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Time to Revitalize the Civil Rights Commission

Prosecutors in the Trayvon Martin case — Trayvon was the young African American shot to death on the streets in Sanford, Fla., by a self-appointed community watch volunteer — have decided not to send the case to the grand jury, even while announcing the investigation continues.

Meanwhile, according to statistics compiled by Kali Akuno and Arlene Eisen on behalf of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, the Black Left Unity Network and the US Human Rights Network, police or private security people have slain 17 other African Americans since Trayvon’s death. Across the country, people are questioning the promise of “liberty and justice for all.”

Fundamental questions need to be answered about “stand and defend laws” — more accurately, “free pass for murder laws” — about racially skewed school-discipline practices (Trayvon had been suspended and was visiting his father when he was shot); about a criminal justice system still rife with bias, and about the dangers of “walking while black” in America. The man who shot Trayvon needs to be tried in court. But these broader issues require independent, forceful investigation.

So where is the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights? Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican president, created the bipartisan commission in 1957 to investigate the facts and issue credible reports on progress or challenges in our civil rights laws and practices. It was, as early director Theodore Hesburgh stated, to be the “conscience of the nation” on our progress in civil rights.

In the 1960s, for example, hard-hitting, authoritative commission reports on voter suppression in Montgomery, Ala.; school desegregation in Nashville, and housing discrimination in New York, Chicago and Atlanta helped lay the foundation for the Civil Rights Acts of 1960 and 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Fair Housing Law of 1968.

Today, the need for a revived commission is apparent. The commission should be investigating school-discipline policies and our biased criminal justice system. We need a clear look at the apparently coordinated effort of Republican governors to erect barriers to registration and voting that have a disproportionate effect on the young, the poor, the elderly and minorities. The apparently racially skewed efforts to direct African-American and Latino homebuyers into exotic, subprime mortgages needs to be probed as well.

Yet the commission thus far has been largely absent without leave. This isn’t an accident. Under Reagan, conservatives began to cut away at the commission, reducing its budget and staff. In theory, the eight-member commission is bipartisan, with no party having more than four members. Then, under George Bush, two Republican activists changed their registration to “independent,” enabling conservatives to hold six seats on the commission, rendering it less useful. By 2011, Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, issued a report concluding that the commission was “so debilitated as to be considered moribund.”

Now that President Barack Obama has named three members to the commission, including the chair, Martin Castro, it is time to revitalize the body. The rights of women, gays and immigrants are battlegrounds. African Americans continue to experience disparate treatment in the workplace, the schools and on the streets. An aggressive commission can provide a voice of justice, a ray of hope. Where is the “conscience of the nation” on racial justice when we need it?

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