What does the United States Commission on Civil Rights do? Apparently not much in the area of civil rights anymore, unless you believe that black racism and anti-white discrimination are a big problem in America.
Stacked with ideologues by George W. Bush, the commission's conservative majority decided recently to investigate the New Black Panthers and whether racial bias played a role in the Obama Justice Department's decision to shut down the case against them. In its final days before Obama moved in, the Bush administration decided to go after the New Black Panthers for allegedly intimidating white voters at a Philadelphia polling place on Election Day in 2008-- although the neighborhood is African-American, and the incident was minor and of little consequence. And the Bush administration's decision not to seek criminal charges shoots down claims by conservatives that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was motivated by race in dropping most of the charges against them.
The Panthers' case provides a perfect opportunity to take a look at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, to understand its purpose, what it has accomplished in the past, what it is doing now and what we can expect from it in the future.
Formed in 1957 by Congress and signed into law by President Eisenhower, the Commission is an independent body designed to investigate, report and recommendations regarding the protection of the civil rights of citizens. It says on its website that "In furtherance of its fact-finding duties, the commission may hold hearings and issue subpoenas...for the production of documents and the attendance of witnesses at such hearings. It maintains state advisory committees, and consults with representatives of federal, state, and local governments, and private organizations." Further, since the Commission does not have enforcement powers to fix specific civil rights problems it discovers, it refers many complaints to federal, local or state governments or private agencies.
In its early years, the commission played a key role in ushering in a civil rights agenda. It first investigated discrimination in housing and voting rights, and worked on the implementation of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. And the commission helped to pave the way for important legislation such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which prohibited discrimination by state and local governments receiving federal funds); and Title VII (which prohibits job discrimination and established the Equal Employment opportunity Commission, or EEOC) and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
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