had complaints and tried to respond to their concerns. That is the commission’s lifeblood. Few if any have heard of these people, and I wanted photographs of them, not just of government officials.

Seeing their faces makes them real?

Right. I wanted this book to tell their stories. I wanted this to be their story. I can’t think of anything more boring than an inside history of the commission. The fact that people came forward, often at great risk to themselves and their families, is what made the commission’s work possible. I wanted readers to understand how crucial a role they played, especially for the early commissioners like Father Ted Hesburgh, an inspiring man who really knew how to grease the wheels and bring people to a consensus.

Why was he vital to defining the role the commission came to play?

In 1957 Eisenhower didn’t think of this commission as going out and stirring things up. He saw it the way presidents see commissions: They do a little investigating, then come back and tell you what you’d like to hear. But guys like Hesburgh brought home to me that what changed them and made them move forward, despite the obstacles, was starting to engage ordinary people.

What do you see as the high points in the history of the commission?

In the early period, once it focused on people, it started to do detailed investigations and to talk to civil rights organizers, and then to write reports that recommended the actual legislation that was passed. The civil rights laws from 1960 through the Voting Rights Act of 1965— the commission recommended the language, and helped to buttress the work of the people out in the streets suffering, going to jail and dying. Most of the time the commission did it in an independent fashion, without caring much what people thought about them.

Didn’t they feel political pressure?

Even when presidents tried to manipulate them—and they did try—they usually went ahead and did whatever investigation they felt was needed. Hesburgh, again, was crucial to this process. He was not confrontational, but he didn’t give ground. He had a global vision of these problems—he was the first to suggest this ought to be a human rights commission— and he never let anyone bottle up or spin the reports. Not even Nixon.

Did the commission just issue reports and recommendations?

Hardly. After the legislation was passed, they monitored the enforcement. They were a watchdog over government agencies to see if they were doing what they were supposed to do, complain if they weren’t, and put pressure on presidents. They did that through Ford and Carter. Then as time went on and Congress gave the commission authority over other areas of civil rights, like sex discrimination, disability and age, they did some of the early work—hearings, investigations and the like—making the case for legislation in those various areas.

Why did that change?

Ronald Reagan had this idea of redirecting, as it was called, civil rights. So the commission, which had become quiescent under Jimmy Carter, largely because his administration was good on civil rights, had to start biting again. But Reagan basically destroyed its ability to function. It became ideological.


It’s not that commission people didn’t have political opinions before Reagan, obviously. But commissioners were willing to be respectful of each other and listen to ordinary people. The Reagan commission stopped listening to people. They knew what they wanted to do: They reversed the progress that had been made. So if you think we needed to slow things down, you’d see that as a contribution.

How did they use the commission?

It had a platform, an imprimatur, a brand. Attorney General Ed Meese and Reagan understood this. If you used it to voice the view of slowing down and reversing civil rights, people would sit up and say, “Oh, the Civil Rights Commission says that!” So with their people there and in enforcement agencies across the board, they were very effective, in a propaganda sense.

And since Reagan?

You’ve had only brief moments, like under Clinton, when the commission made the kind of contributions it could and should make. When I was there, it was like pulling teeth. We had to use almost Machiavellian means to do anything: We didn’t have any money, we had opposition from all quarters. But mainly we started listening to people again, stopped turning them away. And then we’d come back to Washington and try to put pressure where it was needed.

What were your accomplishments?

I’m very proud of our work on American Indians, in health care and criminal justice. We got Congress to appropriate more money for Indian health—a disaster area. We also got a lot of traction on police-community-relations issues. And our report on the 2000 election did help get us the Help America Vote Act, which is not perfect, but we’re better off than we were without it.

Which conclusions in your book do you expect will draw fire?

People who are ideological one way or the other about human rights might quibble with some points—my criticisms of Reagan, for example. Most people like Reagan but don’t know much about what he did about human rights. And people in the civil rights community may not like my criticisms of their inability to organize effectively and get things done at certain points, especially since the Reagan period. So I’m expecting criticism from all sides. But this is information that is sourced and well documented and not particularly partisan. I’m critical of myself!

What should readers take to heart?

That when you’re struggling for justice or freedom, it may seem like you can’t win, but in the end you can. That people who are leaders or visible in that struggle can expect to be attacked. Martin Luther King used to say, if he answered everyone who attacked him, he’d never get anything done. You just have to keep on moving. And that there can be an agency, within the government, that acts as its conscience. Change is a very complicated process, but in America it’s always possible. You go three steps forward, one step back—but you never go all the way back.


Originally published in the April 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here