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Civil Rights Watchdog Takes One Last Bite

By Courtland Milloy
Sunday, December 12, 2004; Page C01

Mary Frances Berry had been featured in Ebony magazine as one of the nation's most eligible black bachelorettes. She was serving as chancellor at the University of Colorado at the time, during the mid-1970s, and had just been asked by newly elected President Jimmy Carter to run federal education programs within what was then the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

"I was the 'E' in HEW," Berry recalled.

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But what really catapulted her to national renown was her service on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, where she was appointed to her first six-year term by Carter in 1980. Determined to be a "watchdog and not a lap dog," as Berry put it, she began hounding Carter's successor, President Ronald Reagan, about his commitment to civil rights. Not pleased with being goaded, Reagan fired her and two other critics on the commission.

At a White House news conference not long afterward, a reporter for the Washington Informer asked Reagan why he had fired Berry. "She serves at my pleasure, and she's not giving me any pleasure," the reporter quoted the president as saying.

The firings had been announced on the day Reagan launched the U.S. military invasion of Grenada. The sounds of bombs might have drowned out the commissioners' cries of protests. But Reagan's remarks had offended many, especially black women, and caused a thunderous roar of indignation. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund weighed in on behalf of the fired commissioners, filing a lawsuit to the effect that the president couldn't fire a watchdog for biting. They won the case, the commission members were reinstated and Berry became a star.

The war on Grenada lasted just a few days, but the war between the commission and the White House would last for years. Indeed, up until Tuesday, when she resigned from the commission, Berry was still goading presidents. In a letter to President Bush announcing their departure from the commission, Berry and Vice Chairman Cruz Reynoso urged the president to forge a stronger commitment to civil rights.

Along with the letter, the two sent a copy of a report prepared by the commission staff: "Redefining Rights in America: The Civil Rights Record of the George W. Bush Administration, 2001-2004." The report documents what it calls "missed opportunities to win consensus on key civil rights issues," ranging from affirmative action to fair housing to immigration to voting rights.

"The credibility and soundness of this review is grounded in careful research that concluded you have failed to exhibit leadership on pressing civil rights issues," Berry and Reynoso wrote. "Sadly, the spiraling demise of hope for social justice and healing has deepened over the past four years, largely due to a departure from and marginalization of long established civil rights priorities, practices and laws."

According to the report, problems that have exacerbated during the Bush years include voter disenfranchisement, racial profiling, environmental racism, inequities in educational opportunities and misunderstandings about affirmative action.

And so Berry signs off, after more than 30 years of public service in Washington, keenly aware of how much more work there is to be done.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor "said that in 25 years, if we did a whole bunch of other things, we would be able to end affirmative action," Berry said. "I say we need a plan. Any administration ought to have a plan as to how it expects to achieve this objective. The major contribution of a civil rights commission is coming up with such a plan. We need to hear from many organizations and groups of people about what should be in a plan. Civil rights groups should be coming up with a plan. What do we need to reduce racial disparities in health, education, employment and entrepreneurship so that in 25 years we can say that the playing field has been leveled?"

Though still an eligible bachelorette, the fact is that Berry has been married to the cause of civil rights for most of her life. And although she may be leaving the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, it is unlikely that she will ever be divorced from the cause.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com

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