The gig is up. After nearly a quarter century of mischief-making at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Chairman Mary Frances Berry is on her way out the door. Few government officials in the nation’s history have managed to hold on to power for so long or wielded it as autocratically and in pursuit of such radical aims as has Dr. Berry. But this week, President George W. Bush finally did what he should have done three years ago: He replaced Berry as chairman of the 47-year-old civil rights watchdog group, naming Gerald Reynolds as the group’s new head.
My history with Dr. Berry goes back a long way. She was vice chairman of the commission when President Ronald Reagan appointed me director of the agency in 1983, but I had met her several years earlier when she served as President Jimmy Carter’s assistant secretary for higher education. At the time, I was editor of American Educator, the journal of the American Federation of Teachers, and I went to interview Berry about some controversial remarks she made after returning from a trip to China.
China’s higher education system was still reeling from the devastating effects of Mao’s bloody Cultural Revolution, which forced millions of intellectuals, ordinary teachers and students into forced labor on collective farms, or sent them to re-education camps where they faced torture and death. Berry, then the government’s top-ranking official in higher education, nonetheless praised China’s education system as a model for the United States and publicly criticized the press for printing “false” reports about the Chinese system.
Berry’s admiration for Maoism was no passing fancy. Several years later, after I had left my post as director of the Civil Rights Commission, where Berry and I waged frequent battles, I ran into her at PBS. While we waited in the Green Room before we were to appear on the “Lehrer NewsHour,” she commented to another guest whose position in favor of racial preferences I had one time criticized, that a man should be proud of his enemies. To illustrate her point, Berry reached into her purse and pulled out a dog-eared copy of Chairman Mao’s “Little Red Book,” from which she read Mao’s comments on the subject.
To describe Mary Frances Berry as a liberal, as she is frequently referred to in the media, is an insult to liberalism and Berry. She is a political radical well outside the mainstream of American politics. She is unabashed in her support of out-and-out racial quotas, with no effort to disguise them in the kinder, gentler terms of “affirmative action” or “diversity.” She has described family planning clinics in inner cities as an effort at “genocide” of blacks. She has said that absent affirmative action, colleges and universities would be dominated by almost nothing but Jews and Asians.
So how did a woman with such objectionable views ever end up on the Civil Rights Commission, much less stay there for nearly two and half decades? President Carter appointed her to the small, largely toothless agency initially in 1980, in order not to keep her at the newly created Education Department. President Reagan fired her from the agency shortly after I became director, but an ensuing court battle and media frenzy inspired Congress to rewrite the law, giving Congress, then controlled entirely by Democrats, authority to appoint half the commission’s members, ensuring her re-appointment. And President Clinton elevated her to chairman in part to appease her after he passed over the commission and named an entirely new advisory body to engage in what he called a “national dialogue on race.”
Now that Berry is gone, the commission can get back to its original purpose: monitoring the enforcement of civil rights laws, especially the Voting Rights Act, conducting high-quality research on civil rights, and reporting to the president, Congress and the public on the status of race relations in the United States. The new chairman, Gerry Reynolds, who once worked as legal counsel for my Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO), and Vice Chairman Abigail Thernstrom, who sits on CEO’s board, will have their hands full wresting control of the commission from an entrenched, sometimes hostile staff of Berry acolytes. But both are tough, smart, experienced professionals dedicated to the true principles of equal opportunity and more than equal to the job.
Linda Chavez is the author of the new book, “Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics.”