Jacob Schlitt lovingly rubs the top of his desk as he relaxes in his comfortable office chair. He obviously wants to shed a tear, but he dares not. ``It's been 21 years since I first went to work for the Civil Rights Commission,'' he says almost to himself. ``I can't believe it's over, but it is.''
On Nov. 19, Mr. Schlitt closed down the Boston regional office of the US Commission on Civil Rights for good. This is part of a major reduction in the budget and staff of the commission - the hacking of the budget by 37.5 percent from $12 million to $7.5 million; the cutting of regional offices from 10 to 3; the reduction in force of nearly half its employees.
At the same time the commission will continue to be responsible for monitoring civil rights nationwide, with a budget of only $700,000, and will continue to conduct hearings and studies through its 51 state advisory commissions, on a budget of $2 million.
Boston operations will now become part of the Washington regional office covering the Atlantic coast. The other two regional offices are in Los Angeles and Kansas City, Mo.
``Civil rights has not had a fair shake during the past three years,'' says Schlitt, a civil servant who rose from investigator to regional director of the Boston office. ``We have produced only two studies in Massachusetts during the past three years,'' he says.
The closing of the Hub headquarters is part of a major dismantlement of the commission because of strong philosophical differences between the Reagan administration and liberal holdover members of the commission.
A prime target of critics is its controversial chairman, Clarence M. Pendleton Jr., the only black to chair the commission since its founding in 1957. A conservative, Mr. Pendleton has spoken loudly against such favorite civil rights tools as affirmative action. Under his leadership, say critics such as fellow Commissioner Mary Frances Berry, a Howard University law professor, the US Commission on Civil Rights has become a front for the conservative civil rights views of the Reagan administration.
But Pendleton is angry, too. He and the other seven commissioners have been affected by the cutbacks. They will now serve only on a part-time basis.
``I'm definitely upset over the cutback in the budget and the functions of the commission,'' he said in an interview. ``Of course, I have some ideas and studies for the commission. I like the idea of a summit meeting of civil rights leaders. I'd like to see a study of school desegregation and its impact on civil rights. We can use a further study on the income of blacks and black families compared to that of whites and white families.''
Pendleton forecasts a new approach to civil rights as the commission prepares to celebrate its 30th year in 1987. He says he will seek to restore the old budget for the commission.
``No, I'm not against civil rights,'' he says, ``but I believe the rights of the 21st century are moving us in a different direction from the past of the '60s. Black people can make good on their own without affirmative action, without welfare, without special favor.''
At the regional level, Schlitt says he is not convinced that three regional offices manned by six people each can do the job done by 10 districts with larger staffs. His office's top achievements, he says, include a study that exposed racial segregation in Boston schools and a report this year that led to school redistricting in Rhode Island.
The Congressional Black Caucus, which includes the nation's 21 black congressmen, all Democrats (20 representatives and one District of Columbia delegate), pushed for the sacking of the commission. Led by its chairman, Rep. Mickey Leland (D) of Texas, the caucus refused to budge from its stand to censure the commission. Some black caucus members urged the closing down of the commission.
The attitude of many black organizations toward the Pendleton-led commission is expressed in a statement by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights:
``This year Congress drastically reduced the commission's appropriation. Next year Congress's only recourse may be to shut down the once proud agency that is now in shambles.''
In Boston, state advisory commissioners, past and present, lamented the action but said they will carry on the closed office's traditions through the Washington regional office.
``Our commission will be no spokesman for the administration,'' says Phil Perlmutter, new chairman of the Massachusetts advisory commission.
``My sadness over the closing of this office can be overcome,'' Mr. Perlmutter says, ``when we have more guts to complete a job as yet unfinished. I refuse to believe that this is the end of the civil rights movement.''