No Comment — January 21, 2008, 8:23 am

Will the Rhetoric Be Matched By Action?

The Bush Administration has been notoriously awkward around the Black community and civil rights leaders, and time has gradually explained why. In seven years, the Bushies have struggled continuously to undo the nation’s civil rights infrastructure, attacking the legacy of Martin Luther King. Bush himself has shied away from speaking to Black audiences, and so have his senior officials.

On Saturday, Attorney General Mukasey delivered some significant remarks in an appearance at Washington’s historic Shiloh Baptist Church. They got little attention in the media. That’s unfortunate, because they speak directly to Bush’s awful legacy in the civil rights field, and they need to be read.

We all recall Dr. King’s famous statement that, in his words, “[a]n injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And there, most certainly, is still injustice in this great
country.

Although Jim Crow laws and “Whites Only” signs thankfully no longer
exist, racism and discrimination no doubt remain, as horrid symbols like
nooses, cross burnings, and swastikas vividly remind us. Although American
citizens are no longer routinely denied entrance to the polling booth based
on the color of their skin, subtler forms of voter discrimination persist,
and require appropriate action.

Moreover, as Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King both recognized,
the goal of equal rights and freedom for all also calls for attention to
ills like crime and, in Dr. King’s words, “debilitating and grinding
poverty.” Dr. King eloquently called on us to remain, as he put it,
“dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought
into the metropolis of daily security.” And although many more today than
in Dr. King’s time live in that “metropolis of daily security,” we must
remain, as he put it, “dissatisfied”. . .

Justice is not merely the Department’s name — it is its mission. And central to that mission is the vigorous enforcement of our nation’s civil rights laws.

A half century ago, the Department formed a Division devoted to the
cause of civil rights. Thanks in large part to Dr. Martin Luther King and
the heirs of his legacy, including Coretta Scott King whom we also
celebrate at this breakfast, it seems impossible today to imagine the
Justice Department without the Civil Rights Division. In many ways, in just
50 years — that is, within my lifetime — the work of the Civil Rights
Division has come to symbolize what the Department of Justice is all about.
Through the Civil Rights Division, the Department of Justice has given real
substance to Thomas Jefferson’s declaration, which was shamefully
disregarded in Dr. King’s time, that we are all created equal. . .

A little more than two months ago, when I took the oath as Attorney
General, I declared that what the Department of Justice does is law. That
may sound prosaic or limited, or ordinary, but it is better than the
alternative, where the results depend on the opinion of one person or group
of people as to what they feel is right. We don’t do simply what seems fair
and right according to our own tastes, standards, or political opinions. In
each case, however large or small, we do what the facts and the law
require, and the result is justice.

That is true for all of what the Department of Justice does — but
especially true in the area of civil rights. Civil rights is not, and must
not become, an issue of black or white; Muslim or Christian; Republican or
Democrat. The enforcement of the civil rights laws is, as Dr. King made
plain, a universal moral command, a choice between justice and injustice.

In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Dr. King spoke of what he
called “an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of
mankind.” I share that faith. Not only because of the tremendous progress
that our nation has made since Dr. King’s day, when many Americans toiled
under what he described accurately and eloquently “the manacles of
segregation and the chains of discrimination.” But also because there are
too many good people like those who serve in the Justice Department’s Civil
Rights Division, and those like Reverend Smith and the volunteers behind
the Shiloh Male Youth Enhancement Project.

Under Mukasey’s two predecessors, John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales, the Justice Department’s core civil rights function was crudely perverted. Beginning in the administration of that flaming radical, Dwight David Eisenhower, the Department’s Civil Rights Division had been a bold guarantor of racial minorities across the country, shielding civil rights advocates from threats of violence that they faced in many of the nation’s nooks and cranies—and not just in the eleven states of the Old Confederacy. But above everything else, it emerged as a defender of the right of access of minorities—to the ballot box and to the courts.

Seven years of George Bush have torn this legacy asunder. The Civil Rights Division has been humiliated as the decisions of career staff were time and again overridden by political hacks installed to run it. The decisions of the new hierarchy were predictable and simple: they served the electoral interests of the Republican Party, applying a strict Rovian calculus. Their object was not to insure access to the polls, but just the opposite. If two or three per cent of the electorate, could be induced to stay at home because of burdens and obstacles placed in their way or otherwise stripped of their franchise, then the Republicans would have the edge they need to insure a stable majority. And there was no mistaking the two to three per cent who were the targets of these conscious shenanigans: they were Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans.

The legacy of the Civil Rights Division was not destroyed by innocent shifts in policy. It was done in by individuals who converted the mechanics of the office towards a conscious policy of subverting civil rights. A good example came in the review of a disgraceful voting plan in Georgia which aimed to disenfranchise Black voters and which was approved by political appointees who overrode the unanimous recommendation of the career staff. A federal judge who reviewed the plan described it as a modernized version of the Jim Crow laws.

Representative John Lewis, one of the real heroes of the Civil Rights movement, summarized the situation in dramatic testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year:

During the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, the Division certainly had its growing pains. But we knew that individuals in the Department of Justice were people who we could call any time of day or night during the 60s. The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice was truly a federal referee in struggle for civil rights and civil justice.

John Doar, beginning in the Eisenhower Administration, for instance, was a Republican from Wisconsin. He was someone that we trusted, we believed in. And we felt during those years that the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice was more than a sympathetic referee, it was on the side of justice, on side of fairness. People looked to Washington for justice, for fairness, but today I’m not so sure that the great majority of individuals in the civil rights community can look to the Division for that fairness. The public has lost confidence in our government, in the Department of Justice and in the Civil Rights Division. We can and must do better.

The Civil Rights Division was special. It attracted people with experience in civil rights and those attorneys stayed with the Civil Rights Division for decades and the nation had the benefit of their experience. The civil rights laws were enforced no matter which party was in the White House, and these attorneys were able to do their jobs without interference of political appointees. It is not so today.

In the last few years we have lost more career civil rights lawyers than ever before, many leaving because of political influences that keep them from doing their jobs. And the attorneys being hired to replace them are no longer hired under rules established by the Eisenhower administration, designed to remove political considerations from the hiring process. Today the division’s lawyers are hired by political appointees, rather than career attorneys and, not surprisingly, fewer lawyers with civil rights or voting rights backgrounds are being hired in the Division. There is also a clear shift in the types of cases being brought by the Division. The Civil Rights Division is bringing many fewer traditional civil rights cases, and appears to have given up on enforcing the Voting Rights Act all together.

Now John Doar’s boss during that key period under a Republican administration was Harold R. Tyler, Jr., the first Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Civil Rights Division. He was also Michael Mukasey’s mentor, and my own. Judge Tyler was a fine representative of a political tradition that linked Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight David Eisenhower—a tradition which has sadly disappeared from the political stage today. His commitment to the work of civil rights was deep and unwavering.

It would be a real blessing if Mukasey were to attempt to restore the Civil Rights Division that Tyler first set up. And he can only do that by cleaning house and bringing back personnel who share a commitment to the mission of civil rights. There is some expectation that he is in the process of doing just that. In the last month we have seen the departure of a number of key culprits including Hans von Spakovsky and John Tanner and the demotion of Tanner’s controversial deputy chiefs, Susana Lorenzo-Giguere and Yvette Rivera. This is an encouraging beginning, but it is no more than that.

The real test is whether the Civil Rights Division will make the conversion back from undermining to protecting civil rights. This is what Mukasey has promised. If he performs on that promise, it will be a stunning break with the tradition of the Bush years.

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