United States Commission on Civil Rights: We Shall Undermine

When it comes to discrimination in America, Ronald Reagan's Civil Rights Commission has a dream — to do absolutely nothing

Mary Berry represented the unbroken link to the commission's better years Credit: The Denver Post via Getty Images

The modest room off the fifth-floor corridor has the feel of 1950s government — finger-smudged walls, fold-out tables and drab curtains. Except for the long line of pictures along the side wall, it might be Reagan's countinghouse, where ledgers are pored over by gray budget cutters. But this is the conference room of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, and to anyone over 40 the very name excites an image of stern moral authority, gritty independence and an unbending will to expose the base instinct to prejudice wherever it lies, whatever its camouflage.

The pictures on the wall are largely of elderly white men, their faces scarcely familiar. This was never a body of stars. Usually the members of the commission were educators and respected community leaders, establishment figures for the most part, who were known in their respective places or fields but not to the wider world. Eisenhower had empaneled the group as a sop to black rage. Those who would complain loudly about racial inequality in the United States could come and blow off steam. The panel, as safety valve, would listen deliberately.

Even such a mild proposition shook the South in 1957. Southern politicians feared precisely what actually happened: that this board of mild, reasonable men would first ''meddle,'' then advocate change. Strom Thurmond, now chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, set a filibuster endurance record (no trips to the head allowed) when he railed for 24 hours against the establishment of the commission. And another Southern senator warned the government to prepare ''to meet the funeral expenses of the members of the … commission in the unlikely event that the commission should ever come into being.'' Such rhetoric meant something in those days. The vigilantes were in control and out of control.

But come into being the commission did, and it evolved almost miraculously into a championship team for civil rights. If you were in the South in the Sixties and the commission came to your place, it was as if a vengeful God had sent his bitter Inquisition. The commission came to study you, to expose your open and secret racism, to prescribe stiff remedies. And no political posturing, not from a Ross Barnett or a George Wallace, not even from a Robert Kennedy or a Lyndon Johnson, could sway it.

The commission's high point came in 1965. Already its work had led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and now it proposed to hold hearings on voting practices in Mississippi, where only seven percent of the black citizens were registered to vote. But Lyndon Johnson and his attorney general, Nicholas Katzenbach, were preoccupied with prosecuting Sheriff L.A. Rainey and his deputy, Cecil Ray Price, and the other Klan thugs who had killed three civil-rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, two years before. If the commission met in this atmosphere, LBJ feared, the prosecution would be prejudiced. The administration forcefully lobbied for an indefinite postponement, but the commission went forward anyway. Independence from political influence was its hallmark. No president could demand anything of it.

To the astonishment of most, Mississippi officials from the governor on down cooperated with the commission hearing. Things had gotten so chaotic that the state now feared it might lose all federal funds. Ironically, in 1963, this very commission had proposed that loss of federal funds be the price for discrimination in Mississippi; a year later, that penalty had been incorporated into Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The commission's 1965 hearing, together with the Selma violence and then the Selma-to-Montgomery march a month later, led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Twenty years down the road, here below the pictures of those who fought that good fight — John Hannah of Michigan State (the commission's first chairman), Eugene Patterson of The Atlanta Constitution and Father Theodore Hesburgh of Notre Dame — one wonders, could this be the same U.S. Civil Rights Commission?

At the head of the U-shaped table sits its present chairman, Clarence Pendleton Jr. They call him Penny. He is a short, roly-poly figure, dressed in a rather elegant dark suit, red silk tie against a blue shirt, and a white handkerchief peeking sportively out of his lapel pocket. His eyes dart suspiciously from side to side over the commissioners he has always wanted to control but never has. Clearly a man with a chip on his shoulder, especially when it comes to charges of personal or collegial corruption, he ventures a heavy-handed jest about the three congressional subcommittees that are currently investigating the commission on charges ranging from parroting Reagan's line to squandering $25 million in government funds.

A response comes from Reagan appointee John Bunzel, a political scientist at the Hoover Institution at Stanford: ''I never knew we had that much clout, Mr. Chairman.'' The remark, which elicits a few forced chortles, is fashioned in the bored, patrician tones of academe, for Bunzel is the former president of San Jose State. His tenure at San Jose had begun in 1970, the year Nixon's car was surrounded in that town by Bunzel's angry students, shouting, ''One, two, three, four, we don't want your fucking war,'' and Nixon leaped onto the hood of his limo, grinning and waving his V sign. Bunzel's recent work includes a book on Tom Hayden — the first chapter is titled ''Ghosts of Radicals Past.''

Pendleton continues jovially with the next item on the agenda, intoning, ''. . .and the beat goes on.'' It concerns the $400,000 commission study on white flight from desegregated school districts. Never mind the question of what a commission study could hope to add to the mountain of literature that already exists on this social pattern. The issue today is different, for the study turns out to be in the hands of a data-gathering group with no experience whatever in desegregation matters. The commission, at least for appearance' sake, is trying to find out how this dreadful mistake could have been made. Finis Welch of Unicon Research Corporation, director of the ill-starred study, is brought forward. In attempting to justify an extra $75,000 that Unicon was granted for continued work on the study, he reveals that four of the five tasks the commission had originally contracted for had somehow been dropped.

An aggressive interrogator is needed, and Pendleton turns to Mary Frances Berry. ''I'm not quite as bright as you,'' he says, ''and I don't talk quite as fast.'' To this mock self-pity, Berry responds with mock condolence: ''Awwww, poor Penny.'' Along with the other surviving liberal, Blandina Cardenas Ramirez, a former administrator in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare under Carter, Berry represents the unbroken link to the commission's better years. A professor of history and law at Howard University and assistant secretary for education in HEW, also under Carter, she is caustic and articulate — and perhaps a bit too flip for her own good.

Berry and Ramirez sit on the commission today only because, when Reagan tried to fire them in 1983, they took him to court and won, proving that commissioners could not be fired by a president just because he disliked their politics. Berry clearly relishes her suprapresidential role.

The byplay between her and Pendleton is relentless and distinctly juvenile — they schoolmarm one another continuously when one is not paying proper attention to the proceedings — and it masks a deep frustration. It is more than the conflict between the 1960s and the 1980s, between two blacks with vastly different perspectives of past and present. Pendleton taunts the Mary Berrys of the black leadership in his stock speeches as the ''new racists'' and the ''seducers'' who are leading black people into a ''political Jonestown.'' And Mary Berry, by turns, sees Pendleton as a simple hustler and a tragic figure who is being used by Reagan and Attorney General Edwin Meese III as black men have been used by whites through the ages (with Jonestown a prime example) and who will be summarily dumped when the embarrassment he causes exceeds his usefulness.

For the public record, Berry savages the witness, while the other commissioners look idly on. Robert Destro seems to be the most attentive. He is the young law professor from Catholic University whose constituencies are antiabortion forces and disadvantaged Eastern Europeans. Four years before his appointment, he called the commission a ''government lobby for special-interest groups'' and called for its elimination, but now he is getting a chance to promote his own special interests. Morris Abram, meanwhile, the former president of Brandeis University, pushes his chair backward into the corner — above his scholarly half glasses, his eyes gently close in a midmorning nap. Abram is a poignant figure on this Reagan commission, for in the 1950s and 1960s, as an embattled Southern Jew, he fought tenaciously for the principle of ''one man, one vote'' in his native Georgia, got Martin Luther King out of jail a few times and was ostracized for his trouble. Now he has become the most ardent spokesman for the commission's negative strategy, criticizing most new civil-rights proposals as little more than a form of reverse discrimination and delighting in his role as aggressive inquisitor of busing and affirmative-action advocates. Like the timeworn statue of the old Dixie warrior, he seems content to rest upon laurels from the distant past, satisfied to draw the line where it was on the old battlefield.

Then there is Francis Guess, Tennessee's commissioner of labor. He glances indifferently through a hotel leaflet from Laredo, Texas, where the commission will have its winter ''retreat,'' as Berry continues to slice up the witness. Of all the commissioners, Guess is in the most sensitive position. A black Republican who cares deeply about the fortunes of the Republican party among blacks, he is Governor Lamar Alexander's liaison with the minority community. But ever since he was appointed to the commission by Senator Howard Baker, blacks have tended to associate him with Pendleton. This is embarrassing — both for Guess and for Governor Alexander. A consensus politician, Guess resents Pendleton's tactlessness and looseness with procedural rules — and his tendency not to consult with other commissioners. Their animosity has become sharp and personal. Guess thinks of Pendleton as an undercover agent for the Democrats, because, in the name of the Republican party, he alienates blacks so consistently. Moreover, he sees Pendleton as a ''reverse Pygmalion'' who has discovered a smartass image and now has to live up to it. To Guess, Pendleton's main agenda is the marketing of his controversiality.

''Because of my undying respect for the chairman,'' Guess interjects contemptuously at one break in the proceeding, ''I would like to raise a point of procedure. . .  .'' ''Your respect for me is undying?'' Pendleton shoots back. ''I'm gonna remember that.''

After 1965, with the seminal civil rights act and Voting Rights Act enshrined in law, the role of the Civil Rights Commission changed markedly. It shifted from one of advocating legislative initiatives to one of monitoring compliance with those acts. Simple justice — that clarion call through the Sixties — began to seem very complicated indeed. The mandate expanded as well, as the commission turned its attention to urban unrest in the North, to welfare laws and housing problems.

After violence broke out in 1967 in American cities, it offered its resources to the Kerner Commission, which was subsequently to declare that America had split into two societies, one black and one white. By 1971, 80 percent of the Civil Rights Commission's legislative recommendations had been enacted into law, a remarkable accomplishment for any study group, much less one without enforcement power or a significant budget. Under Nixon, the commission continued to be a burr under the saddle of the sitting administration, as its mandate expanded again into the area of women's rights. Father Hesburgh became chairman. A man who from his acquaintance with religious intolerance knew well the link between discrimination and the distortion of fact, Hesburgh promptly castigated Nixon for his ''Southern strategy,'' the policy whose cornerstone was the practice of going easy on Southern school desegregation so that white Southerners would drift to the Republican party. Hesburgh's acerbic criticism led to the first attempt to politicize the commission: Nixon tried to fire him. In short order, Nixon got his way — Hesburgh resigned voluntarily, but he didn't leave until he thought he had established the principle that a president had no legal power to fire commissioners. Arthur Flemming, Eisenhower's secretary of HEW and a distinguished Washigton figure, took over, and he proved to be even more forceful than Hesburgh as an advocate for civil rights, especially for affirmative action in hiring practices. During Flemming's chairmanship, a great proportion of the commission's time was spent on the busing issue — or ''forced busing,'' as the current commission prefers to call it.

Jimmy Carter paid little attention to the commission, probably because with solid black leaders like Andrew Young and Patricia Harris high in his administration, he did not need to be prodded on discrimination problems that were historically the province of the commission. But under Carter several seeds were planted that would later grow to entangle the commission in turmoil under Reagan. Mary Frances Berry and Blandina Ramirez were appointed in 1980, and a massive affirmative-action study was announced.

Not long after Reagan took over, this affirmative-action study was published, and it firmly supported goals and timetables as useful management tools for righting the historic discrimination against blacks and women in the work place. The Reaganites, particularly Ed Meese, were horrified, since Reagan had trashed affirmative action in the 1980 campaign. Didn't this obstreperous little agency know it was now part of the Reagan administration? That the commission had a small budget and no enforcement power mattered little, for Meese brought to the government a highly developed plan to assert total control over the bureaucracy. Reagan wanted his own people everywhere, and no agency — regardless of how small or powerless and regardless of its historic independence and bipartisanship — escaped attention. (This differed from the Nixon-administration approach, which left some areas of social welfare and civil rights untouched.) To Meese, the commission was a pocket of renegades that needed to be cleaned out. Reagan was described by an insider as ''having had it up to here with the liberal policies advocated at the commission across the board.''

Flemming was quickly forced out, and Reagan put forward the name of B. Sam Hart to replace him as chairman. Hart turned out to be Reverend Hart, a black evangelist from Philadelphia with strong support from the Moral Majority. Hart was known in Philly for his daily radio show, The Grand Old Gospel Hour, where he espoused prayer and the teaching of creationism in schools, opposed the ERA and busing and railed against homosexuals. ''I don't know why they call themselves gay,'' he said in one of his more celebrated statements. ''They're sorry, despicable, abominable — an abomination both to God and mankind.'' Hart's name lasted in nomination only a few weeks.

Enter Clarence Pendleton. Pendleton had grown up in Washington D.C., and while his speeches now often invoke the days when he supposedly drank cheap wine with the boys on the corner of First and N streets, his upbringing was distinctly middle class and nonghetto. To me, he would say later: ''I'm a product of where I came from. I believe that the most conservative environment in America is the street corner of the ghetto. Market forces prevail. It is strictly cash and carry. Sex, drugs and clothes are exchanged, based on market prices. Tell me what you can buy out there with a subsidy, without cash. I challenge you to go out there on Thomas Circle and tell one of those girls, 'I'm on welfare and need a cut rate.' See how far you get.''

After Pendleton graduated from Howard University, he became the swimming and baseball coach there for 10 years; this coaching background is invoked from time to time to explain his combative nature, as well as his attitude toward winning or losing votes on the Civil Rights Commission. From coaching, Pendleton moved to the Model Cities program and on to the Urban League, his path to success nurtured by the very interest groups he now calls racist. Eventually, he was to become president of the San Diego chapter of the Urban League, where he consistently promoted private business enterprises with the motto ''The best way to help a poor person is not to be one.''

His relationship with Ed Meese dates to the late 1970s, when Pendleton joined the board of the San Diego Coalition Dedicated to Economic and Environmental Balance, a somewhat pretentious name for a group Meese helped found to boost local profit schemes. And their relationship may have deepened early in the Reagan administration, for in January 1981 Pendleton became a board member of the Great American First Savings Bank, a San Diego lending institution that subsequently allowed Meese to fall five months behind on the mortgage payments on his two houses. Pendleton has denied any connection between his federal appointment and the bank's uncommonly tolerant attitude toward the chief appointer.

Pendleton was nominated in November 1981 and confirmed in March 1982. While his confirmation hearings involved some predictably tough grilling from liberal Senate Democrats, they failed to close in on Pendleton's activities as head of the San Diego Urban League or his penchant for extravagant personal expenditures. After confirmation, the thorough investigation never conducted by the FBI was provided by Gannett News Service. In a withering series of articles, Gannett raised a number of issues that continue to hover: Pendleton allegedly misled his Senate questioners on delinquent income taxes; he had close ties to a series of right-wing foundations; he allowed slum conditions to exist at League housing properties; and he pursued schemes at the Urban League that brought him and his friends considerable profit, while it brought the League to the verge of bankruptcy. (Pendleton's penchant for mixing profit with friendship came to light again this January, when he was forced to resign as head of a nonprofit San Diego development group after the Small Business Administration launched an investigation into his business practices. A federal official charged that Pendleton was operating a ''profit center'' for himself and his friends.)

But Pendleton had already been confirmed by the time these questions arose, and the Reagan civil-rights policy went forward. Meese would be candid about Pendleton's job. To a black reporter, he defined the chairman's role as one carrying the ''responsibility to communicate with black individuals and organizations, to get the goals and objectives of this administration across.'' Such a baldly political construction, of course, flew directly in the face of the traditional independence of the commission and its chairman, not to mention its once lofty standing as the ''conscience of the nation.''

With Pendleton as the instrument, Reagan and Meese discovered that the commission could become a political arm of the White House and could be used to dismantle the accomplishments of civil-rights advocates over the past 20 years. Even though Ronald Reagan opposed the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, his administration now glorifies it, holding it up as the perfect, immutable model for civil-rights guarantees. It was all the country ever needed. There was nothing more to be done. The history of civil rights in this country should have stopped in 1964.

The beat goes on, but Clarence Pendleton can't hear it. He'd rather be a loyal part of the Reagan team than part of the commission's grand tradition of political independence. He talks candidly about ''carrying the water'' for his president and about how they share the same vision of a colorblind society. Not surprisingly, Pendleton feels that Ronald Reagan should be deeply beholden to him. ''People have said to me that, single-handedly, I have turned around the discussion on civil rights in this country. In my own mind, I think they are right. . .yes, Ronald Reagan is beholden to me.''

Pendleton believes with apparent sincerity that under his stewardship the commission has returned to its original purpose: civil-rights concern without the appendage of income redistribution. ''I have put civil rights back into the equation and taken the social and economic stuff out.'' When the history of this administration is written, what place would Clarence Pendleton have in it?

''It shall be written that Clarence Pendleton went about carrying the water,'' the chairman proclaimed. ''He did what he was supposed to do. He was true to the pure conservative cause.''

Not long after Pendleton took over as chairman, it seemed that his real role was to preside over the dissolution of the Civil Rights Commission. Indeed, in 1983 a so-called final report was written, holding that virtually all the legislation necessary to guarantee civil rights had been enacted and that mere enforcement was the only continuing need, a function that other government agencies could perform.

Pendleton himself has consistently said, ''I don't know what the hell there is left to study,'' and he would repeat this assertion for me. It followed, I supposed, that the studies the commission now undertook were make-work.

''We can repeat some studies that have been done before. We can be a little more specific. We can provide a few different answers. But I don't know what else new there is to study or do.''

This, of course, is nonsense. There is plenty left for the commission to study. What about the intensifying segregation of Hispanics — and all non-English-speaking children? What about conditions in segregated inner-city schools? What about unequal education in community colleges that have become part of wider state university systems? What about race relations in parochial and private schools? And perhaps, most important of all, what has been the effect of the Reagan administration's own indifference toward civil rights in advancing and sanctioning discrimination in America? Pendleton shows no interest in any of it.

''If you do nothing, you're colorblind,'' Mary Berry scoffs. ''Penny's real audience is white people. His real role is to make these [do-nothing] positions palatable for whites. He's saying to whites, 'See, I hold these positions, so it's okay for you to hold them, too.'''

With Pendleton's minimalist view of the current state of discrimination in America, it is small wonder that the commission meetings disintegrate into such adolescent bickerings between the commissioners.

In 1983, Reagan found outright elimination of the commission to be politically impossible. The old forces who remembered its glory days proved too strong. So Pendleton publicly urged the White House to ''reconstitute'' it by replacing four of the six commissioners. Penny let The Washington Post in on his message to the administration: ''I can't get anything done because of the other commissioners. You need to appoint more conservatives. If I'm going to be appointed to a political position, then I need some support.'' The administration failed in its efforts to fire Mary Berry and Blandina Ramirez, but it increased the commission's size — from six to eight members. The votes could now be six to two.

If he could not demolish the commission, Pendleton could at least trivialize and vulgarize it. His rhetoric has been so loose that his fellow commissioners, even those who are politically like-minded, have shrunk at the crudeness. When Pendleton tole an audience that black studies was a waste of academic resources, John Bunzel said his chairman's remarks were so intemperate that they did not deserve to be listened to. If Pendleton were not black, Commisioner Guess would say, ''I would think he was a racist.'' And to me Guess stated a variation on the same theme; ''If Penny were not black, editorial writers would have had his hide long ago. He is held to a different standard because of his color.'' But when this criticism rose to a crescendo, Reagan himself stepped in to save Pendleton. In a much publicized telephone call, Reagan told his man, ''I don't disagree with anything you're doing.'' Pendleton's position was fortified.

He holds to the view that no publicity is bad publicity. Take his ''Looney Tunes'' remark, where he said that comparable worth (equal pay for equal work) was the looniest idea since Warner Bros. brought Looney Tunes to the screen. ''I had absolutely no idea I would get that much out of that statement,'' he told me. ''It just took off. That's how I'm going to be remembered. It will probably be on my tombstone: 'This is the guy who said comparable worth is the looniest idea since Looney Tunes.'''

For this remark, David Brinkley awarded the chairman his ''single-speak award'' — for the official in the age of double talk who speaks with uncommon clarity. Penny is proud of his award. If clarity alone were the issue, some of his other remarks might be equally honored, for Pendleton is full of homilies.

''Civil rights will get you into the hotel. Whether or not you got the money to pay the bill is not a civil-rights issue.'' ''Equal opportunity does not mean equal result.'' Pendleton considers himself a philosophical successor to Martin Luther King. ''All of us who marched in 1963 considered ourselves to be believers and followers of Martin. I'm not wrapping myself in his mantle so I can take his place. I'm just happy to have a poor piece of the shroud.''

But a true leader must have a following, he postulates, and ''I couldn't mobilize 25 people to march down to the corner to get a free ice-cream cone.'' Most especially, he is not a black leader who came up through the black ranks. He is not a ''black anything,'' he says with a passion, and he certainly has no interest in being in the ''black auxiliary'' of the Republican party. He wants to eat at the head table — and occasionally does.

It was an hour into my talk with Pendleton when he declared his interest in the presidency. Penny for president? It has a certain ring to it. We had been talking about his social life and the high-blown compliments that, by his account, he regularly receives at Washington dinner parties.

''A rather high-ranking official in the administration said to me last night at dinner: 'Penny, without you, we wouldn't be where we are. This is all due to you!'''

Perhaps the flattery came from ''Brad'' or ''Ed,'' for Brad Reynolds, Ed Meese and Penny are the triumvirate that now safeguards civil rights in America. And in the face of the storm about their wholesale retreat from civil-rights enforcement, the three can regularly be seen painting one another in iridescent purple. Last November in Washington, the right-wing National Center for Public Policy Research sponsored a ''Tribute to Brad Reynolds,'' after Congress quashed the White House's attempt to move Reynolds from assistant attorney general for civil rights up to associate attorney general. (Apparently, the senators didn't appreciate Reynolds' distortion, under oath, of his civil-rights record.) At the happy wake, Ed Meese would call Reynolds ''the most powerful advocate for civil rights in our time'' and, invoking Lincoln on morality, would say, ''Brad, in the last four years, you have kept the moral lights of the nation lit.'' Pendleton, in turn, would call Reynolds' appearance before the unimpressed Senate ''heroic'' and would invoke Langston Hughes on freedom: to blacks, freedom was just the frosting on someone else's cake, and it would remain so '''til we learn how to bake.''

''Let's turn on the ovens, Brad!'' Pendleton declaimed. It brought the house down. If the administration was so pleased with Pendleton's performance, it followed (didn't it?) that he must have been approached for another job, in this administration or the next. ''No.''

''But is that a possibility, as you see it?'' I asked.

''No, if they were going to seek me out, they would have done so by now. I think I'm through when Ronald Reagan goes out.''

There was always George Bush.

''I'm not a favorite son of George Bush. I don't know why I wouldn't be, but I don't think I am. Ceremonially, yes, but I don't know that he'd ever want me as part of his cabinet.''

How about as a foreign emissary? Had the administration ever asked him to represent the United States abroad?

''I was asked once, when I was at the Urban League, to attend the independence ceremony in Belize.'' That was when the presidency arose. ''I tell you, there's only one job I want in government, only one — president. I am as good as anyone who wants to run. I'm good enough to run this country.''

One moment he's the man who would be president, puffed up like a Thanksgiving turkey. Ten minutes later he's as deflated as a prune. ''I couldn't run for garbage man,'' he said dejectedly. Later in the day, he was to address an audience at Princeton, and no doubt he would once again be jeered by the students. For Pendleton has become a good draw on the college lecture circuit. He makes good entertainment, and fairly good money at it. But the Princeton speech was no big deal. He planned to give them his ''stock stuff.'' He probably would quote Rousseau again, as was his practice. ''Peoples once accustomed to masters are no longer in condition to do without them.'' It came from the philosopher's 1755 essay ''Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men,'' and his college-age son had put him on to it. His son, he observed, was probably more conservative than he was. His own alma mater, Howard University, has never even invited him to speak. But Grambling State did. There, three weeks before our talk, at the rural Louisiana school of football fame, he had addressed some 3,000 students and did not get a single jeer. That made him feel good, especially since it was the first black college that had formally invited him to speak.

''I will never be invited to my university to speak. I will never get an honorary degree from anybody. I will never get a major award from any black or minority organization.'' How sad? No. ''I find that comforting. That means I do make a difference.''

What, then, did life hold for Pendleton after Reagan? Perhaps he would be asked to join corporate boards like his old boss, Vernon Jordan, the former head of the Urban League. Jordan was on lots of corporate boards, wasn't he? ''Nine,'' Pendleton said with the exactitude that can come only from envy. ''He makes $300,000 a year. I'm happy for him. I wish I could foresee that for myself.''

Perhaps Vernon Jordan was perceived as a dignified presence on a corporate board. ''How would you like to be perceived in order to be invited on corporate boards?''

The question excited him. ''That's a great question,'' he replied. ''You have to remember that it was Vernon Jordan who criticized corporate America for year, for not doing enough for blacks. It got him on the boards! I have not criticized corporate America like that. You'd think that a person who thought more about business might be more sought after.'' He laughed self-consciously.

For the time being, he is not unduly concerned about the future. The U.S. Civil Rights Commission has been reauthorized to continue until 1989. And the chairman is doing research for a book that would be different from his ''stock stuff.'' As a descendant of Nat Turner on his father's side, he is interested in the 19th century. The book will compare the ''black codes'' (the Southern state laws, enacted after the Civil War, that codified racial segregation and legislated a permanent inferior status for blacks) with affirmative-action programs. The plantation then, the mental plantation now. And if he is not likely to be a guest at Kennedy Center ceremonies, there is always the memory of that White House dinner for King Fahd of Saudi Arabia.

''My wife is white, as everybody knows. So we go up the steps. There's this military guy at the top, who takes your wife, walks in and announces your name. This white guard takes my wife's arm, and I linger behind. There's a black guard there. He looks at me, says, 'Where do you think you're going?' 'I'm going with that white woman over there with the white guy,' I reply. He almost dies.

"So I get inside the East Room." The storyteller paused for effect. ''Three of my high-school classmates are waiters,'' he whispered. ''So we got to joking. . .'Hey, man, this ain't the wine we used to drink down at First and N!' ''Dinner is announced. Now, you get these little place cards when you're invited to dinner at the White House, and we look around for ours. My wife says: 'Well, honey, I guess I'm over here in the back of the bus someplace. I know we're not sitting together. You're probably up front somewhere.' We look around for the numbered table.'' He paused, leaned over and whispered, ''It's the president's table! I look around for her place card. My wife is sitting next to Ronald Reagan!

''Now that tells me something about Nancy Reagan, because I understand she makes up all those seating arrangements. Of all the women in that room that night, my wife sat next to Ronald Reagan. My wife, Ronald Reagan, King Fahd, Yogi Berra. . .

''I sat at another table between Barbara Bush and Norman Vincent Peale's wife.

''A strange thing happened that night. Now, I have a habit at those dinners of taking out my pen and having everybody sign my place card and my dinner program. I keep 'em for my children. So at a break between courses, I get up and go over and give my wife my pen. Well, when I get back, Barbara Bush is on my case.  . . . 'Penny,' she whispers, 'you know you're not supposed to go up and get the president's autograph during dinner!' 'I didn't, Barbara.' 'Oh, yes, you did. I saw you.' She keeps hassling me and hassling me. Finally, I say: 'Look, Barbara, nobody's going to know the difference. All the waiters are black and have on tuxedos just like mine. I waited till the proper time, when I knew I wouldn't be noticed.'

''Barbara Bush's face got all red. You know who cracked up at that? Sheik Yamani, the oil minister. He just about choked.''