Slashing Civil Rights

AFTER making great strides in the 1960's and 1970's, the nation is now "moving backward" in civil rights, a commission led by Presidents Carter and Ford has concluded.

"In the last 10 years, not only have we lost the momentum of earlier minority progress, we have suffered actual reversals in the drive to achieve full equality for minority citizens," the Commission on Minority Participation in Education and American Life said.

The Commission's report, based on a year of research, should spark a reexamination by Congress and the American people of their commitment to racial equality. It shows that America is still a land divided, a nation where Blacks and other minorities meet the barriers of prejudice in every aspect of their lives.

Black students no longer face George Wallace in the doorways of Alabama colleges. Black marchers are no longer confronted by Bull Connor, police attack dogs, and water cannons. But the the bigotry remains.

THE largest barrier to opportunity isn't the Ku Klux Klan, but the White House. Ronald Reagan has been a steadfast opponent of the Civil Rights movement, while Vice President George Bush has shamelessly backed his hostile stance.


The President gutted the Civil Rights Commission, replacing dedicated civil rights veterans with political allies who have done little to battle racism. The Reagan Administration also showed extreme insensitivity when it supported tax breaks for racially discriminatory organizations like Bob Jones University. And his Supreme Court appointees are already working to roll back past rulings which aided minorities.

Earlier this year, the President vetoed the Civil Rights Restoration Act, which bars institutions which receive federal assistance from discriminating on the basis of sex, race, age, or physical handicap. Fortunately, on March 22, Congress soundly overturned the Reagan veto.

There was once a large wing of the Republican party which proudly embraced civil rights measures. Nelson Rockefeller, Mark Hatfield, and even Richard Nixon stood by minorities. Since 1980, however, the party has done little to further this cause.

With Reagan at the helm, many other influential Republicans are afraid to stand up for civil rights. Republican Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole has a civil rights record so solid that it won praise from Coretta Scott King. But when Reagan and the Moral Majority lobbied against the Civil Rights Restoration Act, Dole fled to Wisconsin in a futile attempt to attract voters and dodge the issue.

Bush recently invited Black leaders to his home (something Reagan has never done) to pledge his support for their cause. But when forced to choose between Black Americans and opponents of the Civil Rights Restoration Act, Bush vowed: "I'm going to stand with the President." Bush thinks he can woo Blacks by hinting that he'll publicly support their civil rights sometime after November. When he loses to Mike Dukakis, he's going to marvel about why less than 5 percent of Black voters publicly supported him.

A strong economy, the Republican party's strongest political asset, will do nothing to win the votes of Blacks, who have been left by the wayside of the "robust" American economy. While March unemployment was only 5.5 percent nationally, Black unemployment was a staggering 12.8 percent. Minorities are more likely to be poor--nearly half of all Black children live beneath the poverty level.

IN this country where "All men are created equal," not a single governor is Black. No Blacks serve in the United States Senate. And Blacks are woefully under-represented in many state legislatures.

The Democratic Party has backed the Civil Rights movement, but its minority record is not unblemished. The system the party uses to select its presidential nominee cheated the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1984 out of hundreds of delegates. The rules ensure that party bosses--not primary voters--decide who the nominee will be. Jackson received 21 percent of the vote four years ago, but just 11 percent of the delegates.

In the South, runoff elections often guarantee that the top white candidates will get another shot at the party nomination, even if a Black captures a plurality of the vote.

The nation has made some progress. More Blacks have been elected to state and local office. And Jesse Jackson has proven that a Black man can run for President in a white America. In nearly all-white Oregon, the civil rights leader captured 38 percent of the vote, while carrying two of the state's largest counties. The preacher's populist theme has electrified labor leaders, liberals, and poor people of all races.

Twenty years ago, Harvard's Class Day speaker was going to be Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Bullets ended his life two months before the scheduled address. At King's funeral, his friends promised to tend to the civil rights crusader's "unfinished business," to ensure that his "campaign for the poor" would go on.

President Reagan is trying to derail the freedom train. This administration has chosen to ignore Blacks and other minorities for the past eight years. Today, King's business is still incomplete. As a nation, we must ensure that his work is finished.