Tracing the history of US government's civil rights 'conscience'

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For 25 years the US Commission on Civil Rights has monitored ''equal access under law'' for citizens. In the process, it has angered presidents, Congress, states rightists, employers, unions, and others in its freewheeling existence as a ''temporary, independent, bipartisan agency.''

The commission submits reports, findings, and recommendations to the President and Congress. It's authorized to investigate complaints of voting rights violations, to monitor denial of equal protection of the laws in federal, state, and local governments, and become a national clearinghouse for information on ''equal protection.''

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed the first bipartisan - three Republicans and three Democrats - commission, a new black militancy was stirring in the South. Surfacing in the media spotlight were new personalities - Martin -Luther King Jr. and the nonviolent movement, Malcolm X and the so-called Black Muslims with their ''black nationalism,'' the Little Rock (Ark.) Nine and their dramatic entry into a previously all-white high school, and leaders of movements for voting and other rights.

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The commissioners emerged as free to serve at their own discretion, although legally ''subject to the will of the President.'' Most presidents observed an ''unwritten'' hands-off policy. But President Reagan fired chairman Arthur S. Flemming and another member and replaced them with his own chairman and vice-chairman. The other four ''lame duck'' members - the President failed in his attempts to oust them - are feuding with their chairman, who advocates Mr. Reagan's conservative civil rights attitude.

Before Reagan, only President Nixon sought to unseat a commissioner. In 1972 he forced the resignation of the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame University, as chairman, replacing him with moderate Republican Flemming.

Besides the commission's six members and national office staff in Washington, D.C., it also includes 10 regional offices working with a voluntary network of 50 State Advisory Commissions on Civil Rights.

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