50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act – Testimony of Wade Henderson
Location: Senate Judiciary Committee
Im Wade Henderson, President of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the nation’s oldest, largest and most diverse civil and human rights coalition. I’m also honored to serve as the Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. Professor of Public Interest Law at the University of the District of Columbia. It is a pleasure to represent the civil rights community before the committee today.
Fifty years ago, the attempt to integrate Little Rock High School demonstrated the need for the federal government to finally say “enough.” Enough of allowing the states to defy the U.S. Constitution and the courts. Enough of Congress and the Executive Branch sitting idly by while millions of Americans were denied their basic rights of citizenship. The 1957 Act and the creation of the Civil Rights Division were first steps in responding to this growing need.
For years, we in the civil rights community have looked to the Department of Justice as a leader in the fight for civil rights. Yet recently, many civil rights advocates have been concerned about the direction of the Division’s enforcement.
In order for the Division to once again play a significant role in the struggle to achieve equal opportunity for all Americans, it must rid itself of the missteps of the recent past, but also work to forge a new path. It must respond to contemporary problems of race and inequality with contemporary solutions. It must continue to use the old tools that work; but when they don’t, it must develop new tools. It must be creative and nimble in the face of an ever-moving target.
Today, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund is releasing a new report, Long Road to Justice: The Civil Rights Division at 50, which outlines the critical role the Civil Rights Division has played over the last 50 years in helping our nation achieve its ideals. In the report, we also assess the current state of the Division’s enforcement efforts, and outline some recommendations for a way forward. The following are a few highlights of those recommendations.
First, the Civil Rights Division must restore its reputation as the place for the very best and brightest lawyers who are committed to equal opportunity and equal justice. It is not a question of finding lawyers of a particular ideology. Rather, it is a rededication to hiring staff who share the Division’s commitment to the enforcement of federal civil rights laws. That is not politics; it is civil rights enforcement.
In the area of voting rights, rather than promoting schemes to deny equal opportunity for citizens to vote, the Civil Rights Division should be focused on ways to increase voter access, such as combating voter ID laws that have a disproportionate negative impact on racial, ethnic, or language minorities.
Fresh attention must also be paid to racial and ethnic segregation in housing. Discrimination in real estate sales and racial steering and discrimination in lending that destroys neighborhoods cannot continue to go unchecked.
And as long as discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender or disability remains a sad, harsh reality in this country, the battle against it must remain a central priority of the Civil Rights Division.
And, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Seattle and Louisville cases, the Division must develop new tools in the fight to create and maintain integrated and high quality schools.
The complete text of Long Road to Justice can be found on our new website, www.reclaimcivilrights.org, which is being launched today as an important tool in our public education campaign on the issue of civil rights enforcement.
The fiftieth anniversary of the 1957 Civil Rights Act and the creation of the Civil Rights Division is a time to take stock of where we have been, where we are, and where we need to go in the struggle for equal rights and equal justice in America. And we have come a long way. A very long way from segregated lunch counters, poll taxes, and “Whites only” job advertisements. But we are not finished. Today, we face predatory lending practices directed at racial minorities and older Americans, voter ID requirements that often have a discriminatory impact on minority voters, and English-only policies in the workplace. So our work continues.
As our report outlines, one of the critical tools to our collective progress in civil rights has been the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice. And the heart and soul of the Division is and always has been its career staff. For 50 years, and regardless of which political party was in power, they have worked to help make our country what it ought to be: a place where talent trumps color and opportunity knocks on all doors. Where you cannot predict the quality of the local school system by the race or ethnicity of the school’s population. Where access is a right, not a privilege. Where difference is not just tolerated, but valued.
We have concerns with the direction of the Civil Rights Division in recent years. The hope is that we can meet those concerns with positive action for our future. This report attempts to begin to map out the way forward. We look forward to the continuing conversation.