Civil Rights Mediation in the United States

Greta Salem and Richard Salem

The U.S. Community Relations Service (CRS) was established under Title X [Ten] of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, "to provide assistance to resolving (the) disputes, disagreements or difficulties relating to discriminatory practices based on race, color or national origin...." that would inevitably arise under that landmark legislation. Some Congressional supporters of the Act thought CRS would be able to head-off the violent conflicts that were occurring as a result of civil rights protests. Others saw CRS as a potential voice of reason in tumultuous disputes. And others wanted CRS to serve as a buffer between disputing parties and the courts.

During the past 35 years, CRS mediators and conciliators have responded to thousands of volatile civil rights disputes, including virtually every major racial and ethnic conflict in the USA that surfaced during that period. CRS was present at the landmark civil rights march in Selma, Alabama in 1965 and its mediators were in Memphis, Tennessee three years later when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. CRS had a major presence throughout the 73-day takeover of the Village of Wounded Knee at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1973. And more than twenty CRS mediators and conciliators were in Los Angeles helping to mitigate tensions following the riots triggered by the Rodney King verdict in 1992.

CRS mediators worked in virtually every court-ordered school desegregation case in the nation in the 1970s, and in numerous prisons that were disrupted by racial conflicts. They responded to hundreds of communities racked by volatile and often violent police-community conflicts. They worked on dozens of Native American reservations, in the fields of California during the grape boycott led by Hispanic migrant workers, and they responded to Haitian, Asian American and Cuban refugee crises.

CRS was originally staffed by a small corps of conciliators who responded to the volatile and often violent street protests and demonstrations that were prevalent in the 1960s and early 1970s.

The agency worked with little public visibility to reduce tensions by opening communications between disputants, helping each to understand the others' issues and positions and encouraging them to meet to begin working out their differences. The agency also provided technical assistance to protest groups, police and other public officials and helped them to draw upon the experience of other communities to mitigate racial tensions.

As protests moved from the streets to the "table," CRS conciliators found themselves spending more time facilitating negotiations. In the early 1970s there were no established models of mediation for community disputes to guide CRS in its work. Collective bargaining of labor contracts was the only sector in which mediation had been institutionalized. CRS began providing its staff with mediation training, drawing on the labor model and a community model that was being developed by labor mediators affiliated with the American Arbitration Association (AAA), with support from the Ford Foundation. The AAA-Ford project was short-lived, but mediation soon took its place alongside conciliation and technical assistance as a CRS response to racial conflict.

CRS mediators found serious and often blatant racial discrimination embedded in most of the communities to which they were called. The conflicts to which they responded were manifested by high levels of polarization, tension and anger. Many of them appeared intractable. Yet the CRS response often resulted in mediated agreements that mitigated tensions, opened communications and led to substantive changes. Often when CRS mediators departed from the scene, they left behind local intergroup committees that were able to monitor the agreement and continue working for improved community relations and racial justice.

CRS personnel learned to mediate volatile community conflicts largely through trial and error. Along the way, they compiled a largely unrecorded body of knowledge which they at times shared and discussed informally with their colleagues. Although they have built on that knowledge to develop and refine techniques and strategies that have proved consistently effective, little is known about their work outside the agency. Despite their achievements as pioneers in the field, there is sparse documentation in the professional literature about the ways in which CRS mediators helped communities in conflict address their differences without resorting to either violence or lengthy and expensive litigation.

Studies of conflict management in other contexts have been voluminous. There is no shortage of literature about the mediation of family, school, commercial, small claims court, neighborhood, or international mediation. However, little is known and less has been written about the mediation activity of CRS, in part because of the confidentiality clause in Title X mandating that CRS work shall be conducted in confidence and without publicity. Agency personnel were required to hold in confidence any information received in confidence and were precluded from assisting other agencies in their investigations of alleged civil rights violations. That clause led CRS mediators to avoid the press when possible and say little of substance when confronted by the media.

The confidentiality clause also made it difficult for researchers to delve into CRS case files and discouraged those interested in the agency from studying it. Finally, perpetual budget problems and severe staff shortages have contributed to CRS management decisions -- unlike most other federal agencies -- to minimize its public information activities.

The CRS policy on media relations has worked to the mediators' advantage since they often can function most effectively when they have low visibility. Not only are they unencumbered by the demands of reporters as they go about their work, but they also are not perceived as usurping valuable media space from the disputants who are competing to put their cases before the public. It is ironic that this low-visibility policy that enhances the work of CRS mediators also deprives the agency of the public and congressional support that more publicity about its work might engender. Hopefully, the data derived from the oral history interviews with a select number of CRS mediators made available on this website will begin to address this lack of information and will stimulate research and publication about the strategies and techniques used by CRS mediators.

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