Several years ago I attacked the statements and actions of Clarence M. Pendleton Jr., chairman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, and demanded his resignation, calling him a "bad penny." Apparently many black Republicans have come to agree with me. Indeed, an ad hoc group of 18 prominent black Republicans yesterday called for Pendleton to resign immediately.
"We are sick and tired . . . ," said Robert Brown, a businessman who was former special assistant to President Nixon. "We'll no longer stand for him to be put before the press machinery to be looked upon as a leader of black Republicans. He's a great disadvantage for the party and those politicians up for reelection. We want him to resign. We want it now, not six months or a year from now."
Leading up to their action yesterday were a number of events and actions. Pendleton even disagreed with President Reagan on the practice of setting aside contracts for minority businesses by federal programs.
Raising the ire of black Republicans was no easy task. Pendleton had to work very hard at it. Indeed, when Pendleton ran into trouble from critics at his confirmation hearings to become commission head several years ago, fellow Republicans such as Ben Andrews, a member of the Hartford, Conn., City Council, came to Washington to testify on his behalf.
After helping him get the job, however, the Republicans were as silent as Pendleton when the Reagan administration compromised the independence of the commission by firing three members who were administration critics and packing the group with new members who supported conservatism.
But in the absurdity of many of his positions, Pendleton quickly went beyond the conservative pale. Attacking black leaders, Pendleton charged them with leading black Americans who voted 9 to 1 against President Reagan into a "political Jonestown . . . . No more Kool-Aid, Jesse Jackson, Vernon Jordan and Ben Hooks," he said.
Black Democrats called Pendleton "unfair," even "stupid." Resigning as chairwoman of the National Black Republican Council about that time, LeGree Daniels said she was disillusioned with Pendleton as well as unhappy with the relationship between the GOP and blacks.
But as Pendleton's outrageous and flaky statements continued -- against comparable worth ("loony tunes") and blacks ("many supporters of civil rights are racist") -- the concern about this loose cannon spread from long-exasperated Democrats to increasing numbers of Pendleton's fellow Republicans.
When Pendleton labeled affirmative action as "divisive, unpopular and immoral" -- joining in the war that is being waged in the Reagan Cabinet between those who support affirmative action and those who oppose it -- many black Republicans got really worried. "We take the position that the anti-affirmative action views of Attorney General Edwin Meese and Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights William Bradford Reynolds are inconsistent with basic policies of the Republican Party," Timothy Jenkins, a local lawyer who is a black Republican, said yesterday.
But Pendleton's ultimate "sin" occurred two weeks ago. In a draft report, his commission called for a halt to the federal set-aside programs that reserve contracts for businesses owned by blacks, Hispanics or women. The report called the program "ill-conceived and ineffective."
Minority contractors and other supporters of the program hit the ceiling. "We had no inkling that he would attack one of the centerpieces for helping women and minorities get into the economic mainstream of the country," said Andrews, the Hartford legislator. He added that Pendleton sends "a wrong signal to municipal America" that they don't have to support economic development and business ownership in minority communities.
Even the White House took issue with Pendleton's report. "We support the minority set- aside program," said White House spokesman Larry Speakes.
In the end, Pendleton's commission declined to issue the report. In a shocking statement about a fact-finding agency that once had a reputation for careful research, two members described the report as "work at its shoddiest."
The frustrated Republicans who met yesterday, many of whom are current or former officials of Republican administrations or the party, are right in calling for Pendleton's resignation. He is another Reagan fox who has been sent to guard the henhouse. But as a black man, he is also a racial symbol, a fact that seems as lost on him as are the consequences of his words and deeds. Ultimately this "bad penny" out-Tommed even himself.