Take Care on This Appointment


The Reagan Administration’s attitude toward civil rights was dismal. President Bush has quickly set a more positive tone. He has spoken out forcefully on civil rights issues; he praised Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a hero. Such symbolic gestures are important, but reversing eight years of hostility will take more substantial measures.

Bush can signal his solid commitment by nominating a strong, independent attorney who is experienced in civil rights law to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division. He should consider black Republicans like J. Clay Smith Jr., a constitutional law professor at Howard University who was a former acting chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, and William H. Brown III, chairman of the EEOC during the Nixon Administration, who practices law in Philadelphia. Ralph G. Neas, director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which represents 185 civil rights organizations, is also worthy of consideration.

The nation’s chief civil rights enforcer deter mines what suits are filed; supervises federal education, employment, housing and voting rights cases; coordinates the duties of the executive branch, and develops strategy on civil rights legislation. The post is not a symbol but the federal government’s most important civil rights job. U.S. Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh has recommended William Lucas, a Detroit lawyer, for the job. It is not an inspired choice.


Before he was admitted to the bar, Lucas served briefly in the Kennedy Justice Department and then joined the FBI as one of its first black agents. A former police officer, he subsequently won elections to the post of sheriff and county executive of Wayne County. He failed, however, in a bid for governor of Michigan. His experiences qualify him for numerous federal posts, but he simply does not have the expertise to handle the nation’s top civil rights job.

Lucas has never handled a civil rights case, nor has he had much direct involvement in the area. To restore credibility to the civil rights division, the White House must make a stronger choice.