Taking the First Step

William B. Allen, the chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, should resign. His bizarre intervention into a child custody dispute on an Apache reservation and his odd apology take a toll on what little credibility the commission has left after eight years of hostility from the Reagan Administration.

Although Allen’s trip was not an official commission investigation, his group--accompanied by an NBC television crew--traveled last month to the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Arizona. The group took an Apache youngster, Lalita Altaha, 14, off a school bus, interviewed her and gave her a ride home without consulting her mother. When Allen tried to interview the mother, she called authorities, and he was arrested although not charged with abducting the girl. At issue was custody of the youngster, who was raised by white parents for years before a court ruled the adoption illegal and returned her to her natural mother.

When asked by fellow commissioners to apologize, Allen did so. But, in the same breath, he compared himself to a hero, Lenny Skutnik, who dove into the icy Potomac River near Washington, D.C., to save several passengers after an Air Florida plane crash in 1982. What heroics are involved when strangers take a youngster off of a school bus, question her and persuade her to take a ride with them without her parents’ permission?

When asked by Robert A. Destro, also a Reagan appointee, to explain his unusual foray, Allen invited his fellow commissioners to resign. He should take his own advice.


Allen’s resignation would clear the way for Arthur A. Fletcher, the Bush Administration’s nominee to chair the once-prominent agency. Fletcher, a moderate Republican and a longtime ally of President Bush, has solid connections to civil rights groups and plenty of government experience. During the Ford Administration, he served as a White House deputy for urban affairs. During the Nixon Administration, he served as an assistant secretary for labor and was very influential in initiating minority business programs.

To be most effective in the civil rights chairmanship, however, Fletcher should put aside any notions of another run for mayor of Washington. Although the commission’s top post is not full time, the job is not compatible with the demands made on a big-city mayor.

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission is scheduled to expire on Nov. 30 unless the Bush Administration and Congress step in with more funds. The commission--once the conscience of the nation and an effective federal watchdog--must be rejuvenated. New leadership--strong, independent and forthright--is the first step.