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Civil rights panel debates its future

Beck's decision to speak on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech leads to criticism by social activists and civil rights leaders.

"That doesn't have anything to do with whether people are being discriminated against," she said.

There was not the same level of partisanship in the early years when the commissioners shared a kind of moral clarity about issues of race.

Established under the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the commission was given the force of the federal government and the power of subpoena to investigate cases of discrimination, and it provided some of the evidence to justify the use of federal enforcement to protect civil rights in the Jim Crow South.

Today, the commission's liberal critics complain that it became highly politicized during the Bush administration when two of his appointees changed their political affiliation from Republican to independent, tilting the panel's ideological balance.

The commission has also drawn ire from Democrats this year for turning its attention to the case of the New Black Panther Party, which members of the commission contend was mishandled by President Obama's Justice Department because of a disinclination to pursue a case of discrimination against white voters. Wade Henderson - president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which issued a report last year calling the commission "so debilitated as to be considered moribund" - said that the New Black Panther investigation is a distraction.

Conservatives similarly criticized Berry for her attention-grabbing investigation into voting improprieties in Florida after the tight 2000 presidential election between Bush and Al Gore. The commission interviewed more than 100 people in 30 hours of testimony, which Republicans said proved nothing.

The infighting among commissioners has brought congressional threats to shut it down. Mindy Barry, a former Republican staffer on the House Judiciary Committee, which is charged with oversight over the agency, once called it "a complete waste of resources." She said this week, "It was a hard argument for me to go to my boss to talk about funding for the agency when all he knew the agency was doing was squabbling."

In the past two decades, the agency has seen significant budget cuts and now exists on about $9 million. Its staff is down from more than 250 employees in the mid-1980s to about 50. Five years ago, it laid off dozens of employees, ordered a staff furlough and closed two of six regional offices to save money.

Despite the shrinking resources, the commission is not going anywhere, Reynolds said. It will issue a round of reports before December, including its findings from investigating the New Black Panther matter.

The commission's conference this week - which was not attended by its Democratic commissioners or a Republican member who has been critical of the Black Panther investigation - brought together academics, nonprofit leaders and conservative civil rights activists who seemed to mostly agree that low rates of engagement by fathers and failings in the education system were a primary cause of black and white racial disparities.

Their conclusions were not far from the Obama administration's assertion that education is the civil rights issue of this generation or the president's promotion of a White House fatherhood initiative. Obama - whose father left his family when he was 2 years old - has said that having an absent father can lead children to drop out of school, abuse drugs and alcohol and live in poverty.

Reynolds acknowledged that the issue might be something Republicans and Democrats agree on, saying Obama "has on occasion waded into the issue in a thoughtful way."

The Obama administration will choose a new chairman for the commission at the end of the year.

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