The new cry for civil rights

Recent events cry out for President Reagan to use his strong qualities of leadership in behalf of his long-stated commitment to strengthening civil rights. By doing so he could address the deep concern, expressed inside and outside his administration, that civil rights enforcement is now being undermined. And he could allow future historians to look back on this current Black History Month as one of progress as well as multiple protests:

* A 13-day civil rights march recalling Martin Luther King days in the South;

* An extraordinary uprising of Justice Department civil rights lawyers against what they see as internal failures to uphold the law;

* And this week a lengthy report in which the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, representing many civil rights groups, details its conclusion that the Justice Department has become ''the locus of efforts in the Reagan administration to narrow and weaken civil rights protection.''

All this comes less than a month after Mr. Reagan assured Americans in his State of the Union message that the nation's long journey toward civil rights for all citizens ''must continue with no backsliding or slowing down.'' Does he now agree with those who allege backsliding and slowing down by his own attorney general and assistant attorney general for civil rights? Or does he agree with these officials that they are not turning away from enforcement but from ineffective methods of enforcement? The President can display his leadership by ensuring that there is not a widening gap between his stance on civil rights and the practices of his administration.

Certainly the President was not well served by Justice Department advice to allow tax exemptions for private schools practicing racial discrimination. The same could be said of Justice's backing for a weaker extension of the Voting Rights Act than was enacted by the House of Representatives. Among other steps taken as signs of lessening commitment is the department's switch from the previous administration's support in the courts for a voluntary desegregation plan involving busing in Seattle.

Yet such impressions could be overridden by renewed evidence that the Justice Department is championing civil rights rather than forgoing means of enforcing them. It must not let opposition to busing for school desegregation appear to be reluctance about enforcing desegregation law itself. It must not let opposition to even voluntary affirmative action appear to be reluctance about enforcing equal employment opportunity laws. In such cases it ought to bring forcefully to public attention the alternative means of compliance it prefers -- school redistricting, perhaps, or color-blind employment practices -- and show them to be no less effective than the legally required or accepted means in the past.

President Reagan has much to think about in these days of budget turmoil. But nothing is more important to his country's future than the unity of its people under just laws, justly enforced. It deserves attention as wholehearted as that State of the Union pledge.

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