We don’t hear much about the Civil Rights Act of 1957. That’s because the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were required to provide some teeth to the federal governments attempt to dismantle Jim Crow. But there was one thing that came out of the 1957 law that is worth noting. It resulted in the creation of what Eric Holder often called the “crown jewel” of DOJ: the Civil Rights Division. It became the part of the federal bureaucracy that is tasked with enforcing civil rights laws.
We can learn a lot about the Republican Party’s opposition to civil rights by how they have responded over the years to this division within the Justice Department. Dwight Eisenhower was president when it was created, before the Republican Southern Strategy in response to passage of subsequent civil rights laws. At the time, he was still the leader of the so-called “party of Lincoln.”
In March 1965, Doar was the first to arrive in Montgomery, Alabama, during the third of the Selma to Montgomery marches. He walked into Montgomery half a block ahead of the march in his capacity as Assistant Attorney General.
Nixon’s appointees seem to be remembered more for their careers in local politics and on Wall Street. It was President Carter who finally nominated the first African American to run the division, Drew Days, whose “tenure was marked by an aggressive enforcement of the nation’s civil rights laws.”
The first real assault on the ability of the Civil Rights Division to enforce these laws came with the Reagan administration in the 1980’s. As has been the case with Republican presidents, he nominated someone who had no experience in this area, William Bradford Reynolds. Here is how the New York Times described him at the time:
Mr. Reynolds, a lean, wiry man who seems eager to roll up his sleeves and get down to work, has spent most of his career in commercial litigation, matters ranging from simple breach-of-contract suits to complex antitrust cases.
Asked what qualified him for his new post, he cited a general legal background that he said would permit him to take a ”hard, fresh look at the issue of remedies in the civil rights arena.”
The Reagan administration had already embarked on a radical makeover of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, which enforced the VRA. The assistant attorney general for civil rights, William Bradford Reynolds, believed that “government-imposed discrimination” had created “a kind of racial spoils system in America” favoring historically disadvantaged minorities over whites, an argument that no head of the Civil Rights Division had ever made before. During Reynolds’ tenure ending busing became more important than desegregating schools, dismantling quotas became more important than integrating the workforce or academia and preventing proportional representation became more important than achieving a multiracial government.
In that description you can hear the groundwork that was laid during the Reagan administration for the kinds of attacks we hear on civil rights enforcement to this day. It was chronicled in a book by Raymond Walters titled, “Right Turn: William Bradford Reynolds, the Reagan Administration, and Black Civil Rights.”
Once that had been accomplished, Republicans became emboldened to fight the expected return to enforcement via the smearing of Clinton’s nominee to run the division, Lani Guinier. It is worth noting that the strongest Republican opposition to presidential nominees, other than Obama’s naming of Merrick Garland to fill a position on the Supreme Court, has come in their response to potential leaders of the Civil Rights Division—both Guinier during the Clinton administration and Debo Adegbile during the Obama administration.
Following strong leadership from both Deval Patrick and Bill Lan Lee during the Clinton administration, the Bush years brought us back to a decimation of the division that had begun under Reagan. It was under the leadership of Alexander Acosta (who is now the Sec. of Labor) that this happened:
While leading the division, he allowed Bradley Schlozman to make decisions on hiring. A report by the Inspector General and the Office of Professional Responsibility later found that Schlozman illegally used his authority to give preferential treatment to conservatives and made false statements to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Bradley Schlozman is the guy who once said that he wanted to “gerrymander all of those crazy libs right out of the [voting] section.” It was within the Civil Rights Division during the Bush years that the focus changed from promoting voting rights to voter suppression via allegations of fraud. Here is what Joseph Rich, former head of the voting rights section of the division wrote about that:
It has notably shirked its legal responsibility to protect voting rights. From 2001 to 2006, no voting discrimination cases were brought on behalf of African American or Native American voters. U.S. attorneys were told instead to give priority to voter fraud cases, which, when coupled with the strong support for voter ID laws, indicated an intent to depress voter turnout in minority and poor communities.
In order to refocus the division back on its mission to enforce civil rights laws, Barack Obama and Eric Holder initially turned to Tom Perez and then Vanita Gupta (who served to the end of Obama’s term as acting director after Republicans blocked the nomination of Debo Adegbile).
It will surprise no one to learn that Trump has appointed someone who is likely to reverse all of those gains.
On Thursday, President Trump nominated a new head for the agency whose record signals a different approach entirely: corporate attorney Eric Dreiband. Dreiband has represented big companies in their legal showdowns with pregnant women and elderly workers. He fought the Justice Department on behalf of North Carolina, which was sued by Obama’s DOJ for its “bathroom bill” deemed discriminatory toward transgender people.
The reason why it is important for us to know this history is that, much like the Republican agenda has been to reverse the gains of the New Deal and Great Society programs, they have been waging a battle against the enforcement of civil rights laws for over 40 years now. While Trump’s rhetoric might be more extreme, the foundation for his agenda has been laid during Republican administrations from within the Civil Rights Division for decades. Not many on the left have recognized the importance of this “crown jewel,” and tend to look elsewhere for solutions. Republicans haven’t made that mistake…it’s been a focus since the Reagan years.