President Reagan snapped a tradition almost a quarter-century old this week when he fired the head of the US Commission on Civil Rights. Since its founding in 1957, the six-member agency has regularly raked the government over the coals for its civil rights failings.
But no president until now has removed a member, although the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh resigned as chairman in protest of Nixon administration policies in 1972.
For the civil rights community, Mr. Reagan's dismissal of Arthur S. Flemming and a second member, Stephen Horn, threatens the very existence of the commission as official conscience to the government.
Most of all, the commission will lose its independence, critics charge.
''That remains to be seen,'' responds Clarence M. Pendleton Jr., the man named to replace chairman Flemming. In a telephone interview, Mr. Pendleton, president of the San Diego Urban League, says that he has no specific plans yet for the federal commission, which he will chair if he can win Senate confirmation.
''What makes the Civil Rights Commission so sacrosanct that the President can't change (it),'' says Pendleton, comparing the agency with the Cabinet and other federal agencies. ''I can understand,'' he says of the arguments that the civil rights unit is different, ''but it doesn't wash.''
Although he is an official in the Urban League, Pendleton admits that he does not fit the usual civil rights activist mold. ''I am a supply-side Urban Leaguer on social programs,'' he told a meeting of black conservatives in San Francisco a year ago. A Reagan Republican who has been a frequent guest at White House functions, he criticizes federal spending, busing for desegregation, government regulations, and affirmative action programs aimed at hiring minorities and women.
His views stand in stark contrast to the current Civil Rights Commission, which has upbraided the Reagan administration for budget-cutting, has defended school busing, and called for combating police brutality by bringing more minorities and women into police forces.
For Pendleton, the No. 1 issue is jobs, especially private-sector jobs to boost rights for minorities and women. ''You want to get as free as you can, and the best social program is a job,'' he says. ''If people really want to be free, they have to develop their own asset base and income stream, and there will never be enough government money to do that.''
While he says that government has ''some responsibilities'' to pay welfare, he blames the government for making many poor people dependent.
''If we can encourage the private sector to employ people, that's what America is all about,'' says Pendleton, a Howard University graduate and former physical education teacher at the college. He adds that the San Diego Urban League has arranged $24 million in business loans, many of which are federally guaranteed, through local lending institutions. ''That's certainly better than affirmative action,'' he says.
Looking toward his expected new post, Pendleton says, ''People who know me know that things will be done differently. 'What is past is prologue,' and we have to make way for the future.'' The civil rights movement has changed, he says. ''You aren't going to be able to march and protest and burn. Things have to be negotiated out.''
Pendleton's words in support of private enterprise and against federal spending will likely give little comfort to the civil rights community. The National Urban League itself has given him only a qualified endorsement, making clear it does not support his views on busing and affirmative action.
William Taylor, head of the National Center for Policy Review at Catholic University and former staff director for the Civil Rights Commission, sees the Reagan move as ''one more piece in the mosaic'' which is threatening progress in civil rights. ''This may be the first in several moves to gain control'' of the six-member bipartisan panel, he says.
Despite the Pendleton controversy, women's organizations appear to be pleased with the selection of Mary Louise Smith, the first woman to serve as national committee chairman of the Republican Party, as the other new member.