Gerald A. Reynolds, the new chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, described himself this way: "I am not a civil rights activist."
Reynolds also said this: "I've never been a civil rights activist." A few weeks ago, on National Public Radio, he bluntly summed himself up in five words: "I am who I am."
"The notion that you are unfit to serve unless you have marched, I think . . . can't be an essential qualification," said Gerald A. Reynolds.
(Rich Sugg -- Kansas City Star Via AP)
Gerald A. Reynolds
Title: Chairman, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Education: Bachelor's degree in history, City University of New York, at York College; law degree, Boston University School of Law, where he served on the editorial board of the American Journal of Law and Medicine.
Family: Married; three children.
Career highlights: Assistant general counsel, Great Plains Energy Inc., Kansas City, Mo.; assistant secretary, Education Department, Civil Rights Office; deputy associate attorney general, Justice Department.
Pastimes: Currently trying, with his father's help, to restore his grandfather's 1952 Model A tractor. "We'll probably just mess it up," he said.
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And yet, people see him in different ways, good and bad, depending on their points of view.
As a former assistant secretary in charge of the civil rights office at the Education Department, a deputy attorney general at the Justice Department and a leader of an obscure black conservative group called the Center for New Black Leadership, Reynolds said he is more than capable of chairing the symbolic board that has been called the conscience of the federal government.
Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige is among those who praise Reynolds. Commission board members, civil rights advocates and federal employees who attend meetings will soon discover that "the man is brilliant," Paige said.
Paige, who hired Reynolds to direct his department's office of civil rights, the largest in the federal government, said Reynolds "brings a powerful intellect to the table." Civil rights workers at Education were wary that a conservative black regulatory lawyer from Kansas City, Mo., would be running their shop, but they were eventually won over, for the most part.
"His communications skills are very strong," Paige said. "He presents an atmosphere among people to want to work with him."
But Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, was not impressed. Henderson said the Bush administration sought to undermine the intent of the commission by appointing an ideological conservative such as Reynolds.
"Gerald Reynolds's selection to head the Civil Rights Commission is the elevation of ideology over substance," Henderson said. "It signals the end of the commission as an independent voice for the protection of civil and human rights."
Having never marched or agitated for civil rights in a traditional way, Reynolds seems a quixotic choice to lead a commission that was created in an era of civil rights marches, speeches and agitation, civil rights advocates say.
Reynolds once called Jesse L. Jackson Sr. a "charlatan," and he is an outspoken opponent of race-based college admission policies for minorities, even though before the civil rights movement, colleges commonly discriminated against African Americans and other minorities by not allowing them in.
Reynolds said discrimination against African Americans is a historical scourge, but it is time to address it differently. He said he wants to attack the achievement gap between black and white students, which he said is as pernicious as discrimination in denying opportunities to African Americans and Latinos. He tells anyone who will listen that 17-year-old black teenagers who read on the same level as 13-year-old white children are on a one-way trip to a wasteland.
It is nothing like the route Reynolds himself took to the top. He grew up in the Bronx before his family moved to Jamaica, Queens, but he is fond of saying that his family is from the Deep South town of Aiken, S.C., where the black daughter of former segregationist senator Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) spent her college years.
"If we're talking about people who say nothing has changed, I'm going to have to respectfully disagree," Reynolds said. "I grew up hearing stories about the South. The good things and the bad things. My life is just radically different. Not to say it's free from discrimination, but there has been a radical improvement."